WASHINGTON — Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot first came to this town when she was a junior in college, doing a Washington semester program at American University and working as an intern for a congressman from her home state Ohio.
After she graduated, Lightfoot was back, toiling as a House staffer for two years, before she left to attend the University of Chicago Law School.
This week, Lightfoot returned to familiar surroundings in an unfamiliar role, poised to take over Chicago with no experience in running a large, complex, financially struggling government.
Lightfoot devoted an enormous amount of time — three days — to forging relations with players here — elected and political figures and donors — from the Trump White House to Congress, getting it out of the way before she plunges into the deep end when she is inaugurated May 20.
Landslide Lori — she won 74 percent of the vote — has the immediate challenge of quickly amassing power and influence to smartly use in Springfield and Washington, because her success in City Hall depends, to a degree, on turning on the state and federal money spigots.
Lightfoot wrapped up her visit Thursday with a focus on Illinois members of Congress.
She made side trips to meet with Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez and the outspoken Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the chair of the Financial Services Committee enjoying a roaring new popularity among progressives in this Trump era.
Lightfoot started with a breakfast at the National Democratic Club with House members with Chicago turf in their districts.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who did not back Lightfoot, was in the news on Wednesday for declining an opportunity — presented by reporters who asked — to apologize for inflammatory comments he made about her during the campaign.
Before anyone jumps to conclusions about why Rush was not at the breakfast with other House members, you should know that his younger brother, Rex, died early Thursday, Rush spokesman Ryan Johnson said. Rex Rush lived in Los Angeles.
Outside the club, Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., talking to reporters from Chicago news outlets staking out the meeting, compared and contrasted departing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with his outsized personality, and Lightfoot, who is sort of like most everyone else.
“She has a way of taking over a room in her own way,” said Kelly. “He might be thunder and lightning, but she is, as I sometimes call myself, the quiet storm.”
“My advice to her will be make the choices you have to make, whether they secure you a second term or not,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.
She later in the morning arrived the office of Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., for a huddle and then headed over to Sen. Dick Durbin’s office suite for a lunch with the entire delegation.
The Illinois delegation is made up of 13 Democrats and 5 GOP House members, plus the senators. The trend has been, unfortunately, for the Republicans to skip Durbin’s monthly delegation lunches, but Lightfoot on Thursday pulled in Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., who represents a central Illinois District.
“We talked about everything under the sun,” Durbin told reporters afterward. They covered the census, with an Illinois undercount a jumbo issue; infrastructure funding for roads; and mass transit and housing.
“We want the mayor to succeed because we want Chicago and Illinois to succeed,” Durbin said.
Duckworth said she also discussed with Lightfoot the matter of “environmental injustice” that impacts “black and brown communities.”
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., — also a U. of Chicago Law School graduate — dropped by Durbin’s office to talk with Lightfoot and later tweeted she enjoyed discussing infrastructure needs and Lightfoot’s “agenda of fairness and inclusion for all Chicagoans.”
Lightfoot is interested in carving out a national role.
On May 17-19, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, chaired by Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., is bringing its best donors and backers to the city for their “Chicago issues conference.”
Lightfoot will greet the group, giving her face time with some of the best funders for the DCCC, the House political shop.
In the afternoon, Lightfoot met with Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez at DNC headquarters, next door to the National Democratic Club, where she started her day.
Perez, as it happened, was in Chicago on Tuesday laying some groundwork for, among other things, the 2020 presidential convention in Milwaukee. As a big-city mayor, Lightfoot will likely get — if she wants, and I bet she will — a speaking slot at the convention.
I am told the two discussed some partnerships and the Milwaukee convention, where Chicago may house some high roller donors who want to stay in only deluxe hotels.
Earlier in the day, Lightfoot said, “What I’ve been told is a lot of people are going to be staying in Chicago and commuting back and forth to Milwaukee, and I’m going to welcome them with open arms.”