Can a black lesbian take City Hall?
A few years ago, unthinkable.
So if elected in 2019, Lori Lightfoot would become the first African-American woman and LGBT mayor in Chicago history. She didn’t need to say that last Thursday, as she posed for a photo op with her spouse and their 10-year-old daughter at a downtown hotel.
Lightfoot is the first openly LGBT person to mount a Chicago mayoral campaign. “I envision a Chicago where equity and inclusion are our guiding principles. Our North Stars,” she declared at her campaign launch.
Over lunch after the event, Lightfoot, 55, recalled her teen and young adult years, living through the fears and doubts of coming out. Mom and dad were faithful members of the AME Zion Church, a black denomination.
“My parents were church-going, Bible study every Wednesday, Sunday school. Sunday mornings going to church,” she said. “I grew up in that environment. And thinking about, are they going to accept me? Am I going to lose my family?”
She came out. Her parents still loved her.
That was 30 years ago. “Look, I’m amazed at the progress we have made,” she said. “I think we’re in a very different time. I think we’re in a time where people, you know, they’re gonna judge a leader by their integrity, and their character, what the vision is.”
She plans to capitalize on her status by tapping the LGBT community’s numbers, influence and cash. It’s all on technicolor display along North Halsted Street every June, when nearly a million revelers line up for the annual Pride Parade.
There’s a solid voting bloc behind the rainbow flags and gyrating dancers. In Chicago, nearly 146,000 adults identify as LGBT, according to a report released in March by the Chicago Department of Public Health, about 7.5 percent of the city’s adult population. They represent an ever-expanding cadre of LGBT elected officials, corporate leaders and wealthy donors.
Lightfoot’s top competition for their largesse is also her chief foe. In his 2011 election, Mayor Rahm Emanuel won two-thirds of the vote in the three North Side wards with the largest LGBT populations. He has since lavished the community with city funding, political appointments, and devout attention.
Doesn’t Emanuel have a lock on that vote?
I detected an eye roll.
“Time will tell. Time will tell,” Lightfoot replied. “Clearly, there’s a difference between sympathetic and empathetic, having lived the life, having been part of, really part of, the community.”
She plans to tap a national, rich vein of LGBT activists and organizations who can help her make history. She named Michael Bauer, a prominent gay activist and fundraiser, as her finance chairman.
Back to the lesbian thing. Will black church-going folk support a black lesbian married to a white woman, with a child?
Traditionally, the conservative African-American church has looked askance at homosexuality and gay rights. Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and businessman Willie Wilson, other black mayoral contenders, can draw from churchy bases.
Bauer also served as finance chairman for the first openly gay person elected to office in Illinois: Tom Chiola won a race for Cook County Circuit Court judge in 1994.
“The homophobia we ran into in that campaign was horrific,” he recalled in a phone interview. “Chicago has changed a great deal. And I am just much more hopeful that Lori’s sexual orientation will not be an issue. That may make me naïve, I don’t know.”
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