Analysis: How Lightfoot went from political rock star to rock bottom

Lightfoot was dealt a bad hand: the pandemic, civil unrest triggered by the murder of George Floyd and the violent crime wave after those demonstrations. But bad timing is too simple to explain her stunning political downfall.

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Mayor Michael A. Bilandic (left) in 1977; Mayor Lori Lightfoot (center) in January; Mayor Jane Byrne in 1983. 

Mayor Michael A. Bilandic (left) in 1977; Mayor Lori Lightfoot (center) in January; Mayor Jane Byrne in 1983.

Jim Mescall, Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file; Sun-Times archives

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Four years ago, she was a darling among national Democrats. The first openly gay Black woman to serve as mayor of Chicago and only the second woman to do so in the city’s history.

On Tuesday, she joined Jane Byrne and Michael Bilandic as the the only elected mayors of Chicago to be denied a second term since Prohibition.

How did Lori Lightfoot fall so far, so fast, to the point where she couldn’t even make it into a runoff between the two top finishers?

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Analysis

Part of it was the hand she was dealt: the pandemic, civil unrest triggered by the murder of George Floyd and the violent crime wave after those demonstrations.

But Lightfoot’s popularity actually soared during the pandemic. She almost embraced playing the heavy, shutting down the lakefront and admonishing people to stay home. It played into her dictatorial personality, inspiring an avalanche of hysterical memes the mayor was smart enough to embrace.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker was dealt that same bad hand but managed to win a second term, albeit after spending over $132 million of his personal fortune — some of it to boost Darren Bailey in the Republican primary, essentially hand-picking his fall opponent.

Bad timing is too simple an explanation for Lightfoot’s stunning political downfall.

It does not explain why violent crime is up 40% since Lightfoot promised during her inaugural address to stop the “epidemic of gun violence that devastates families, shatters communities, holds children hostage to fear in their own homes” and leaves parents wondering “if Chicago is a place where they can continue to live and raise their children.”

It does not explain why Lightfoot has been such a disappointment to the lakefront voters who formed the base of her support in 2019. Lightfoot opposed the elected school board after saying she’d support it; failed to deliver the transparency she had promised; and broke her pledge to raise the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales to create a dedicated funding source to reduce homelessness.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at her election night rally at the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council in River North, Tuesday night, Feb. 28, 2023.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at her election night rally at the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council in River North after conceding to Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson Tuesday night.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bad timing also can’t explain Lightfoot’s inability to get along with people and a relationship with the City Council so contentious at least seven members of her own leadership team abandoned ship, endorsing other mayoral candidates.

“Everybody’s strength is their weakness. Her strength is she’s a very pugilistic person. She’s fought for everything she’s gotten in her life — often against great barriers. But she favors the clenched fist over the outstretched hand. And when you’re mayor, you need both. … She’s antagonized a lot of people, and those chickens are coming home to roost,” said David Axelrod, a veteran political strategist who has helped to elect mayors, senators and the nation’s first Black president.

“Lori Lightfoot got elected because she was tough, and she was seen as independent of the whole political structure here. Those were considered assets. Now, in retrospect, her strengths may have been weaknesses in governing. The uncompromising nature of her personality and the lack of relationships with other people who she has to deal with constructively may wind up being very, very damaging.”

Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson started as a Lightfoot friend. They’d worked together at the U.S. attorney’s office, and she helped convince then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to hire Ferguson as inspector general.

But Ferguson’s record-long tenure ended with Lightfoot publicly and repeatedly criticizing him, then forcing him out, though he remains widely regarded as the best watchdog Chicago ever had, in a city that desperately needs one.

All that gives him a unique perspective on her political downfall.

“At the front end, she did not govern the way she ran. And at the back end, she ran the way she governed,” Ferguson said, apparently referring to Lightfoot’s recent warning that any South Side vote for “somebody not named Lightfoot is a vote for Chuy Garcia or Paul Vallas.” At that same campaign stop, she declared: “If you want them controlling your fate and your destiny, then stay home. Then don’t vote.”

“Her greater interest was in holding the power in a transactional way,” Ferguson said, “and not governing as the times called for and that she promised she would.”

Pressed for specifics, Ferguson pointed to Lightfoot’s own campaign themes and 2019 transition report. He argued the “vast majority” of promises made in that report “never got implemented and, in critical areas, she did the opposite of what she said she would do.”

Exhibit “A” was reforming the police department. It was supposed to be Lightfoot’s greatest strength. She served as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Police Board president. She co-chaired the Task Force on Police Accountability, which championed a series of reforms laying the groundwork for a federal consent decree in the furor following the shooting of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police.

“She brought in, as the interim [police superintendent], the person in the United States who had successfully transformed a big-city police department under terms of a consent decree,” Ferguson said, referring to Charlie Beck, the retired Los Angeles police chief.

But then, “she brought in a permanent superintendent who undid all of that in a matter of two weeks, then never held him to account,” Ferguson added, referring to CPD Supt. David Brown, whom Lightfoot lured from Dallas.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) has spent the last four years doing battle with Lightfoot after being stripped of his committee chairmanship for daring to oppose her choice of Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) as Finance Committee chairman.

Beale advised Lightfoot to look in the mirror to explain her forced retirement from Chicago politics.

“She had a great opportunity. Everybody was excited, including myself. We all had high hopes for her. But she came out of the gate and got power-drunk. Instead of governing as though people voted against the other person, she thought there was a mandate for her to do whatever she wanted to do. She became this totally vindictive person against everybody.

“She felt she could do and say anything to anybody without any repercussions. Not knowing that you need people in order to be effective,” Beale said.

“‘My way or the highway’ coming out of the gate. Trying to destroy people instead of trying to work with people. Politics is a game of addition. It’s not a game of subtraction. All she did was subtract from Day One.

“Coming out of the gate at inauguration, she tried to embarrass the entire City Council as being this corrupt body, and she was here to save the day. But it turns out she was the least transparent, least productive, least cooperative administration I have ever seen in my life.”

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