Lightfoot bids tearful farewell to fifth floor of City Hall, but not people of Chicago: ‘My work is not done’

The outgoing Chicago mayor chided the media reporting “what four-letter word the mean, can’t-get-along-with-anyone mayor allegedly said.” But she told the crowd, “The four-letter word that propelled me forward every single day … was spelled H-O-P-E.”

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivered her farewell address on Monday, May 8, 2023 at BUILD Chicago, 5100 W. Harrison St.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivered her farewell address on Monday at BUILD Chicago, 5100 W. Harrison St.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot bid a tearful farewell to Chicago on Monday, saying she is “more optimistic about our city’s future than ever” because of the “work our administration has done” to “plant the seeds of equity.”

One week before handing the reins of power to Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, Ohio native Lightfoot said she is leaving the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall — but not her adopted city.

She urged her hand-picked audience of roughly 300 city department heads, agency chiefs, City Council allies and invited guests to continue the marathon she started, “break through the noise” and “ignore the people who count us out every day.”

“We must continue to carry the baton forward. To all of you, do continue serving our city and working toward equity, inclusion, safety, fairness and vibrancy in every neighborhood,” Lightfoot told the adoring crowd.

“I will be here as private citizen Lightfoot continually rooting for you and every resident of our city. My work is not done. I will roll up my sleeves in another form and fashion. ... Thank you all so incredibly much for being with Amy and Viv and I on this most extraordinary journey. God bless you. God bless our city,” she said.

On Feb. 28, Lightfoot sealed her fate as a one-term mayor, finishing behind Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson . Johnson went on to win the April 4 runoff.

Lightfoot is the first elected Chicago mayor in 40 years to be denied a second term. The last was Jane Byrne, Chicago’s only other female mayor.

Mayor Jane Byrne at a news conference during the firefighters’ strike that occurred early in her one term in office.

Mayor Jane Byrne at a news conference during the firefighters’ strike that occurred early in her one term in office.

Sun Times file photo

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx was able to define her own legacy by walking away on her own terms. She decided not to seek reelection and announced that momentous decision before the City Club of Chicago and used that speech to lash out at her critics.

By running and losing, Lightfoot’s political fate was decided for her. Still, Monday’s farewell address at BUILD, 5100 W. Harrison, was, nevertheless, a legacy builder — and a well-orchestrated one at that.

It began with a performance by a local drum corps and a video highlighting the mayor’s greatest hits and what she views as her most enduring achievements.

They include leading Chicago through the pandemic and the civil unrest triggered by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis; her Invest South/West plan to rebuild 10 long-neglected commercial corridors; improving the lives of working people by raising the minimum wage and championing a predictable scheduling ordinance; and bringing mental health care to all 77 Chicago neighborhoods.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot gives her farewell address at BUILD, 5100 W. Harrison St.

About 300 people were invited to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s farewell address on Monday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Craig Chico, CEO of the Back of the Yards Council, introduced the mayor and lavished her with praise.

“We can all agree, the city shall forever be in your debt for the sacrifices you made as mayor. ... We were blessed to have you with your hands on the wheel for the last four years,” Chico said, referring to the strong, meme-inspired leadership Lightfoot provided during the pandemic while closing the lakefront and admonishing Chicagoans: “Stay home.”

During her speech, Lightfoot also mentioned the “racial equity rapid response teams” she created after learning that an alarming percentage of COVID-19 deaths were among African-Americans in Chicago and that an inordinate percentage of Hispanic Chicagoans were contracting the virus.

She thanked Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady for her “wisdom and guidance.” The mayor then asked her to stand, sparking a standing ovation for Arwady, whose name became a household word during the pandemic.

The departing mayor also credited her all-female financial “dream team” — Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett; Budget Director Susie Park; and City Comptroller Reshma Soni — for the stewardship that led to 13 bond rating upgrades, pension pre-payments and an $85 million shortfall that is among the lowest in Chicago history. That’s even after what she called a “historic budget deficit and a massive economic meltdown” that followed that stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the pandemic.

The four-letter word that propelled me’

The mayor also couldn’t resist poking fun at what she apparently views as the cartoon version of Lori Lightfoot — the combative, thin-skinned, abrasive mayor who found it difficult to lead the city because she has trouble working well with others, including the City Council.

“Lots of time and energy and ink has been spilled by the pundits and the media assessing about what four-letter word the mean, can’t-get-along-with-anyone mayor allegedly said,” Lightfoot said.

“Let me tell you, my friends. The four-letter word that propelled me forward every single day of this incredible journey — one that I intoned every time that I needed to rise above the noise and despair … that four-letter word was spelled H-O-P-E.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is brought to tears during her farewell address on Monday, May 8, 2023.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is brought to tears during her farewell address on Monday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The audience broke into applause. Lightfoot choked up, trying to contain her emotions enough to continue.

“Hope. I saw it — and importantly, I felt it — in this city, in every neighborhood. In the eyes of children, our elders, of workers, our people who were touched by the work that we did, the details that we sweated, the resources we invested for the betterment of our entire city,” she said.

“Our whole city. Not just the downtown. Not just the North Side. Our whole city. And unapologetically so. My administration has been victorious in our efforts to plant seeds of equity and serve the city we all love so much. The real story of this administration is told through the lives of the people we serve.”

Lightfoot closed by writing the history she hopes will someday be acknowledged, even by her harshest critics.

“They say that history is written by the victors. And I’m here to tell you ladies and gentlemen, all of us individually and collectively are the victors,” she said.

“Each of us has persevered through adversity. And we have given the full measure of ourselves to bend the moral arc of history toward justice here and now in Chicago. This is our legacy. … Considering recent events, Chicago is gonna stay in this lane of progress for a long time.

“I’m more optimistic about our city’s future than ever. I’m optimistic because of the work my administration has done to make transformative investments in our neighborhoods and our residents.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, along with her wife, Amy Eshleman (right) and their daughter Vivian, walk to their seats before the mayor’s farewell speech on Monday, May 8, 2023.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, along with her wife, Amy Eshleman (right) and their daughter Vivian, walk to their seats before the mayor’s farewell speech on Monday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

‘She really has done good things’

Some in the audience, such as the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic church, thought the mayor did a good job highlighting her administration’s accomplishments.

“It was important that the mayor pointed out how much she accomplished. Everybody centers on the negative stuff, and I think she was able to point out that many things got accomplished,” Pfleger said. “It was important for people to remember some really substantial things took place in this city over the last four years under excruciatingly difficult times.”

Larry Huggins, founder of Riteway-Huggins Construction, said that if the mayor had given a similar speech during her reelection campaign she might have fared better.

“She talked about all of the things she’s done for the city, and she really has done good things,” Huggins said. “I think at the end of the day she’s going to be remembered as a very effective mayor.

“They’re going to forget about whether or not she was an angry mayor. I think all of that goes away when people really look at what she has truly done for the city,” said Huggins.

Pfleger said much was made of Lightfoot’s “rough and tough” personality.

“We live in a superficial world, where we remember personalities more than we remember what people did,” Pfleger said. “I think she made some really positive changes for this city. At the end of the day, I don’t have to like you at all, but if you do good things I’m grateful for that.”

Contributing: Emmanuel Camarillo

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