Lori Lightfoot has plans for Chicago and her main goal is to undo the years of damage she says current Mayor Rahm Emanuel has caused the city. Last week, Emanuel, who has been the mayor for the last 7 years, announced that he wasn’t running for reelection. And this decision not only put a fire under several other candidates, but has given Lightfoot a reason to go even harder and get people to understand her vision of a progressive city government.
Lighfoot isn’t a newcomer when it comes to Chicago’s politics. She’s held positions as the Chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, President of the Chicago Police Board, Chief of Staff and General Counsel of the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), and was once an Assistant United States Attorney. As a resident of Chicago since 1986, Lightfoot has seen quite a lot of changes in her city, but by running for mayor, she wants to give the city its biggest change yet.
In an interview with ESSENCE, Lightfoot openly discussed her city, and how she sees its future under her mayorship.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think are the biggest issues facing Chicago?
LORI LIGHTFOOT: From a civic engagement issue, I think for way too long, particularly in the last 7 years, people in general have felt that they haven’t been heard by city government. There’s an us against them style of government that rewards a small few, and it’s a cross current that’s growing nationally. One of the challenges for me and this campaign, is to engage people in a conversation about the kind of government they want, and ensure them that their vote matters and this is an election about speaking our values.
People have seen corruption going on way too long, and feel like you have to have clout to get basic city services. Obviously the violence is an overlay across every city neighborhood. People don’t feel safe. The provision of public safety is one of the central obligations and tenets of government, which the current administration has failed miserably. That is clearly something we have to address in a comprehensive way and treat it as a public health crisis, which will force us to look at the root causes, and not just reflectively come in with a heavy fisted law enforcement response.
Another issue animating people’s attention is the deterioration of our neighborhood schools. When families all over the city do not believe that their child can walk to a good quality and safe public school, it forces people out of the city.
And then there’s the issue of progressive taxes and fees. We are the most taxed county in the country and the city of Chicago’s answer is to raise taxes. That can’t be the response and they’re treating the taxpayers as a never ending ATM machine. We have to get our fiscal house in order. There are a lot of challenges on the horizon for the city from municipal finance. We can’t convince people that we have to make hard choices and thinking about progress revenue sources, until we can demonstrate that we hear them and that we’re going to be much better stewards of precious tax dollars.
And finally, affordable housing is an issue. We are down hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing. There’s not enough affordable housing for families, and the options that exist are relegated to the poorest and most inconvenient parts of the city.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you propose to fix them, especially when it comes to violence?
L.F.: Regarding violence, we have to treat it as a public health crisis. That framing will help us get to the root cause of the violence, which are many things we can address. When you look at the neighborhoods that are consistently crime plagued, over these last 5 or 7 years, they are also the ones that are most economically distressed. We don’t have real small business activity, they suffer from high rates of unemployment and huge populations are on public assistance. We don’t have community anchors that we take for granted in other kinds of neighborhoods. We have food, medical and mental health deserts that leave people feeling like they have no hope. We need to do better by creating hope in every neighborhood. We can’t have the illegal drug trade being the largest employer in so many neighborhoods across the city.
Law enforcement has a role to play, and the thing that distinguishes the city of Chicago (and not in a good way) from other metro areas across the country, is that there are so many illegal guns on our street. Every year the Chicago police department takes more illegal crime guns off the street than New York City and Los Angeles combined. It’s not because we have a better strategy, it’s because there are so many illegal guns. What we’re doing now is reacting to the guns, we need to be more proactive. That is a multi-tiered strategy. Our federal partnerships need to step up: U.S. attorneys office, ATF, DEA, FBI, and their counterparts in other states. We need to educate our young people about the dangers of gun violence and that there are real consequences for solving disputes with guns. That education has to start in middle school, and talk to them about alternative methods that are age appropriate, and also talk to them about the challenges that they are facing and provide them with a lot more support and resources so that they understand, and have a world view, that is different from their immediate circumstances.
When young people grow up with fear as the norm, they don’t have the luxury to dream. We need to completely change that environment to protect and support them. There are too many young people who suffer from levels of trauma that are akin to our veterans that have done multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is an unfortunate and sad reality and yet we don’t have enough nearly the level of neighborhood based trauma and mental health resources that we should have to address this public health epidemic.
ESSENCE.COM: There’s this stigma about violence attached to Chicago, even though it’s not the most violent city in the U.S., why do you think that even exists?
L.F.: It exists because we haven’t done a good job of managing this public health crisis. We haven’t called it a public health crisis or treated that way. Frankly, people don’t have confidence that Rahm Emanuel or the police department have a real comprehensive proactive or sustainable plan to take on the violence. Chicago is the third largest city in the country, and when we’re on such an international stage, people look to Chicago for answers, but also looking to us to see what is going on with conditions on the ground. It hasn’t helped that President Trump and Jeff Sessions have ignorantly tweeted and talked about Chicago in ways that’s inconsistent with realities on the ground, and not offering any real support.
ESSENCE.COM: As a former former president of the Chicago Police Board, do you think the police have been successful in promoting community policing, especially after the bait truck incident that recently happened?
L.F.: We have to think about it in a broader context. Police departments, since the start of the history of this country, have been used to enforce unconstitutional laws that were designed to discriminate against communities of color and particularly African Americans. In this city, until the advent of social media, body and dash-cams, a lot of the ways people have been treated aggressively and unconstitutional have been brushed under the rug.
Given the racial dynamics and particularly the way Gary McCarthy introduced aggressive stop and frisk on the south and west side of the city in the early parts of his tenure before he was stopped by the ACLU, people don’t have trust in our police department. And they don’t view the police department as legitimate. I go back to those young children in neighborhoods that are pinned down by violence, for them we have to get this relationship right. The police department bears the lion share of the responsibility in managing that relationship and building those bridges. We have to get to the point where line officers believe that respectful and constitutional engagement with the community is the most powerful tool that they can use to fulfill their mandate of serving and protecting.
There are ways we can push forward in that effort. One solution is an example I borrow from New York City. In New York City, before a recruit hits the street, they spend time in the daylight hours in the community they’re going to be assigned to. I emphasis the daylight because unfortunately we put new recruits on the midnight shift in areas of the city they’re completely unfamiliar with, which challenges them to be confident in their ability to do the job. In New York, they’re guided through the community with community ambassadors, which demystifies the neighborhood with the recruits, and they start to see the community in a different light. It’s something easy that we can do in Chicago.
We also have to deal with the reality that Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and that’s relative to policing because we recruit from those segregated areas. If you walk into a recruit class, you’ll find that they’re self-segregated by race. Whites here, Blacks here, Latinos here and Asians there. It’s a startling visual that emphasizes the need to take on the issues of race and racism early on by thinking about how and who we recruit and what the training should be for those recruits. If we don’t do that, we will continue to perpetuate the stereotypes we have about others, because they don’t have nearly the experience that other have with growing up with people of different races. That’s a major issue in Chicago.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you feel about Emanuel announcing that he’s not running for mayor, do you think he’s to blame for the issues plaguing the city?
L.F.: There’s no question he’s to blame. He has a 7 year record of incompetent leadership and ignoring the cries of victims, and when he’s not ignoring he victim shames. I’m happy that he’s out of the race. It opens up all kinds of possibilities for my candidacy. From day one, we’ve been talking about advocating for a much inclusive and equitable city and city government, and really trying to shrink the gap between the haves and the have nots. He’s not going to be on the ballot, but his legacy is going to be. That is a problem that we’ll still have to address. The needs of the citizens of the city didn’t change when he announced he’s not going to be on the ballot, they remain exactly the same.
ESSENCE.COM: What makes you a progressive candidate?
L.F.: I’m a person who believes in the value of equity, inclusion and transparent government, getting rid of the up against them style of governance, and engaging people whose lives are being affected by city policies. Those are all progressive values that I share. It comes to me naturally because of the way I was raised. I grew up in a small segregated steel town 6o miles outside of Cleveland, my parents grew up in the segregated south. As a family we struggled financially, and I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s where overt racism ruled the day. From that background, I understand the needs of the people across the city. I know that we have to engage people in a very different way that puts equity and inclusion as the focus. Those are the keys and the hallmarks of progressive values and that’s what I embody.
ESSENCE.COM: Some people say that because of the lack of name recognition you have, that could be a set back. How do you respond to that?
L.F.: We’re working hard everyday to build name recognition. This campaign has always been a grass roots insurgency. We are in every neighborhood, going to block clubs, festivals and meeting community leaders and stakeholders. I know from where we started in May to where we are now, my name recognition has gone up exponentially, and it will continue to do so. I take nothing for granted, we have to work hard against a lot of forces. People are responding to our message in a very positive way. In a week plus since Rahm’s announcement, we’ve had an overwhelming wave of support. Our social media hits are exploding. We’ve had a lot of people reach out to volunteer and help us raise money. All of the things that you want in a campaign that shows that you’re moving in a positive direction, we have all of that and more.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you love about Chicago, and why should the people of Chicago vote for Lori Lightfoot?
L.F.: I love the city. This campaign in these last four months has been an incredible gift. People all over the city are opening themselves up for me, coming up to me on the street giving me support and praise, and really sharing their fears, thoughts and aspirations. This has been a remarkable experience. If I’m fortunate enough to become the next mayor of Chicago, what I offer is a city government that’s premise is going to be equity inclusion and gone with clout, gone with only catering to a privileged few. That’s not going to be something acceptable in a Lightfoot administration.
For those who know my body of work, both when I was senior executive in various city governments previously, they know that I’m a person who checks my ego at the door, and who is focused on doing the right thing for individuals, families and communities because it’s the right thing to do. The people who have heard and know me, know that I offer fresh and new progressive perspectives on government that the city hasn’t seen in a very long time.
To learn more about Lori Lightfoot and her campaign, visit her website.