Exclusive: A Conversation with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot – Meeting Challenges as Windy City Emerges From Pandemic | New
Chicago has been in the national spotlight when it comes to what happened with Urban America. With its focus on violent crime and police accountability, in recent years the Windy City and its 2.7 million citizens have faced their share of criticism.
The mayor of the town, Lori Lightfootwho has been in charge since 2019 and plans to seek a second term in the February 2023 election, has tried to weather the storm the city has suffered not just with crimes and homicides, but with the coronavirus pandemic, the l economy and the many other challenges facing American cities.
Mayor Lightfoot recently sat down with BET.com editor Madison J. Gray to talk about these issues. She speaks candidly about herself as a person and as a public servant. Below is the full interview and an edited version of that conversation.
BET.com: It has been more than three years since you took office. Can you give me an idea of what it has been like for you personally? And professionally? Do you feel like you have grown more as a person and as a public servant,
Mayor Lori Lightfoot: Well, when you go through a global pandemic, it completely upends everyone’s daily life and takes away that certainty and predictability. Then you also face massive economic collapse and dislocation and then the murder of George Floyd, the historic civic uprising that we’ve seen, not just in Chicago but across the country, at the same time that you’re dealing with the federal administration which was hostile to Democratic cities.
Yes, I would say that I grew as a person and as a leader. In this role, it was a very difficult period. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. But I firmly believe that you have to play the cards that are dealt to you. And I learned a lot. Over the past three years I have certainly grown a lot as a leader. I therefore come out of this process even more encouraged and optimistic about the future of our city, because of the strength of the inhabitants and people here, and their incredible resilience,
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BET.com: You are one of the most visible LGBTQ politicians in the country, the first openly female of your gender to hold your office. How does this part of your identity figure into what you do?
Light foot: Very early in my life, I saw a lot of discrimination and disparities. My dad was a deaf man, we’re obviously African American, and in a world that hasn’t always been particularly accepting of who we are. So, in addition to those two things, being a woman, and especially now, in this post-Dobbs Supreme Court era.
Additionally, I am very aware that I stand in and on the shoulders of many members of the LGBTQ+ community, [who] for decades [have] fought for recognition and basic rights as citizens, which I believe we are entitled to, under our Constitution.
I have a lot of parents who come to me quietly and tell me how much it means to me to be in my position, to see my family, because they were worried, for their own children who came to up to them whether or not they could live a good life—have a family. So I’m very mindful of the things I represent – the role model I’ve become for a lot of people because of the different worlds I come from. It’s a sense of pride, but also a sense of obligation.
BET.com: What do you consider to have been your greatest triumphs and victories as mayor?
Light foot: I don’t really think of it that way, but I’ll answer the question. I am very proud of the work we have done to keep our residents safe during the pandemic. You may recall at the start of the pandemic, in April 2020, I announced to our city, and it made national news, that black people here are dying at seven times the rate of any other demographic. following COVID-19. It was a sobering punch moment.
But we knew we couldn’t just announce this news without providing concrete solutions. So we’ve been working hand in hand with community members, we’ve formed what’s called the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team to respond to the urgent crisis we’re seeing over time, and we started seeing more demographic information. We also knew that we also had significant challenges in Latinx Chicago.
So we spent a lot of time before the vaccine, reaching people, educating them and raising awareness. And we did that hand-in-hand with trusted community members who could get us into spaces that, as a government, we couldn’t get into, for a whole host of historical reasons. When the vaccine went live in late 2020, we used those same partnerships and collaborations to have, I think, the most equitable vaccine distribution program in the country.
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BET.com: Chicago has always had a viable black business environment. Last year you announced an initiative to promote black, Latino and women’s businesses and the hope was that a level playing field could be created. Are you close to making it a reality?
Light foot: I think we’ve done a lot. Everything we do, and especially in the past three years, especially coming out of COVID, is done with fairness in mind. We want to make sure that coming out of the COVID pandemic, out of the economic crisis, that black and brown businesses, women-owned businesses, don’t just survive, they thrive. We have more resources in Chicago right now thanks to the federal government, but also thanks to all of our own initiatives and connections to really bring wealth and create wealth in black and brown communities like never before.
BET.com: Let’s look at the impact of Roe v. Wade. You recently signed an executive order that would protect anyone who comes to town seeking reproductive health care. But could there be conflicts with other states, including neighboring states trying to enforce anti-abortion laws?
Light foot: What’s disheartening is that states all around us, whether it’s Wisconsin or Indiana, are doing everything they can to completely ban abortion, with very few exceptions, even when it’s about saving the life of the mother. I promised that we will always be a city that respects the dignity of women’s bodily autonomy. That we will always ensure that our providers are able to serve women, wherever they reside, who come to our city to access reproductive health services, because for me, it is a basic right.
Chicago will therefore always be an oasis of justice for all. So not only are we making that promise, but we’re putting our money where our mouth is. I immediately allocated $500,000 to ensure our providers could accommodate women traveling from other states. Travel, accommodations, tracking, and we’re going to be making another big commitment as we enter budget season here. We must ensure that women in this country are not taken back to the pre-Roe years when they had no control over the circumstances in which they had children.
BET.com: As you told me over a year ago, the number of murders is down. But if we go back over a three-year period, according to city numbers, the numbers went up to 33% for murders, for example. Chicagoans see this as the city’s biggest problem. At the community level, what is the solution for neighborhoods, going door to door?
Light foot: Well, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and obviously, it’s complicated. Chicago, unfortunately, has been plagued by violence for decades. So we’re talking about reversing decades-long challenges to community safety. But you’re doing it the way I think we’ve been doing it, especially over the last year – you’re using data, you’re collaborating with community members and asking them, what’s it going to take for you be safe? And then you work with them to bring down the violence, the shootings, the guns.
Then, of course, you have to deal with the wave of illegal weapons that are in our city. We see too many guns crossing the border from Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin. So the federal partnership there will be very important. I’m very encouraged by the bipartisan legislation that was passed earlier this summer, so that we can finally take big, bold steps to tackle interstate arms trafficking, straw buyers – this is going to be of significant crucial.
But we can’t stop to get out of this problem. We know that doesn’t work. This leads to stopping and searching illegally. This leads to mass incarceration. The long-term game to ensure that you bring lasting peace to these neighborhoods is to invest in getting out of this problem.
That’s why we’ve spent a lot of time and effort making investments, creating real job opportunities, affordable housing, improving streetscapes, green spaces, planting trees, ensuring that we increase our mental health resources, this holistic approach addressing the root causes of the problem and treating violence as the public health crisis that it is. This is the long term solution. And we are seeing progress with this strategy.
BET.com: There’s an election coming up in 2023. How do you convince the people of Chicago that you’re the person to lead them for another four years? And what do you say to your challengers, who say you’re not up to it?
light foot: I think I’ve proven that I’m more than capable of leading the city through one of the biggest challenges any mayor has ever faced. You know, it’s always easy to stay away and throw bombs. But I come back to Teddy Roosevelt quote, which he called “The man in the arena”, I would say “The woman in the arena”.
We have to roll up our sleeves, we have to fight every day on behalf of our residents. What I have to do is not worry about the pretenders to the throne. What I need to focus on is showing ordinary residents that their lives are fundamentally different and better because of the things we’ve done.
And of course, highlighting the work we’ve done to keep them safe and alive during the pandemic. Making sure they understand there is a real plan that is working and moving forward on community safety and making sure they see themselves in Chicago’s future because they have good jobs, that ‘they have fair wages, with good benefits, there’s affordable housing, great transportation, all of those things are important to quality of life.
We’ve done that and more. We just have to make sure we keep reminding voters of what we did and how we did it for them. And when we do that, I feel very confident about my chances. Never bet against me.