Lori Lightfoot, Chicago's first openly gay, black female mayor

Kamil Krzaczynski, AFP | Chicago mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot (L) celebrates her win with wife Amy Eshleman after speaking at an election night party in Chicago, Illinois, on April 2.

Lori Lightfoot made history on April 2 when she became the first openly gay black woman to be elected mayor of Chicago. A political newcomer, her progressive policies, personal history and status as an outsider appealed to voters.


When Lightfoot first entered the mayoral race, many considered her a fringe candidate. The 56-year-old had never held elected office, and was going up against political heavyweights such as her main opponent, Illinois' Cook County board president and Democratic Party chairman Toni Preckwinkle.

Yet in the end, it was her progressive policies and her status as a political outsider that carried her across the finish line to defeat Preckwinkle easily. A reformist, she has pledged to bring greater transparency to City Hall and the Chicago police department. She has also advocated raising revenue by legalising marijuana and gambling in the city.

Lightfoot has largely attributed her upbringing in a working-class home, her experiences as an LGBT woman of colour, and longstanding career working with the criminal justice system for shaping many of the political views that resonated with voters.

Her victory marks two firsts for Chicago, which has elected its first black female mayor and the first who is openly gay.

'Get on the right foot with Lightfoot'

Lightfoot was born on August 4, 1962, in Massillon, an industrial town in northern Ohio, to humble beginnings. The youngest of four children, she has spoken often of the sacrifices her working-class parents made for the family.

In the years before Lightfoot’s birth, her father Elijah was left deaf in both ears after falling into a coma for nearly a year. Yet despite his disability, he often worked two, sometimes three jobs – as a janitor, barber or handyman – to keep his family afloat.

“He had a very hard life,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times in an article published last month.

Her mother Ann, meanwhile, held a number of low-paying positions in mental hospitals and nursing homes, eventually becoming a home healthcare aide.

It was Ann who pushed Lightfoot to do well at school, stressing the importance of a good education. As a student at Massillon’s Washington High School – which was predominantly white – Lightfoot was very active: she played point guard for the girls' basketball team and was voted class president three years running on the slogan, “Get on the right foot with Lightfoot”.

Coming out

In 1980 she enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she majored in political science. To pay for her studies, she took out student loans and worked odd jobs. After graduating, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she delved into politics working as a congressional aide for Republican Ralph Regula (from her home district in Ohio) and then Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.

These experiences led her to apply to the University of Chicago Law School, where she was accepted on a full scholarship. In 1986 she packed her bags and moved to Chicago, where she has lived ever since.

While at law school, Lightfoot came out to her family. She had hesitated for a long time, believing she might lose them – her parents were churchgoers from a fairly conservative part of the country. But their reaction surprised her.

“When I came out, it wasn’t a big formal conversation like in the movies. I just started living as my true and authentic self and opened up my life to my parents – sharing who I was, and bringing a girlfriend when I came home for a visit,” Lightfoot wrote in an article published by Essence Magazine in October.

“To my great surprise, my parents accepted me for who I was and have supported me since.”

Policing the police

After law school she was hired by the firm Mayer Brown, where she has worked on and off throughout her career and is now a partner. Her record as a lawyer, however, has led some to question her credentials as a progressive. While at Mayer Brown, she argued against congressional redistricting in two cases brought by powerful Republicans. She later left the practice during the 1990s to become an assistant US attorney, prosecuting cases involving drug conspiracies, political corruption and bankruptcy fraud.

In 2002 the superintendent of the Chicago police department chose her to investigate complaints made against officers as the new chief administrator of the office of professional standards. Over the next many years, Lightfoot was appointed to a number of public positions, all of which involved working directly with the police or local communities.

After a stint as president of the Chicago police board – a civilian body that decides disciplinary action over matters of police misconduct – in 2015, she was named head of a police accountability task force by outgoing Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel formed the task force amid public outcry over the death of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black youth who was filmed by police dash cameras walking away from officers when he was shot 16 times. Under Lightfoot, the task force published a scathing report in 2016 detailing racism and other systemic failures within the Chicago police department.

Mayoral run

It was while working for Emanuel that Lightfoot first began contemplating a run for mayor.

“I came to be very committed to the fact he could not have a third term,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Because I felt that there were way too many black and brown people, particularly young men, who were going to be left behind and never, ever have a shot, an opportunity, the thing that really transformed my life.”

“And when nobody else would stand up, and I started looking at the people early announcing they were going to run against him, I didn’t think those people were ever going to address the issues that I thought had to be addressed or in the way I knew they had to be addressed," she continued. "That’s what got me really started thinking about this.”

With more than a dozen candidates in the race, few initially gave Lightfoot any serious thought. But her promise to “Bring in the light” to City Hall and reform the police department appealed to voters who have grown weary of the status quo.

Her campaign got a further boost in February after the Chicago Sun-Times endorsed her candidacy.

“We sense that a palpable wave of moral disgust has presented Chicago with a rare opportunity to elect a mayor who will confront our city’s most intractable problems in ways that, finally, pull every Chicagoan along,” the newspaper wrote. “For us, that person is Lori Lightfoot.”

It would appear the vast majority of voters in Chicago agreed.

“It’s refreshing to see somebody who is different, hopefully,” said Chicago native Andrew Tabor, 61, in comments to Reuters.

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