Why Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Is Facing an Uphill Battle for Re-Election
Accusations of broken promises may spell a dim outlook for incumbent Lori Lightfoot, community organizers say.
On January 26, community members packed the pews at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s West Side, where Grassroots Collaborative, a progressive organization, was holding a mayoral candidate forum alongside the People’s Unity Platform coalition. Candidates — including Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, Illinois State Rep. Kam Buckner, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, organizer Ja’Mal Green and City Council Member Roderick Sawyer — vied for the approval of the many union members and community activists ready to vote in the February 28 municipal primary election. If no mayoral candidate receives over 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will proceed to a run-off in April. Not in attendance at the forum, however, was incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Four years ago, a similar scene played out at Grassroots Collaborative’s mayoral forum in the same church. Then, Chicagoans were disgusted with outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and candidates including Lightfoot promised to reopen mental health clinics, oppose a planned $95 million police training center and end tax subsidies to corporate developers.
Lightfoot won the 2019 mayoral contest in a run-off several months after the forum. But key promises she made at the event and during her campaign have gone unfulfilled — or turned into bitter standoffs with community leaders.
“She was all for an elected school board when she was running, then we had to fight her on it. She was all for more oversight of the police, but when she got elected we had to fight her,” says Northside Action for Justice board member Marc Kaplan. “Mainly everything she ran on, she flipped on quite quickly.”
Such sentiments may help explain why Lightfoot faces a tough road to re-election.
As reported in The Atlantic in mid-January, “Poll after poll has shown Chicagoans to be in a ‘sour’ mood: A mere 9 percent believe that the city is headed in the right direction. Underwater on her approval rating, Lightfoot is not expected to win reelection next month.” And a recent Wall Street Journal story reads, “Mayor Lori Lightfoot is facing stiff competition from a large field of candidates in her re-election bid as Chicago tackles crime and the lingering economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
A survey released in January by The Daily Line and Crain’s Chicago Business saw Lightfoot trailing significantly behind Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.,), Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas, with 25% of those surveyed saying they backed García and another 25% backing Johnson, 15% choosing Vallas and 11% behind Lightfoot. Lightfoot’s campaign criticized that survey for featuring 74% white respondents. Her campaign says its own mid-January polling had her ahead with 25% of respondents, followed by Vallas with 22% and García with 18%. Other more recent polls, including one from IZQ Strategies released in early February, have shown Lightfoot trailing and her fellow candidates competing for front-runner status.
Regardless of poll numbers, Lightfoot is facing voter discontent across political and socioeconomic spectrums, including from community activists and progressives who once backed her.
In May 2021, halfway through her term, the Associated Press reported on the disappointment of former Lightfoot supporters. “I thought she’d govern like she campaigned, and we didn’t get that,” said North Side resident Cassandra Kaczocha, adding, “We got a very dictatorial style of governing, just like we did with Rahm, and it’s disappointing.”
This month, 3rd Ward Alderwoman Pat Dowell, one of Lightfoot’s long-time allies on the City Council, announced her endorsement of Johnson.
Meanwhile, leaders and activists who were suspicious of Lightfoot’s progressive credentials during her 2019 campaign say they feel vindicated.
Saqib Bhatti, co-executive director at the Action Center on Race & the Economy, wrote a story for In These Times during that election season calling for a mayor who would break with Emanuel and Daley’s record of catering to the wealthy. Bhatti — speaking in his personal capacity, not for the organization — says that in 2019 he did not see Lightfoot as the leader the city needed, and he feels just as strongly now.
“Lightfoot’s been an unmitigated disaster — I think under her we’ve seen a continuation of the failed policies of Emanuel and [former Mayor Richard M.] Daley, but with even less charm somehow,” says Bhatti. “She’s continued putting major corporations and the wealthy above the needs of poor Black and brown folks in Chicago.”
“She pushed the same policies Rahm pushed,” concurs Roderick Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a community development organization. “Rahm was horrible, we thought nobody can be worse than Rahm. [After Lightfoot’s election] there was some bit of hope, but it slowly waned away.”
Lightfoot’s backers say the discontent shows just how hard it is to govern, especially in recent years. Dick Simpson, a former alderman, author and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, endorsed Lightfoot in 2019 and is backing her again this year.
“She’s a pragmatic progressive,” Simpson says. “There’s been many [progressives] who have wanted to move further, but she’s been hampered by first the pandemic and then the recession. A lot of the things like affordable housing are really beginning to move forward now. In other areas she has moved on the agenda but not necessarily the way groups have called for. The difference isn’t so much in goals but in how to get there.”
Emanuel’s rocky tenure was characterized by his hostile standoffs with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, who popularized the moniker “Mayor 1%.” Lightfoot similarly tangled with the teachers union, which endorsed her 2019 opponent Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. This time around, along with other progressive unions, CTU is putting its weight behind Johnson, a longtime teacher and organizer.
CTU went on strike in October 2019, demanding “common good” provisions related to the well-being of students outside the classroom, including housing and protection from immigration enforcement. Lightfoot did not appreciate what perhaps seemed an incursion on her authority.
“They were pushing social issues, not just wage issues,” Simpson notes of the union. “That relationship between the leaders of CTU and the mayor became toxic, and that tended to then drift over into the other policy areas.”
After promising to back the long-standing demand for an elected school board, Lightfoot argued against state legislation which would put such a system in place. A state law passed in 2021 ultimately created a 21-member elected school board in Chicago. But until 2027, the mayor will appoint half the members and the president of the board, while only half the members will be elected by the public. This concerns community leaders, especially since a moratorium on school closings is set to be lifted in 2025, and neighborhood schools in Black and brown neighborhoods could again be closed, just as Emanuel shuttered almost 50 in 2013.
Lightfoot is backing a controversial proposal for a new school on the Near South Side that would sit on land originally intended to re-house residents of the former Harold Ickes public housing complex. Many community leaders worry the school will serve wealthier families and divert resources from struggling schools.
“The community doesn’t want it,” says Wilson. School Board member Dwayne Truss was not reappointed to the board after opposing the new school proposal. “You can’t even have a dissenting voice in her administration,” Wilson continues.
Ayesha T. Qazi-Lampert, a Chicago Public Schools teacher of AP environmental science and honors biology at Northside College Prep High School, is frustrated that under Lightfoot the schools have continued to lack needed investments in teaching infrastructure. She particularly points to basic heating and cooling improvements that are only more necessary with the rise of climate change.
Outside of teaching, Qazi-Lampert volunteers to support the Afghan community, and has witnessed first-hand how more resources are needed for these families and students in the city schools more broadly. Chicago has received national attention for welcoming refugees, including those sent from Republican governors in other states, but Qazi-Lampert feels the Lightfoot administration’s commitment to refugees is far too shallow.
“The mayor and administration claim this is a sanctuary city, but where are the supports and services for diverse learners and English as a second language?” she asks. “Has this administration stepped inside these classrooms, or talked to any of the teachers?”
During the 2019 campaign, Lightfoot and other candidates visited Kenwood Academy High School to speak at a mayoral form organized by students. At the time, Kenwood history teacher Dave Stieber was impressed that Lightfoot attended, since other front-runners did not. But he’s now furious that Lightfoot did not keep promises she made directly to students.
“I was upset as a citizen and as a teacher,” Stieber says. “It was personal. Lightfoot is good at going on social media sounding progressive on things that don’t affect Chicago. But for Chicago, she’s the fake of the fake.”
In December 2021, Lightfoot announced what she called the city’s largest-ever investment in affordable housing, with plans for more than 2,400 affordable rental units over 24 new or preserved developments. Lightfoot’s 2023 budget includes $200 million for addressing homelessness, as she explained during her budget address in October 2022.
Meanwhile, her public-private INVEST South/West initiative is meant to spark economic development and bolster infrastructure in marginalized neighborhoods, with an infusion of $500 million.
But as Illinois Answers Project reported, some residents say their requests and input were ignored during the INVEST South/West processes that were supposed to be collaborative and community-driven.
As WTTW reported, Lightfoot has spent relatively little of the federal Covid relief funds meant for social services and housing in those sectors, instead using the money to plug holes in pension funds and for the police department. Her Chicago Recovery Plan last year called for $116 million to be spent on helping the unhoused, but only $18.7 million of that has actually been spent, according to WTTW.
Community leaders lament that Lightfoot is reportedly not supporting the Bring Chicago Home plan to tax real estate sales over $1 million to fund programs for the unhoused. Lightfoot had previously backed the idea, but later reversed her position. A November 2022 attempt by progressive city council members to vote on the plan was thwarted when too few council members showed up, and Lightfoot canceled the meeting.
Like her mayoral predecessors, Lightfoot has funneled Tax Increment Financing (TIF) property tax money to projects in well-off neighborhoods, even though the program is meant to serve “blighted” areas.
Lightfoot also backed using TIF funds for the controversial $6 billion Lincoln Yards mega-project developed on riverfront land on the Near North Side. During her 2019 campaign, Lightfoot had denounced Emanuel’s effort to fast-track TIF subsidies for the development, but once in office she backed the project after the developers promised to hire more women- and minority-owned firms. The 53-acre residential and commercial development is receiving almost half a billion dollars in public funds through the TIF program.
Housing developments that receive TIF funds will need to include 30% of units for low- and moderate-income residents, Lightfoot’s administration has promised, but critics say this category is not actually affordable to many Chicagoans, and they’d rather see the dollars kept in the public domain.
“We know TIFs are a huge tax drain for our schools — if she really wants to use TIF money for good, we should see her declare a massive TIF surplus every single year rather than continuing to earmark money for developments of her choosing,” says Bhatti. “Don’t give [property taxes channeled into TIFs] to corporate [developers], declare TIF surpluses so it can go back to taxing bodies like schools, libraries, parks.”
Policing and mental health
At the Grassroots Collaborative’s 2019 forum, Lightfoot agreed to ask City Council to vote down spending $95 million to build a controversial police academy on the West Side. As part of the No Cop Academy movement, Chicago activists argued that this money would be better spent on mental health services and youth programming, not adding police presence to a neighborhood where residents often say they feel terrorized by law enforcement.
But Lightfoot reversed her position on the plan, and on January 25 inaugurated the new police and fire training academy. During the national debate over defunding police, Lightfoot has prioritized more resources for policing and has not met community demands for more non-police responses to mental health crises, her critics say.
The day of the 2023 Grassroots Collaborative forum, Lightfoot tweeted that she had made “historic” investments in affordable housing and created free mental health services in all 77 neighborhoods.
But none of the public mental health clinics shuttered under Daley and Emanuel have reopened, as Lightfoot and other candidates promised during the 2019 campaign. Lightfoot has not backed the Treatment not Trauma platform, which calls for investing $100 million in a non-police response center for mental health calls and reopening the mental health clinics. Lightfoot was also widely criticized for using 60% of discretionary federal Covid relief funds under the CARES Act on the police department.
“I think there’s a lot of anger at Lightfoot around how she spent her Covid funds, and her reaction both to the increase in violence in general and to the uprisings in 2020,” says Grassroots Collaborative executive director Carlos Fernandez. “There were some people who didn’t trust her from the beginning on public safety issues, and some people who counted on her progressive identity to lead her to different stances or decisions than she ultimately took.”
Lightfoot did usher in the city’s first civilian police oversight board, a longstanding demand of reformers and activists, with the first members of police district councils set to be elected on February 28. This move, however, came after relentless pressure from organizers.
In another tweet the day of the 2023 Grassroots Collaborative forum, Lightfoot touted her commitment to making public transit safer and deploying police on trains. The tweet drew mockery and anger, with one user saying, “Lori a lot of us hate the police and feel (and ARE) much less safer with them there.” Twitter user Doug Lambert added, “Can’t wait to see YOU riding the Red Line WITHOUT your security detail after you lose your job.”
Many organizers say that, like Emanuel, Lightfoot suffers from an autocratic governing style and refuses to give community leaders or the public a meaningful role in shaping policy.
“With Rahm, once he got done with the profanities you could at least occasionally actually talk to him,” says Chicago Teachers Union communications director and long-time political operative Chris Geovanis. “[Lightfoot] won’t even have that conversation — and that’s compounded by the fact that she’s also a terrible administrator.”
“I think Daley had a better system for working with community than either one of them,” Wilson says of Lightfoot and Emanuel. “Daley wasn’t good at all but he understood communities, he understood he had to work with communities in a certain way. The last two don’t even get it.”
Simpson, however, says he hasn’t “bought this argument.”
“It might be a little smoother if she wasn’t quite so strong, but I can’t remember a mayor that was warm and fuzzy,” he says. “We tend to have strong mayors in Chicago. The only question is whether you like the strong mayor and think their policies are good, or not.”
Simpson predicts that Lightfoot will end up in a run-off with either García or Vallas. He notes that voters who went for Garcia in 2015 may vote for Johnson, who has been endorsed by the CTU, paving the way for Vallas to make the run-off instead. Johnson supporters, meanwhile, hope to build a progressive coalition that can push their candidate into the runoff.
Simpson co-edited a forthcoming book on University of Illinois Press that tracks “Modern Mayors” from Harold Washington — Chicago’s legendary progressive first Black mayor — to Lightfoot. He sees Lightfoot continuing in Washington’s footsteps.
“I see the pendulum swinging back to much of Harold’s agenda,” he says. “INVEST South/West is reminiscent of what Harold called balanced economic development, not just in the loop but in the neighborhoods.”
While Lightfoot’s critics may disagree about her legacy and prospects, many are indeed hopeful that the city is moving in the right direction.
“There’s an interest built up around what real collaboration looks like,” says Fernandez. “Not just around ‘will you support our one issue,’ but ‘will you actually engage with us before developing policy?’ I’m excited about the possibilities, and my hope is we get closer to that vision of city government that is more accountable, more responsible, more collaborative.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.