Exclusive: A Conversation With Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot – Facing The Challenges As The Windy City Emerges From The Pandemic
Chicago has been in the spotlight nationwide when it comes to what has happened with Urban America. With an emphasis on violent crime and police accountability, in recent years, the Windy City, and its 2.7 million citizens, has had to deal with its share of criticism.
The city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who has been in charge since 2019, and who plans to run for a second term in the Feb. 2023 election, has attempted to weather the storm the city has been undergoing not only with crime and homicides, but with the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and the many other challenges U.S. cities are facing.
Mayor Lightfoot recently sat down with BET.com senior editor Madison J. Gray to talk about these issues. She gets candid 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's been more than three years since you've taken office. Can you give me an idea of what it's been like for you personally? And professionally? Do you feel that you've 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 day-to-day life, and eliminates that certainty and predictability. Then you also contend with a massive economic meltdown and dislocation, then the murder of George Floyd, the historic civic uprising that we saw, not only in Chicago, but across the country, at the same time that you're dealing with federal administration that was hostile towards Democratic cities.
Yes, I would say that I've grown as both a person and as a leader. In this role, it's been a very difficult time. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it. But I'm a firm believer that you got to play the cards that you're dealt. And I've learned a lot. Through these last three plus years, I've certainly grown a lot as a leader. So I come out of this process, even more encouraged and optimistic about the future of our city, because of the strength of the residents and the people here, and their incredible resiliency,
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BET.com: You're one of the most visible LGBTQ politicians in the country, the first openly same gender-loving woman to serve in your role. How does that part of your identity figure into what you do?
Lightfoot: From a really early time in my life, I saw a lot of discrimination and disparities. My father 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 adding on to those two things, being a woman, and particularly now, in this time post-the Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court.
Also, I'm very conscious of the fact that I stand in and on the shoulders of a lot of members of the LGBTQ+ community, [who] for decades [have] fought for basic recognition and rights as citizens, which I believe that we're entitled to, under our Constitution.
I have lots of parents come up to me quietly, and tell me how much it means for me to be in my position, to see my family, because they had worried, for their own kids who have come out to them, about whether or not they'd be able to live a good life—have a family. So I'm very mindful of the things that I represent--the role model that I have become for many people because of the various worlds in which I come from. It's a sense of pride, but also a sense of obligation.
BET.com: What would you say have been your biggest triumphs and wins as mayor?
Lightfoot: I don't really think about it in that way, but I will answer the question. I'm very proud of the work that we did to keep our residents safe through the pandemic. You may remember that early on in the pandemic, in April of 2020, I announced to our city, and it made national news, that Black folks here are dying at seven times the rate of any other demographic as a result of COVID-19. That was a very sobering gut punch moment.
But we knew that we couldn't just announce that news without bringing forward concrete solutions. So we worked hand in glove with community members, we formed something called the racial equity rapid response team to respond to the urgent crisis that we are seeing as time went on, and we started to see more demographic information. We also knew that we had significant challenges in Latinx Chicago, as well.
So we spent a significant amount of time pre vaccine, reaching people, educating them, and doing the outreach. And we did that hand in glove with trusted community members who could get us into spaces that as a government, we couldn't get to, for a whole host of historical reasons. When the vaccine came online 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 historically had a viable Black business environment. Last year, you announced an initiative to promote Black, Latino, and women businesses and the hope was that a level playing field could be created. How close are you to making that a reality?
Lightfoot: I think we've done a tremendous amount. Everything that we do, and particularly over these last three years, in particular coming out of COVID, it's done with an eye towards equity. We want to make sure that coming out of the COVID pandemic, the economic meltdown, that Black and Brown businesses, women owned businesses, not just survive, that they thrive. We have more resources in Chicago right now as a result of the federal government, but also as a result of all of our own initiatives and bonding to really bring wealth and build wealth in Black and Brown communities like never before.
BET.com: Let's turn toward the impact of the Roe v. Wade decision. You recently signed an executive order that would protect anyone who comes to the city seeking reproductive health care. But could there be conflicts with other states, including neighboring ones who are trying to enforce the anti abortion laws?
Lightfoot: The thing that's discouraging is that states all around us, whether it be Wisconsin, or Indiana, are doing everything that they can to just completely outright ban abortion, with very few exceptions, even when it comes to saving the mother's life. I've pledged that we will always be a city that respects the dignity of bodily autonomy for women. That we're always going to make sure that our providers are able to serve women, wherever they reside, that are coming to our city to access reproductive health care services, because that to me, is a fundamental right.
So Chicago is always going to be an oasis for justice for all. So not only do we make that pledge, but we put our money where our mouth is. I immediately allocated $500,000 to make sure that our providers could take care of women that were traveling from other states. Travel, lodging, aftercare, and we're going to be making another big commitment as we go into budget season here. We have to make sure that women in this country are not taken back to the pre-Roe years where they had no control over the circumstances under which they had children.
BET.com: As you've told me over a year ago, the murder figures are down. But if we go back over a three-year period, according to city figures, the numbers have been up as much as 33 percent for murder, for example. Chicagoans view this as the city's biggest problem. On a community level, what is the solution for the neighborhoods, going house to house?
Lightfoot: Well, there's 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 with community safety. But you do it the way that I think that we've been doing it, particularly over the last year--you use data, you collaborate with community members and you ask them, what will it take for you to be safe? And then you work with them to bring down the violence, the shootings, the guns.
Then you also obviously must deal with the surge of illegal guns that are in our city. We see too many guns coming over the border from Indiana, from Michigan, from Wisconsin. So federal partnership there is going to be really important. I'm very encouraged by the bipartisan legislation that was passed earlier this summer, so that we can finally take some big bold steps to deal with interstate gun trafficking, straw purchasers--that's going to be critically important.
But we can't just arrest our way out of this problem. We know that doesn't work. What that leads to is stop and frisk illegally. What that leads to is mass incarceration. The long term play to make sure that you bring lasting peace to these neighborhoods is to invest our way out of this problem.
Which is why we've spent a lot of time and focus on making investments, creating real job opportunities, affordable housing, improving streetscapes, green spaces, planting trees, making sure that we're stepping up our resources on mental health, that holistic approach to the root causes of the problem and treating violence like the public health crisis that it is. That is the long term solution. And we're seeing progress with that strategy.
BET.com: There is an election coming in 2023. How are you convincing Chicagoans that you're the person to lead them through another four years? And what do you have to say to your challengers, who say you're not up for the job?
Lightfoot: I think I've proven myself to be more than able to lead the city through one of the biggest challenges maybe than any mayor has ever historically faced. You know, it's always easy to stand on the sidelines, and lob bombs. But I go back to the Teddy Roosevelt quote, which he called “The Man in the Arena,” I would say “The Woman in the Arena.”
You’ve got to roll your sleeves up, you've got to get down into the fight on a day-to-day basis on behalf of our residents. What I need to do is not worry about the folks that are pretenders to the throne. What I need to focus on is making the case to everyday residents that their lives are fundamentally different and better because of the things that we've done.
And obviously, emphasizing the work that we did to keep them safe and alive through the pandemic. Making sure that they understand that there is a real plan that is seeing fruit and progress when it comes to community safety and making sure that they see themselves in the future of Chicago because they have good jobs, they have fair wages, with good benefits, there's affordable housing, great transportation, all of those things matter to the quality of life.
We've done that and more. We just need to make sure we keep reminding voters of what we've done and how we've done it for them. And when we do that, I feel very confident about my chances. Never bet against me.