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EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot

Lori Elaine Lightfoot will be sworn in as the 47th Mayor of Chicago on May 20, 2019.

Mayor-elect Lightfoot has been busy working to establish a transition team and preparing to lead more than 2.6 million Chicagoans into what she calls a “mandate for change”. With 74% of the vote allocated to Lightfoot and 26% allocated to her opponent, Toni Preckwinkle, the now Mayor-elect experienced a more than comfortable victory in a historic runoff to become Chicago’s first African-American, female Mayor who is openly gay.

It was no ordinary after-school activity on Tuesday, April 9, 2019 when I had the privilege of sitting down with Mayor-elect Lightfoot in her transition office to discuss her “mandate for change” and the future of Chicago as it pertains to young people.

Chicago is living in historic times.

During Lightfoot’s victory speech, heard around the world, Lightfoot stated “young people are seeing the beginning of something, well… a little bit different. They’re seeing a city reborn, a city where it doesn’t matter what color you are, where it surely doesn’t matter how tall you are and where it doesn’t matter who you love-just as long as you love with all of your heart”.

Sophomore Maeve Healy expressed: “I am extremely proud that Chicago has just elected its first black female LGBT Mayor! I am personally not a part of the LGBT community or the black community, but the representation of both of those groups is so important to me whether it be in our local government or national government. With a person in office who can represent all three of those groups, we can prioritize the people who are part of those communities and hopefully make Chicago a safer and more accepting place for all. If I could vote, I definitely would have voted for Lori Lightfoot. I believe that she truly has a good heart, and I know that she will make some changes.”

I asked Ms. Lightfoot about her initial reaction to such a dramatic victory. The Mayor-elect responded: “We had some sense that the margin would be substantial… but certainly the number that came in… you know… 75% was much larger than we anticipated.”

Lightfoot was not in any manner braggadocious but rather very measured with her words. I was struck by her sense of humility which compelled me inquire about her own perception of such an overwhelming and historic victory.

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“Well it’s very humbling to get that kind of an overwhelming response and that large of a mandate for change…in some ways the bigger history to me is breaking from the broken political machine. The machine in Chicago has had a tight grip on almost every aspect of our civic life; certainly politics, government, business, and just getting access to basic city services were really controlled by the machine. So, that large mandate for change, I think, gives us a real opportunity to be true to that mandate and transform our city. That’s the part to me, in some ways that’s the most historic part of the election decision.”

I asked Lightfoot about what she sees as the most pressing issues facing Chicago.  The Mayor-elect was quick to remark gun violence; a topic she stressed throughout her campaign.  “I think the gun violence solutions lie in two broad areas. One is making sure that our young people, have real opportunity and opportunity creates hope. That means good schools, the ability to have good quality jobs, access to healthcare, and have a living environment that is healthy and stable and safe. That means we have to invest. We have to invest in economic development, we have to invest in good quality schools, and create neighborhoods for them (young people) where they feel like they’ve got a stake in their own lives and a stake in their lives of their neighbors.”

As Lightfoot proudly admits, her solutions are based around the idea of change. Not only does the Mayor-elect want to improve the lives of people who seek to own a gun illegally. The increasing illegal ownership of guns is weighing on Lightfoot’s mind.

Freshman Noah Giesen said that he would like to see Lightfoot “repair impoverished and many times violent neighborhoods of the South and West Side”, two general areas statistically with high rates of gun violence.

The Mayor-elect states Chicago needs to focus on three main categories of gun violence.

First, Lightfoot says the “the gun traffickers”. She explained “the way Chicago can change the painful reality of trafficking is to “better engage our federal partners meaning the U.S. Attorney’s office, the FBI, ATF, and DEA.”

Second, the Mayor-elect explains “the felons in possession” contribute to the issue as well. Lightfoot states “under most laws if you’re under a felony conviction, you’re not allowed to possess a firearm yet many people do. We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to stem the flow of illegal guns that are coming into the city from neighboring states like Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.” She also mentioned that “there is persistently a gun trafficking network that flows from the southern states like Mississippi to Chicago.”

Third, Ms. Lightfoot remarks the “straw purchasers” play a role in violence as well. “Straw purchasers are people who, for some payment of money will go into a gun store and buy guns knowing they’re never going to actually possess them, and then turn them over to somebody else.”

Lightfoot concludes “if we focus on those three categories; on people who are driving a lot of the gun violence, we are going to make significant inroads in reducing the violence in the streets.”

Lightfoot knows a large factor of gun violence is young people’s general failure to participate in what she refers to as the “legitimate economy”.“Aside from creating opportunities for them to connect to the legitimate economy,  we also need to look at more expansively at ways in which we can teach young people that the way to solve disputes isn’t by picking up a gun; a gun doesn’t make you more powerful… a gun just makes you more vulnerable. If you use a gun to resolve a dispute, you’re shattering not only the person’s life that you’ve injured and their family and their community, but also your own.”

Going off of this same message, I asked Mayor-elect Lightfoot if she would agree with the notion “hurt people, hurt people”.

“Yeah… I think that what we’ve seen from the data and sociological studies over who are the shooters; They are people, on many instances who feel this disconnection from institutions like schools, like things in their neighborhood that would give them a sense of purpose and hope… A lot of times what’s happening is people are commiting what I would call crimes of poverty. If  a person has no legitimate means to provide for themselves, shelter, food, clothing the basics; they are going to figure out how they can do that. What’s available in a lot of these economically distressed neighborhoods is access to illegal drug trades. We know that illegal drug trade… violence is its partner. If we can reduce the number of people who feel like that’s their outlet and their only outlet, we are going to reduce the violence.”

Education… or rather the lack of educational opportunities also plays a role in gun violence. Lightfoot’s “mandate for change” does not just call for stability in violence; it is a call for greater educational equality.  During her campaign, Lori Lightfoot listed 15 educational priorities she would like to take action upon as Mayor. At the very top of the list was “eradicating structural, racial, and other inequities” within Chicago Public Schools. I asked her what she would do to combat the structural inequality our city faces.

Lightfoot paused, then replied  “We have to look at what’s happened over the last 7 years in particular. The closure of the 50 schools, I think, did a lot of harm. A lot of people, parents, teachers and other stakeholders didn’t feel like they were really heard in that whole process…there’s a lot of lingering anger and frustration that has to be addressed…CPS has been given a trust by parents to educate and nurture their children in a safe environment but parents have not been treated as welcome partners in its most important enterprise; we’ve got to change that dynamic.”

The Mayor-elect has been emphasizing the importance of increased parent involvement within schools since she has been on the campaign trail. Lightfoot may just be on course legislatively as only two days after the general election, the Illinois House voted 110-2 in favor of an elected school board instead of an appointed one; a measure that will be in place until 2023.

Lightfoot is both optimistic and realistic about educational opportunities after high school. “We need to make sure we are not focused on college robust mentality. If you look at the CPS population, there are going to be some kids that are going to do quite well and go onto college and they’re going to thrive. We also need to make sure that we are providing space for kid for whom a college education isn’t feasible or not desired.” Lightfoot is working with CPS to create vocational opportunities for students so they can “feel successful because they are successful.”

Lightfoot’s priorities are made clear. To be sure I understand her own criterion for success,

I ended our time together with a question from a student who requested to remain anonymous.  “Please finish the sentence: I will have been a successful Mayor if ______________.”

“I would be a successful Mayor if within my first terms, we have made significant and lasting changes for the good in our violence, if we have substantially expanded the number of affordable housing units that are actually built and online… if we are creating real high quality neighborhood schools both at the elementary and high school level. And, if we have created pathways for real, good paying jobs…not just 15 dollars an hour … the minimum wage… I would call that success.”

As Lightfoot pointed out in her victory speech, “In this city, we are all neighbors.” Some of our neighbors are hurting. And if our neighbor(s) is hurting, then we all hurt.  It is not hard to see the correlation between “a corrupt political system” and those areas most affected by gun violence and the lack of educational and economic opportunities. As nearly 75% of votes cast were in favor of the candidate who wants to “fix a broken and corrupt political system” is not only a mandate for change, but a message of hope for Chicago.

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Jay Doherty

2019

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Jay Doherty, Jr. 2019. All rights reserved.