CHICAGO — With one year remaining until the 2023 Chicago mayoral election, it is worth reflecting on the tenure of a candidate that had campaigned on sweeping reform.
In the 2019 election, Mayor Lori Lightfoot won all 50 wards in the run-off.
One year before the next election, much of Lightfoot’s lofty agenda has not been implemented.
A former U.S. Attorney and head of the Chicago Police Board, Lightfoot billed herself as an expert in public safety. In 2021, Chicago violence soared to levels not seen in decades. More than 800 homicides were recorded in 2021, with over 1,800 carjackings, the most of any large city in the U.S.
After scandal forced out Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, Lightfoot tapped former LA Police Chief Charlie Beck as interim police superintendent. After a few months, she made her permanent pick, former head of the Dallas police department, David Brown.
To address rising violence, Lightfoot and Brown declared war on gangs.
Brown has shifted strategies multiple times, including creating a team of roving citywide officers, only to later move some of them to neighborhood beats in a time where CPD slowly inches toward court-ordered reforms.
Lightfoot has worked with City Council to increase public safety spending, allocating more than $1 billion to combat poverty and violence.
Lightfoot was not available to take questions from WGN News for this story, but her office provided Frank Perez. Perez is the leader of violence intervention and prevention services at UCAN. He said it’s not fair to blame Lightfoot for the uptick in violence.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “This didn’t happen on her watch. This was years in the making. Years of all the “isms” that are out there. The isolationism, the high rates of unemployment, the high dropout rates, the high of people self-medicating.”
On the other hand, Ald. Anthony Beale has emerged as a fierce and prominent critic of the Lightfoot administration.
“You look at all the top leadership that has left. We had a lot of expertise here in the city and they have since left. When you see even the rank and file are all leaving,” Beale said.
Lightfoot campaigned on a reinvention of the city’s government, vowing to end aldermanic prerogative. Through executive order, the mayor did take away councilmembers power to block certain developments, grants and permits. But she’s failed to limit aldermen’s power to change the zoning code.
When COVID-19 swept through Chicago, Lightfoot leaned into the challenge and urged residents to stay home. She coordinated a citywide response and launched a team dedicated to helping Black and Brown residents get health care.
But numerous departments and agencies have faced challenges. At the Chicago Park District, a lifeguard sexual abuse scandal rocked the district in 2021. At the Law Department, questions about the treatment of Anjanette Young following a botched 2019 police raid carried out before Lightfoot took office.
The mayor’s response to various emergencies angered resident, whether it was rioting and looting, violent protests over statues or organized retail theft along the Magnificent Mile.
Lightfoot’s confrontational style has often been on full display.
Multiple council meetings have turned chaotic, with cameras capturing a heated discussion between Lightfoot and Alderwoman Janette Taylor at one meeting.
In 2019, a labor dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union led to a 14-day strike. This year, teachers walked out again over COVID safety protocols.
As a candidate, Lightfoot supported an elected school board only to change her mind when Springfield unveiled plans to create a 21-person board.
The proposal passed the legislature and Governor JB Pritzker signed it into law over Lightfoot’s objections.
Staff turnover is common in government, but critics say Lightfoot has been slow to name replacements.
The mayor pledged transparent governance, but her administration at times has limited access like when she only talked to Black journalists to mark her second anniversary.
Hoping to revitalize historic neighborhoods, Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West program has generated roughly one and a half-billion dollars in commitments for 10 South and West Side communities.
Beale said the money is welcome, but the community must have a greater say.
“The administration is trying to circumvent the aldermen and they’re trying to have one-offs by building one building in each one of these corridors,” he said. “And then standup come election time and say, ‘Look what I’ve done in each one of these INVEST South/West corridors.'”
Lightfoot inherited a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall. But in a just a few years, thanks to an assist from the federal government, city spending increased by 30%. Lightfoot’s most recent budget earned praise from supporters and detractors alike.
After a turbulent three years, all signs point to Lightfoot seeking another term.
Beale was asked if he thought Lightfoot could win over Chicago voters for a second time in 2023.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult seeing the total unrest in the city, seeing the crime rate in the city, seeing all the strikes we’ve had in this city, the murder rate in this city,” Beale said.
Conversely, Lightfoot’s backers say they understand the unprecedented challenges she inherited.
“She came into this job, through no fault of her own, with what the previous administrations through the last 30, 40 years left behind,” Perez said. “And because she’s a woman – I’ll put it out there, because she’s black, she’s used as a scapegoat.”
Public and private polling shows voters think Lightfoot did a good job managing COVID-19. But violence is the number one issue for Chicagoans and voters blame Lightfoot.
Her reelection, should she run, may well hinge on whether voters feel that she kept her promise to make the city safer.