CHICAGO (CN) — With only a week left in her mayoral tenure, Lori Lightfoot gave Chicago an emotional farewell address on Monday at a ceremony in her honor.
City administrators and local Baptist pastor Bernard Jakes also delivered their remarks at the ceremony, as Chicago's first openly gay Black mayor prepares to step down.
Lightfoot's last day in office is next Monday, when she will turn the keys to her office over to her successor Brandon Johnson.
"In your graciousness you gave us a mayor, oh God, who led our city with conviction, refusing to support the decades of inequalities levied upon the backs of the under-served," Jakes said while leading the ceremony's opening prayer. "With determination, unashamedly challenging systems of injustice to create positive change to broken systems."
Despite the many kind words offered at the ceremony, Lightfoot leaves behind a controversial legacy. As Jakes alluded to in his prayer, Lightfoot presented herself as a reformer when she won the mayor's office in 2019, an alternative to Chicago's legacy of political domination by a number of white Democratic familial dynasties. It's an image she again presented of herself in her own remarks on Monday.
"The mandate that I was given four years ago was to break up the status quo that failed our residents for far too long and to chart a new path," Lightfoot said. "A new compact between the government and the governed, and that's what we did."
The reality is more complex. Lightfoot has been embedded in Chicago's legal and political worlds since the turn of the millennium, working as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 1996 to 2002 and subsequently as chief administrator for the Chicago Police Department's Office for Professional Standards until 2004. That same year she also briefly worked under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, a man who was no less than Chicago political royalty, as deputy chief of the city's Department of Procurement Services. After years of private legal practice, from 2015 to 2018 she worked for her even more controversial predecessor, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, serving as president of his police board.
While in these offices she did reportedly push for reforms, sometimes publicly conflicting with her more conservative white bosses. But over the course of her term as Chicago's 56th mayor, she also bled much of the progressive support that won her the 2019 election.
Many on the left have criticized her handling of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, during which the Illinois National Guard occupied the city at her request. She's also faced flak from the left over her 2021 and 2022 budgets, her resistance to the Illinois Legislature voting to convert the Chicago School Board into an elected rather than a mayor-appointed body, and her repeated fights with left-leaning labor unions such as the Chicago Teachers Union, among other incidents. Members of the City Council's socialist caucus, most of whom were also elected in 2019, have been among her most vocal critics in City Hall.
She has not made many friends among the city's right-leaning factions, either, aside from some conservative older members of the City Council. She sparred several times with Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara, particularly during her office's protracted legal battle with the police union over Covid-19 vaccine mandates for police and other city workers.
She has also locked horns, at various points over the last four years, with Cook County Chief Circuit Judge Timothy Evans, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, the Illinois ACLU and both of the city's legacy print media outlets: The Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, to both of whom she declined to provide an exit interview.
Her quarrelsome reputation is such that it served as fodder for her opponents in the now-concluded mayoral race, and Lightfoot herself embraced it in a reelection ad from last June.
"They say I'm tough. They say I get angry. They say sometimes, I take things personally. You know what I say? They're absolutely right," Lightfoot said in the ad.
This reputation, combined with her general unpopularity among Chicagoans of all political stripes, likely contributed to her becoming the first incumbent Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose reelection after serving a full first term. The last mayor with that dubious honor was Chicago's first female mayor, Jane Byrne. Lightfoot came in third place during the initial election round this past February, securing only 16% of the vote total and ceding the subsequent runoff election to the more conservative Paul Vallas and the ultimately victorious progressive, Johnson.
Instead of lingering on that complex legacy, Lightfoot spent much of her own speaking time on Monday listing what she considered her administration's triumphs. These included her signature INVEST South/West community development program, as well the pilot program for non-police mental health intervention services her office launched in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests.
She said that her administration had been successful in "planting the seeds of equity," and compared what she hoped would be Chicago's future to the Biblical story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
"Through the power of faith and collective action, we can breathe new life into people who have been left for dead," Lightfoot said, referring to impoverished Black and Latino communities on the city's South and West sides.
She concluded her remarks by thanking her staff, encouraging Chicago media to tell positive as well as critical stories, and by wishing Chicago's future leaders the best of luck.
"Each of us has persevered through adversity and we have given the full measure of ourselves to bend the moral arc of history toward justice here and now in Chicago," Lightfoot said. "This is our legacy, and I think, considering recent events, that Chicago is going to stay in this lane of progress for a long time."Follow @@djbyrnes1
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