Chicago’s Mayor Goes Down in Defeat

March 15, 2023

A post mortem on Lori Lightfoot’s one term in office

Lori Lightfoot came across as an appealing candidate at the time of her victory in the April 2019 mayoral runoff because she seemed to talk less nonsense than challenger Toni Preckwinkle. Amid the congratulatory music and confetti which accompanied her landslide victory over Ms. Preckwinkle, the then-mayor-elect Lightfoot told supporters gathered at the Hilton Chicago her elevation to City Hall was not merely historical but part of a movement “for change.”

Lightfoot’s election started with such promise, yet four years later, on Feb. 28, she was decisively ousted from office after earning only 17 percent at the polls. A widely anticipated loss, Ms. Lightfoot’s defeat in the preliminary round of voting made her only the second incumbent mayor in 40 years to be rejected by the electorate.

A first-class failure as mayor, Lightfoot’s 2023 election headquarters at Carpenter’s Local 1 Hall was adorned with all the trappings of defeat on the 28th. The boundless enthusiasm which had pervaded the Hilton ballroom four years earlier was replaced with an environment of widespread gloom in 2023. Despite the historic loss and humiliation, as Lightfoot stood at the podium conceding defeat, she spoke as if she expected to someday be canonized as a modern saint and told the crowd: “I stand here with my head held high and a heart full of gratitude.”

Ms. Lightfoot is not the first incumbent to lose office, nor will she be the last. However, in four short years the mystique surrounding Chicago's mayor evaporated as she went from being regarded as a luminary to being utterly detested and despised by many voters, business leaders, and the Windy City’s political class. A remarkable reversal from her 2019 victory, there are many reasons for Lightfoot’s loss: Unmet promises, lockstep leftism, a refusal to address crime, and basic incompetence.

A collapse rooted entirely in her failure to show any tangible results after four years in office, for any conclusions to be drawn from Lightfoot’s term, the preliminary autopsy must begin with her neglect of crime.

Public safety suffered terribly under Lightfoot

Entering office in 2019, Lightfoot was met with a relatively low homicide rate. However, Lightfoot’s term was an endless series of stumbles and both strategic and tactical blunders. Though it is difficult to compellingly pinpoint the precise moment when Lightfoot manifestly lost control of Chicago, an effective argument Lightfoot abandoned her responsibilities as chief executive of Chicago can be found in the 2020 riots.

As the specter of protests connected to the death of George Floyd loomed and threatened to spread to Chicago, competent officials with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) are believed to have approached Lightfoot with a comprehensive plan to prevent rioting and looting from enveloping the Windy City. Lightfoot rejected the proposal out of hand. As wanton violence overwhelmed the city in late May 2020, Lightfoot closed her eyes to the chaos and, demonstrating a striking deference to a mob, switched allegiance from CPD to protesters.

A staggering betrayal of both police and the law-abiding, as police found themselves in the midst of a grinding fight with rioters, Lightfoot failing to assert herself directly led to Chicago burning and convulsing with demonstrations and condemnations of law enforcement.

Lightfoot’s inaction had staggering consequences: Refusing to condemn criminal behavior and allowing rioting and looting to quickly spin out of control created a lasting environment in which police authority eroded on the streets. Following Lightfoot cheering on rioters as they ransacked Chicago, the mayor placed further curbs on police, which consisted mainly of restrictions to police foot-pursuits. Lightfoot also proposed some $80 million in cuts to the police budget. In the aftermath of the riots, homicides rose sharply to its highest levels in 25 years, and crimes such as robberies and carjackings trended consistently on an upward trajectory.

Lightfoot’s devastating impact on police was not limited to her objections to supporting police in the public square. In another monumental error, Lightfoot hired David Brown as superintendent. Worse, Lightfoot kept Brown. A plainly incompetent and visionless administrator, Brown spent many weekends in Dallas, was known to be aloof, and his mismanagement of CPD directly contributed to a staggering loss of faith in leadership and a mass exodus of officers.

Though the calls for Brown’s dismissal grew louder as time wore on, Lightfoot resisted. Firing Brown, of course, would be an implicit admission Lightfoot had committed a mistake. Extending Brown’s tenure, too, had long-term repercussions: Brown restored merit promotions to CPD. Though originally well intentioned, merit promotion, the method of advancing minority officers to leadership positions despite promotional exam scores, has wrought disaster. A system which has outlived its purpose, merit promotions led to incompetent and lazy officers elevated mainly through connections to ranking CPD officials.

While a general disrespect for officers has stoked a mass departure of capable officers, merit promotions quietly stirred an emigration of accomplished mass of junior officers who, had they remained with CPD, would have been destined for leadership positions under a fair promotion system.

Chicago’s finances are worse off under Lightfoot

In addition to doing dire damage to CPD, Ms. Lightfoot had entered office vowing to return fiscal sanity to Chicago’s budgets and to strengthen the city economy. Here, too, Ms. Lightfoot failed to live up to even the minimum expectations.

Unlike coastal cities which mainly host businesses in the technology and finance sectors, Chicago has always been known for its diversified economy. A city long recognized for its talented workforce, beauty, and affordability, though Chicago was headquarters to few top-tier firms, Lightfoot successfully lured Kellogg and Google to Chicago and played an important role in BMO Financial, candy maker Mars, New Cold, Abbott Laboratories, Discover Care, and Salesforce expanding office footprints in the Windy City. Lightfoot was also instrumental in Chicago leading the nation in brokering qualifying deals with 448 firms in 2022. Agreements which will see tax revenue increase and employment opportunities expand, Lightfoot does deserve praise for these achievements.

Nonetheless, the exit doors often swung open under Lightfoot. During her term, Boeing, Tyson, and Citadel all pulled up stakes and fled Chicago. Although Boeing announced its departure from the Windy City to Arlington, Virginia, the aerospace giant was motivated by a desire to mend relationships with federal regulators and lawmakers. Boeing additionally revealed the move would include a massive investment to develop a research and technology facility in Virginia. A facility which could have been built in Chicago and would certainly have led to the creation of more jobs, instead of prioritizing job security, Lightfoot shrugged at Boeing’s pullout.

A significant blow to Chicago economy and jobs, alongside Boeing’s exit, United Airlines Holding shifted 1,300 employees to a suburban location and hedge fund Citadel left for Miami. Unlike Boeing's leadership remaining silent, Citadel founder, Ken Griffin, issued several public warnings to Lightfoot and city officials, appealing for lawmakers to address crime. Comparing Chicago to Afghanistan “on a good day,” Griffin relocated after an employee’s confrontation with a criminal downtown left the aide shaken after having a firearm placed to his head. Though Griffin’s departure from Chicago should have caused some concern, Lightfoot remained unmoved.

On the city’s budget, Lightfoot made numerous promises, many of which went unrealized in her four years in office. Although Ms. Lightfoot did concentrate on Chicago’s pension obligations, as mayor, Lightfoot never seemed to grasp the fiscal severity of Chicago’s debt. Faced with a massive shortfalls, Lightfoot consistently rejected even modest cuts to spending in favor of higher taxes. Lightfoot’s budgets were always absent of the structural reforms so desperately needed to return the city to fiscal health.

A term defined by an instinct to raise taxes, Lightfoot raised revenue by taxing or placing fees on ride-sharing, restaurant meals, recreational marijuana, parking meters, and cloud computing. Property taxes, too, rose under the mayor. In two increases, Lightfoot raked in over $200 million.

Yet instead of becoming a chief executive who cast a cold eye on Chicago’s budgetary excesses and committing herself to making difficult decisions, Lightfoot and her allies in the City Council only increased spending by adding a raft of costly but unsustainable social programs, and always billed them as “free.” Among the new entitlements were free bikes and a universal basic income pilot. Aldermen, too, were rewarded with mayoral largesse: In 2019, Lightfoot found $1.25 million to increase the annual aldermanic expense allowance by $25,000.

In the following years, Lightfoot also threw $3.1 million for abortion services, another $5 million for illegal immigrants, and funded a city climate office.

Though Lightfoot had vowed to place Chicago on a path to solvency, by her fourth year in office, Chicago’s budget had ballooned from $12 billion to over $16 billion, and bureaucratic bloat and redundancy was ignored.

Lightfoot was a crude vulgarian

In politics, personality matters. Hardly a cultured and worldly political operator, Lightfoot always appeared to relish the brutal side of politics as mayor. In her brass-knuckles style, Lightfoot managed to estrange allies and often widened the abyss with political opponents. In Lightfoot’s worldview, comity gets you beat and running others over, rather than in getting them to hop on board, is a more effective political tactic than diplomacy. It never worked.

Though Ms. Lightfoot could demonstrate some tact in public when confronted with thorny circumstances, her natural bad grace tended to prevail. In one notable instance in which she discarded decency, while addressing those gathered at a Chicago Pride event in June 2022 following a High Court ruling overturning Roe versus Wade, Lightfoot repeated the words of a member of the crowd and bellowed: “F**k Clarence Thomas.

Behavior which revealed her willingness to coarsen civil discourse, to Lori Lightfoot, a cruel, vindictive, and vulgar attitude and remarks were always justifiable “counterpunching” against unfair jabs from media figures, critics or social developments. Though these spectacles were both unnecessary and unedifying, Lightfoot’s puerile name calling and crassness was appalling for an elected official, but was the sort of dirty play which amused her base when directed at individuals they disliked.

Lightfoot’s lewdness did rile up a crowd and perhaps helped her gain some attention, but it proved costly: Lightfoot’s abrasiveness created an enduring hostility with political associates in the City Council and with Democrats in Springfield. A woman with poor impulse control, many of the political skirmishes in which Lightfoot engaged were designed for provocation's own sake.

Lightfoot thought the job of mayor would be easy

Lori Lightfoot’s political career is over; she will never hold elected office again. Like a character in a Greek tragedy, Lightfoot’s hubris undid her. Someone who was never any good at actually governing, Lightfoot never seemed to grasp bread-and-butter concerns of Chicago residents.

Never on top of the basic issues — crime, schools, and the economy in particular — Lightfoot spent the whole of her term demonstrating her highest priority was not the advancement of residents’ priorities, but rather by concentrating on gender equality, feminism, race, and abortion. Obsessed with identity politics, to Lightfoot, she was a female dynamo, and those who refused to acknowledge her intersectional excellence were considered sexist, racist goons.

That she showed so little real enthusiasm for hands-on rule of Chicago came at a cost: As Chicago’s calamities piled sky high, and critical issues became unmanageable, Lightfoot’s term crumbled in spectacular fashion.

Most residents never expected Lightfoot to be a savior. We would have settled if she had simply been mediocre at her job. Nonetheless, it turned out Lightfoot fell far short of even being lackluster. Judging by her comments on the evening of her election loss, Mayor Lightfoot still does not fundamentally understand what she got wrong over the last four years.

Even with her defeat at the ballot box, Lightfoot could not bring herself to admit error, largely because it not within her to admit her mistakes.

Lori Lightfoot was not ready to be mayor and she did not learn much while serving at City Hall. From the beginning of her term, Lightfoot overpromised, under-delivered and was consistently overmatched by events. Easily the most incompetent mayor in the history of Chicago, though many would like to forget about Lori Lightfoot, she will always be remembered as the mayor who lost control of the city.  

Lori Lightfoot's only historical significance is being the first black female to serve as mayor of Chicago.

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