Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made history by becoming the first black openly gay female mayor of a major city. But her first year in office will be defined by the relentless coronavirus pandemic that brought Chicago to a halt.
Perhaps it is because of the coronavirus that people seem to have forgotten all of the hoopla that erupted 12 months ago over the election.
Chicago was deemed one of the most progressive cities in the nation for having embraced a candidate who did not fit traditional political norms. We overflowed with self-adoration, while basking in the limelight and patting ourselves on the back.
Indeed, it was an important feat and Chicagoans had a right to be proud. Her identity would inherently influence her views on many issues, but it would not make her more equipped to handle the city’s mounting social and economic problems.
Deep inside, many of us wondered whether electing a political newbie would come back to haunt us. If we had seen even a hint of the crisis lurking ahead, we might have been less willing to place someone with no political experience at the helm.
For more than two months, we have watched her emerge as leader, not just in Chicago but also on the national front. She has not been perfect in every step, but she has served our city well.
Such a formidable foe as COVID-19 might have forced a less tenacious mayor to retreat. But bowing to the pressure of holding a city together as a force out of her control relentlessly tried to rip it apart was never an option.
In her freshman year, Lightfoot has been tested more than any previous mayor, regardless of how many terms they had accumulated in their political repository. And she has consistently reaffirmed that voters made the right choice.
This has nothing to do with the fact that Lightfoot is a woman, or that she is African American or the first openly gay person to hold the city’s highest office. None of that mattered in the face of a pandemic, which is a testament to the fact that a person’s genetic makeup has nothing to do with their ability to do a job.
What has set Lightfoot apart during this crisis is her eagerness to get down into the trenches and push anyone aside who threatens Chicago’s efforts to stop this deadly pandemic. Though adversaries in Washington refused to lend a hand, she let them know that they would not be allowed to stand in the way.
She has made unpopular decisions that could hamper her chances for a second term. But her top priority has been to ensure that residents in every corner of the city have an equal chance of weathering this crisis.
We aren’t out of the woods yet. Once COVID-19 runs its course, Lightfoot will face an even greater challenge. She must prove that she not only can conquer a pandemic but that she is equally capable of leading the recovery.
Chicago will be an entirely different city when we finally emerge. The fiscal and social challenges that threatened her tenure from the start will resurface stronger and more defiantly.
Again, there will be little, if any, assistance from Washington in helping solidly Democratic cities and states get back on their feet.
Pension payments that have threatened to bankrupt our city for years will come due. The impoverished will tap the mayor’s shoulder and remind her of promises she made to push the long-neglected underclass to the forefront of her agenda.
The violence that never took a hiatus during the pandemic will have become emboldened while no one was watching, and will test the fortitude of both the mayor and her new police superintendent.
Meanwhile, countless new obstacles demand her full attention. Businesses will struggle to regain their footing. Diminished tax revenues will force her to make controversial decisions about what is essential and what is not.
We will learn that a surprising number of Chicagoans who seemed fine before the pandemic were not as economically secure as we thought. They will join the ranks of thousands who were accustomed to barely making ends meet. And there won’t be enough resources to go around.
Everyone will look to the mayor for answers that she cannot possibly give, because she has never been in such a precarious spot. Nor have we.
A year ago, it seemed as though Lightfoot was stepping into the role of governing Chicago, a city that can be overly demanding and sometimes ungovernable, straight off the street. The pandemic gave her a chance to soar.
She took advantage of the opportunity and rose to near the top of our rating scale. We gave no preference to her race, gender or sexual orientation.
After today, we should retire the phrase “first black openly gay female” mayor. Like every other first, the novelty wore off as soon as reality kicked in.
Nothing separates Mayor Lori Lightfoot from Mayor Richard Daley or Mayor Rahm Emanuel or any previous one now, except for the way she chooses to govern Chicago. Though some might have expected otherwise, it was that way all along.
So while the pandemic dominated her first year in office, Lightfoot ultimately will be graded on how well she kept it from commanding the second, third and fourth.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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