In farewell address, Lori Lightfoot rejects ‘mean’ mayor narrative and focuses on an optimistic future for Chicago

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CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday delivered a farewell address that sought to define her embattled, one-term reign as a defiant stand against the political establishment — an impassioned final message from the leader of the nation’s third-largest city following a divisive term and stunning reelection loss.

Speaking inside the offices of a West Side anti-violence organization, the outgoing mayor made no apologies for her brusque style governing Chicago through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and civil unrest. Rather, she signaled her abrasive style was the only path forward for a mayor elected as an insurgent candidate back in 2019.

“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, a new compact between the government and the governed, and that’s what we did,” Lightfoot said.

Despite overseeing the city during a time in which “the sheer number of challenges mounted on top of each other brought me to my knees,” Lightfoot said she hoped to be remembered as a leader who made long-overdue strides toward equity in a deeply segregated city.

“I knew generations of Chicagoans, particularly Black and Latino communities, who were hungry for resources and support from City Hall, a City Hall that needed to see the entire city,” Lightfoot said at the BUILD headquarters in Austin. “My primary mandate was to put our residents first and then do the hard work to serve them. And so we got to it. … Our administration created real change and planted seeds for transformation of our city to right these historic wrongs.”

In February, Lightfoot became the first incumbent mayor in 40 years to lose a reelection bid, getting knocked out of the race during the first round of voting against eight challengers. Her historic loss was attributed to a variety of factors, ranging from the headwinds she faced during a period of economic turbulence and heightened crime to the often-stubborn attitude she deployed when it came to working with other figures and groups across the political spectrum.

But on Monday, with just one week left in office, the mayor dismissed criticism of her leadership style and portrayed her fierce attitude as evidence of her resiliency during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Lots of time and energy and ink has been spilled by the pundits and the media assessing about what four letter-word, the ‘mean, can’t get along with anyone’ mayor allegedly said,” Lightfoot said, before her voice grew emotional. “Let me tell you, my friends, the four-letter word that propelled me forward every single day of this incredible journey, one that I am told every time that I needed to rise above the noise and despair. That four letter word was spelled H-O-P-E.”

The mayor would again rip into the press when highlighting the optimistic vision she had for Chicago, urging them to tell that story instead of negative stories.

Lightfoot did not address any specific areas critics knocked her for, such as her administration’s pace of police reform, that she failed to chip away at the practice of aldermanic prerogative or her contentious relationships with other leaders ranging from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to the powerful Chicago Teachers Union.

She instead sought to evoke unity by telling the Biblical story of Lazarus, who rose from the dead, and said her struggle to resurrect a city battered by COVID-19 was shared by all Chicagoans — and that it ultimately prevailed.

“When a great fire lays our city to ashes and rubble, we build a sturdier, stronger city,” Lightfoot said, evoking the 1871 Great Chicago Fire that destroyed large sections of the city. “When the brutal winters chill us to the bone, we put on another layer and we forge ahead, dreaming of spring and summer but never stopping, even in the face of nature’s tempest.”

The two-hour goodbye ceremony kicked off with a highlight video that drew on the themes of Lightfoot’s 2019 election representing an anti-establishment, reform-oriented answer to the city’s notorious “Democratic machine.” She also highlighted how her working-class background inspired her to lead with the mindset of alleviating the most vulnerable family’s hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic, including through raising the minimum wage to $15.

In her remarks, Lightfoot touted new affordable housing programs and her flagship Invest South/West initiative, which supported businesses that hope to flourish in struggling neighborhoods. She also highlighted strides made in fiscal management, including upping pension contributions and balancing the budget during times of steep revenue shortfalls.

On crime and policing, where the outgoing mayor has often come under fire from both progressives and law-and-order types, Lightfoot defended her strategy of “holistically addressing” safety by tapping into more resources on reentry services, but did not say much more on the spike in violence that plagued her term.

“You can’t talk about public safety without creating a pathway for those who are coming home to have fulfilled, legitimate lives in our society,” Lightfoot said. “We can’t continue to perpetuate the permanent punishment cycle.”

Since failing to make the runoff election, Lightfoot has notably maintained a low profile, restricting her access with local media and declining to weigh in throughout the runoff campaign on the choice between Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson — now the mayor-elect — and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas.

With just days left in her term, however, Lightfoot has shared some more explicit thoughts on the two candidates who bested her in February. She insinuated in an exit interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that “right-wing forces” who wanted to oust her lined up behind Vallas, the more conservative choice, and in turn ended up with a mayor who is even further to the left in Johnson.

“Unfortunately, the people who are jumping on the bandwagon of a Republican posing like a Democrat now got a Democratic socialist as the mayor,” Lightfoot said in the segment that aired this week. “So, careful what you wish for.”

Johnson does not officially identify as a Democratic socialist, although he is closely allied with aldermen and other local politicians who are members of the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Lightfoot has not shared details on the next chapter of her career, beyond stating she was finished with electoral politics.

“I will be here as private citizen Lightfoot, continually rooting for you and every resident of our city,” Lightfoot said. “My work is not done. I will roll up my sleeves in another form and fashion, but continue on.”

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The Tribune’s Hank Sanders contributed.

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