Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot realizes being the first black woman and first lesbian to lead the city is monumental, but the real feat, she says, is taking down the city’s historically well-fortified establishment.
Lightfoot not only beat the political insider – Toni Preckwinkle, 72, head of the Cook County Board and Cook County Democratic Party chairwoman – she decimated her opponent by a 3-to-1 margin, according to unofficial results.
“This is something obviously that we’ve been talking about, the historic nature of the election, for some time,” Lightfoot told CNN on Wednesday, the morning after her runoff win, “but I think the most historic thing was beating the old, entrenched Chicago machine and getting such a resounding mandate for change.”
Though it’s the first time she’s been elected to office, Lightfoot is plenty familiar with politics, especially Chicago’s. The 56-year-old attorney and former federal prosecutor has been interim first deputy of the city’s procurement department, chief of staff and general counsel for the emergency management office and chief administrator of the office of professional standards.
Fate of Chicago’s top cop
Reforming the police department was a pillar of her campaign, and she has the experience the task requires. After Laquan McDonald’s death, which ended in a murder conviction for the officer who killed the 17-year-old, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped Lightfoot to head a police accountability task force. She later led a nine-member civilian board charged with overseeing the Chicago Police Department.
Yet while many candidates vying to take the city’s helm called for Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson’s badge, Lightfoot promised a more patient approach, something she reiterated in her Wednesday interview.
“We have a lot of challenges to face, and he’s very well aware of it,” she said. “We’re going to be heading soon into the summer violence season. After that’s over, we’ll evaluate at that point, but I’m going to be working closely with the superintendent and with his executive team to make sure that we keep our neighborhoods safe.”
Though she provided no guarantees that Johnson would still be the city’s top cop come autumn, she said she had a long-term goal of restoring Chicago communities’ trust in their police force. While part of that burden falls on the department, which she will push to “extend itself to the residents of the city,” the onus also falls on the administration, she said.
“We’ve got to support and give better training to our police officers to help them understand how to bridge that divide better,” she said. “We’ll certainly be borrowing from other cities like New York, but I feel confident that we’re going to be able to continue to make progress. Really, our children’s lives depend upon it.”
Asked about the outgoing mayor’s 2017 remarks that Chicago would be a “Trump-free zone” – a reference to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies – Lightfoot warned against shunning the federal government.
“We’ve got to do everything we can to speak to and protect our immigrant communities,” she said. “I also want to make sure that the city of Chicago gets its fair share of federal tax dollars, so we’re going to stand strong and speak our values, and we’re going to keep pushing back against hate, but I’m also going to make sure that we are treated fairly by the federal government.”
’Each of us who is elected opens the door’
While upending the establishment was the real prize in Tuesday’s runoff vote, she said, she doesn’t downplay the importance of her race and sexuality. As she said in her victory speech, “A lot of little boys and girls are watching. They’re watching us, and they’re seeing the beginning of something, well, a little bit different.”
Of the 307 American cities with 100,000 or more people, only 13 of them have black women as mayors, counting Lightfoot. In Chicago, Lightfoot is the second woman and the second African-American elected to lead the city.
It would’ve been a “remarkable thing” to see a black lesbian leading her city when she was a child, said Lightfoot, who grew up in Ohio and attended universities in Michigan and Chicago.
“It would’ve been something that I talked about with my parents and my classmates, and I hope our children are watching,” she said. “I want to make sure that I am the leader that respects the fact that kids all over the city and hopefully all over the country really understand that they can do anything that they want to do, that they set their minds to do, as long as they’ve got good, strong support from adults and love to support them.”
Lightfoot isn’t the only one hoping her election inspires the younger generation. Following news of Lightfoot’s victory, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, the first black woman to hold her position, said she’s excited to see what Lightfoot’s election means for Chicago.
“Both the black community and LGBT community can be proud of her history-making victory tonight. All across our country, more and more black women are showing what they can do in positions of leadership,” she said. “Each of us who is elected opens the door for even more young girls and boys to follow in our paths.”
Lightfoot, who has a 10-year-old daughter with her spouse, Amy Eshleman, will be sworn in as the Windy City’s 56th mayor May 20.
CNN’s Steve Almasy, John Berman, Madison Park and Shelby Copeland contributed to this report.