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How Newly Elected Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Might Shape Politics In The Windy City


Lori Lightfoot won't be sworn in until May 20, but her victory is already being felt in the city of Chicago.

LAURA WASHINGTON: This city is a different place today. I can't even describe it. You just can feel it on the streets, people stepping a little lighter and with a little bit more of a smile on their face. I think this is a troubled city, but I think that this election has given people a lot of hope and - nothing wrong with that.

SHAPIRO: That's our next guest, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

WASHINGTON: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I noticed in the coverage of Lightfoot's victory that it seems that she swept every precinct in Chicago. What is the significance of a black woman, an LGBT candidate, in Chicago winning really across ZIP codes and racial lines in the city?

WASHINGTON: It's a tremendous victory. A landslide for any mayoral candidate doesn't happen very often in Chicago. For a black woman, a lesbian who's not even from Chicago, who moved here, to sweep every ward, including the ward of her opponent, is just an amazing feat. And it gives her a tremendous mandate for change.

SHAPIRO: So what accounts for that? Why do you think this rare, sweeping victory came with this candidate who is so history-making?

WASHINGTON: I think it's a combination of things. I think she's the ultimate outsider. There's a famous saying from Abner Mikva, a revered congressman in Chicago who once walked into a committeeman's ward office and said he wanted to volunteer in a campaign. And he was told, we don't want nobody that nobody sent. And Lori Lightfoot is that nobody.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: She doesn't have a political background. She has no political experience. You would think that that would work against her in a city that's facing so many challenges. But people want someone who's - hopefully can't be compromised by the machine.

SHAPIRO: All right, you're mentioning the machine. And I want to play a clip of something that the mayor-elect said to my colleague Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition earlier today. Let's listen to this.


LORI LIGHTFOOT: The historic part certainly is the black woman, LGBTQ. But breaking the back of the Chicago machine - it's quite monumental.

SHAPIRO: Explain what she means by breaking the back of the Chicago machine and whether you think that is really what she accomplished here.

WASHINGTON: The Chicago machine has been in charge of government, power, politics, contracts - you name it - for my entire lifetime going back decades and decades, mayor after mayor after mayor. They ran everything. They controlled everything. They corrupted everything. There's been 30 aldermen who've been convicted in City Hall since 1972. And yet the game goes on.

In many ways, a lot of voters had just simply given up. They'd thrown up their hands and said, you just can't beat the machine. But it's a pivotal time because we've had a number of federal investigations in this city. We've had two governors go to prison. We had subpoenas left and right in City Hall last fall. And that was right around the time that the mayoral race was picking up. And people were just finally saying they weren't going to take it anymore. Lori Lightfoot was standing there, ready to take the charge.

SHAPIRO: Is breaking the back of the machine and eliminating corruption something that any mayor can do on their own?

WASHINGTON: You can't do it if you're a part of it. And every mayor has been molded and supported and thrived under the machine.

SHAPIRO: But I'm talking about Lightfoot specifically. I mean, she comes in and says, we are going to do away with the old ways of doing business. Is that something that a mayor alone can accomplish?

WASHINGTON: No, of course not. That's - one of her challenges is going to be that she wants to institute things like city council term limits. But she's got to do that in cooperation with the city council. I think why people have hope in her is because she did do this magnificent clean sweep of every ward in the city. In a city that's extremely diverse, can be very tribal, everybody in this city, it seems like, voted for her. They're giving her a mandate to throw the bums out. And don't forget that Lori Lightfoot herself is a former federal prosecutor. What better person to have in the mayor's office when you want to clean up government than someone who knows how to prosecute crimes?

SHAPIRO: So Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, was elected in 1983. Are you surprised that it's taken this long - more than 35 years - for another African-American to win the mayor's office?

WASHINGTON: No because there was always a presumption that in order to elect another black mayor, you had to have monolithic black support like Harold Washington had. And that's just not a realistic thing in these political times. But Lori Lightfoot didn't have just that. She had a diverse array of support from every corner of the city, from every racial and ethnic group. So it took us that long to get to the point where we could create an opportunity and an environment for the right person to be able to stake those kinds of claims and to be able to win citywide.

SHAPIRO: Laura Washington of the Chicago Sun-Times, thanks a lot.

WASHINGTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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