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In Historic First, Lori Lightfoot Inaugurated As Chicago’s Mayor

Lori Lightfoot, who won a landslide victory in Chicago’s runoff election, was sworn in as mayor on Monday. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ hide caption

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Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Updated at 1:10 p.m. ET

Lori Lightfoot officially became Chicago’s first black female and openly gay mayor on Monday. She immediately laid out a four-point plan for safety, education, stability and integrity during her 40-minute inauguration speech.

“I’m looking ahead to a city of safe streets and strong schools for every child, regardless of neighborhood or ZIP code,” Lightfoot said. “A city where people want to grow old and not flee. A city of sanctuary against fear where no one must hide in the shadows. A city that is affordable for families and seniors, and where every job pays a living wage. A city of fairness and hope and prosperity for the many, not just for the few, a city that holds equity and inclusion as our guiding principles.”

Lightfoot was sworn in with all 50 aldermen, City Clerk Anna Valencia and City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin at the 10,000-seat Wintrust Arena.

She thanked her 90-year-old mother, Ann Lightfoot, who traveled from Massillon, Ohio, to sit in the front row for the speech.

Lightfoot then promised “to build this great city, and leave it better, stronger, fairer and more prosperous than we found it.”

The new mayor promised to tackle violence and education, but cautioned that the city’s problems “will not be solved overnight.”

To combat gun violence, Lightfoot announced the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety, which will be lead by a deputy mayor. The office will be tasked with developing and implementing an interdepartmental anti-violence strategy.

“People cannot, and should not, live in neighborhoods that resemble war zones. … Let’s unite in our response to the biggest challenge we face: the epidemic of gun violence that devastates families, shatters communities, buries dreams and holds children hostage to fear in their own homes,” Lightfoot said. “It inflicts lifelong trauma that spreads through our communities.”

Lightfoot also vowed to improve the city’s public education system to “create a citywide workforce as a pipeline of jobs.”

Lori Lightfoot (right) on stage at her inauguration with her wife Amy Eshleman. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ hide caption

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Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

“As a city, we make promises to our children … we promise them an education — a safe, relevant and challenging education that prepares them for meaningful work, civic engagement and lifelong learning.”

But Lightfoot will face challenges. Among the many demands of the Chicago Teachers Union is hefty 5% raises for staff, as well as more counselors and nurses. Though negotiations are moving along, the CTU is taking the necessary legal steps to strike in September if they don’t have a contract by then. Lightfoot has said she wants to avoid a strike but has not said how she will find money to meet these demands.

In her speech, Lightfoot acknowledged the city’s financial hole by saying “some hard choices will have to be made” but didn’t give details on her plan.

“Our challenges are great, there’s no mistaking that,” Lightfoot said. “But if we follow these four stars — safety, schooling, stability and integrity — we can once again become a city that families want to move to, not run away from.”

Lightfoot’s inauguration caps a stunning political rise for someone who has never before held elected office. The former federal prosecutor and corporate lawyer launched her mayoral bid last May, months before Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s bombshell announcement that he would not seek a third term in office.

That prompted a crush of pols to jump into the race, but Lightfoot, 56, rose to the top of a field of 14 candidates in late February’s general election. After a short and bruising campaign against Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Lightoot went on to win a landslide victory in the April 2 runoff.

Ultimately, Lightfoot won in all 50 wards and garnered 74% of the vote over Preckwinkle’s 26%, a margin not seen in Chicago since Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The city is also inaugurating Chicago’s two other citywide elected officials and all 50 aldermen Monday.

On the campaign trail, Lightfoot promised to put an end to Chicago’s political machine “once and for all” and shine a bright light on corruption in City Hall. It’s a message that resonated with voters, particularly as a burgeoning corruption scandal involving some of the city’s longest-serving aldermen hit the headlines at the height of the mayor’s race.

Veteran Alderman Ed Burke was charged in January with attempted extortion for allegedly trying to shake down owners of a fast-food franchise in order to win business for his private law firm. Burke has said he didn’t do anything wrong.

But legal documents also revealed that Burke allegedly urged the restaurateurs to give campaign money to Preckwinkle. That revelation and other Preckwinkle-Burke connections, coupled with Preckwinkle’s post as the Cook County Democratic Party Chair, left an opening for Lightfoot to paint her as the consummate City Hall insider at a time when voters were hungry for reform.

In recent days, Lightfoot started to act on some of those campaign promises to clean up City Hall.

She met with aldermen about an executive order she had said she would sign on her first day in office that would curtail an unwritten custom, known as “aldermanic prerogative,” that gives local aldermen the final say over permits and zoning in their wards. Critics have long said that unilateral power leads to corruption, but many aldermen were not on board with Lightfoot’s proposed changes after last week’s meetings.

Lightfoot not only must learn now to navigate a new political landscape at City Hall, but she also immediately has to deal with the city’s serious financial problems and the onset of summer gun violence.

Lightfoot told reporters Friday that the 2020 budget gap she will have to close is worse than the $700 million deficit proclaimed by Emanuel’s administration, though she wouldn’t say how much worse.

The new mayor also will have to work with the City Council quickly to find money for a spike in state-mandated payments to Chicago’s beleaguered pension funds. City Hall’s ante into its pension funds jumps by $121 million next year, and the city will have to come up with about $1 billion more by 2023 in order to keep up with those ever-rising obligations.

Lightfoot has not detailed how she plans to deal with Chicago’s budget problems, and how that could hit taxpayers. To pay for pensions, aldermen went along with a series of unpopular tax hikes under Emanuel, and it’s not clear whether they’ll be willing to do so again for Lightfoot.

The new mayor will also immediately face high levels of violence and crime with the coming of warm weather. While she’s still rolling out her top cabinet picks, Lightfoot has made it clear that she will not decide whether to replace Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson until after the summer, in order to provide stability during the traditionally violent season.

Lightfoot, the former head of the Chicago Police Board, will also have to manage the ongoing task of reforming the Chicago Police Department. That process, launched after the Laquan McDonald shooting scandal, has been fraught with tension between City Hall and the Chicago police union.

She’s also had only a small window of time — about six weeks — to staff a new leadership team for City Hall.

Several of her top staff picks signal her priorities — reducing segregation, building up neighborhoods, tackling police reform — and some department heads will be kept on from Emanuel’s administration.

One of Lightfoot’s first tests in the City Council will come later this month, when aldermen are set to vote on which from their ranks will get to lead the chamber’s influential committees. Committee picks are traditionally put forth by the mayor.

And Lightfoot is already shaking things up. She wants to name progressive Alderman Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, to head up the powerful Finance Committee. That post was held by Burke until he was charged by the feds.

Alderman Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward, would replace the influential Alderman Carrie Austin, from the 34th Ward, as Budget Committee chair. Austin backed Preckwinkle in the mayor’s race.

Among other changes, 36th Ward Alderman Gilbert Villegas will serve as Lightfoot’s floor leader, the first Latino ever to hold that unofficial post. The job, which involves whipping votes and advancing a mayor’s agenda in the City Council, was performed by Alderman Pat O’Connor during Emanuel’s time in office. But O’Connor, 40th Ward, was defeated in the anti-incumbent wave that swept Lightfoot into office in April.

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