CHICAGO — Days into a dispute between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union, labor leaders outlined what they described as a grand compromise. Students, who had been receiving no instruction after teachers voted to stop reporting to classrooms amid a coronavirus surge, would attend a few days of online school, followed by a full, in-person return.
Lightfoot was having none of it.
Within minutes, she and the head of the school district released a statement that accused union leadership of not listening. “We will not relent,” they said, calling instead for a swift return to in-person classes. Days later, it was the union that largely relented: Students returned to school buildings earlier than teachers had wanted, with some additional COVID safeguards in place.
The highly public, acerbic dispute with the teachers this month was characteristic of Lightfoot’s stewardship of Chicago. In nearly three years marked by a pandemic, soaring rates of violence and frequent labor battles, Lightfoot has shown herself to be a blunt orator and an unflinching negotiator. But her lofty campaign promises to “bring in the light,” reduce violence and overhaul governance in America’s third-largest city have repeatedly run up against an overwhelming news cycle, decades of inertia and her uncanny ability to make political enemies.
“Her style is a top-bottom approach, very different from what she campaigned on,” said Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, whom Lightfoot once referred to as a “jackass” in hundreds of pages of her frank text messages that were obtained by the Chicago Tribune.
Those texts revealed a mayor with a hands-on management style who repeatedly snapped at critics, colleagues and even political allies. She said one alderman was “full of crap,” told another he was “bush league” and told Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a fellow Democrat, that his administration was being “petty.”
As a gay Black woman who grew up in Ohio and had never before held elective office, Lightfoot stood apart from previous mayors, and her inauguration in 2019 was seen by some as a potential moment of change for the city. She won all 50 City Council wards in the runoff election while decrying corruption and the infamous Chicago political machine. She also vowed to address the racial and economic disparities that have long defined Chicago, where the downtown and North Side have often prospered while disinvestment and violence have plagued many neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.
But Lightfoot’s tenure has been shaped by a series of crises, some within her control, others not. About 800 people were killed in the city last year, the most in a generation. Downtown has struggled to bounce back from the pandemic. And clashes with the unions representing police officers and teachers have proved destabilizing.
Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who worked in the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley, and who led a police disciplinary board under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has defended her record. At the time of her election, she said this month, “Nobody had in their mind’s eye that we would be shortly thereafter laboring under a massive global pandemic and all of the consequences.”
She added: “Nobody thought that we would be suffering from one of the biggest economic meltdowns that we’ve seen since the Great Depression. Nobody thought that we would see this massive uptick nationwide in violence.”
She also noted that her outspoken demeanor was not a new trait at City Hall.
“I personally get asked this question of, ‘Well, Mayor, you know your relationships with City Council, shouldn’t you be nicer?’ Which I have to laugh at,” Lightfoot said. “When I think about who my predecessors were — I worked for Rich Daley and I was around Rahm a lot, it’s not like they won contests for Mr. Congeniality.”
Lightfoot is expected to seek another term next year, and it is unclear how voters will respond. Though some high-profile critics have been rumored as potential opponents, the field of challengers remains largely unformed and there is no reliable public polling on the mayor’s job approval.
But the chief criticism her eventual opponents will deploy — of a mayor who makes enemies instead of allies, who stokes ill will instead of brokering compromise — already seems clear.
“She does not know how to play well with others” and “she’s never mastered the idea of a group project,” said Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the teachers’ union. “And that is the issue because she’s the common denominator in every single scenario that has discord.”
But if Lightfoot seemed like a figure whose ability to upend the status quo was an asset, she was also battling an old image of a Chicago mayor, said Elizabeth Taylor, a co-writer of “American Pharaoh,” a biography of former Mayor Richard J. Daley — once the city’s longest-serving mayor until his son Richard M. Daley came along.
An apt comparison to Lightfoot, Taylor said, is Jane Byrne, the only other woman to serve as Chicago’s mayor, who challenged the city’s stereotypical vision of a leader when she swept into office in 1979.
“They both came in on a wave of reform,” Taylor said, “and then quickly were on the defensive.”
Lightfoot’s distinctly brusque leadership style has been embraced at moments. When the pandemic hit, her unsmiling face was turned into a meme, Photoshopped into famous Chicago scenes — the lakefront, Millennium Park, a Seurat painting on display at the Art Institute — silently warning residents to stay in their homes. And even as crises have piled up, some have noted the scale of the challenges she inherited and the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic.
“The compassion part of it speaks to me — you can see that it’s genuine,” said Joseph Gilmore, whose 33-year-old son, Travell, was among the hundreds killed in Chicago last year.