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Politics

Chicago's first gay, black, female mayor offers hope for all of us

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- Well, we finally did it, America. The muscular, broad-shouldered city with the glory-days reputation of being hog butcher for the world inaugurated its first gay, black, female mayor.

On Monday, Lori Lightfoot, a former assistant U.S. attorney, was sworn in alongside her white wife, Amy Eshleman, and their 10-year-old daughter, Vivian.

It was a fitting tableau of a family that, though likelier found on Chicago's liberal North Side, still represents important constituencies in all corners of the city: mothers who struggle to make it in a town that is rapidly becoming too expensive to live in, LGBTQ folks who are searching for both equality and a visible example of accessing power, and children of color who must navigate the complexities of adoption.

It's not a moment too soon.

Chicago has been dominated by white, male mayors who have wielded what people around these parts call clout, doling out business and personal favors to the heads of neighborhood fiefdoms in return for get-out-the-vote operations that virtually ensured long-lasting tenures.

And where has all of it led the city? Budget shortfalls, pension overruns and stunning inequalities in massively under-resourced public schools and neighborhoods vs. wealthy enclaves with tony private schools. It has reinforced the perception of murderous lawlessness on the South Side and chic, safe affluence on the North Side. Plus it has given the city a taste for taking on big projects like signature museums and architectural gems while neglecting a housing crisis for the poor and middle-income residents.

 

Such long-standing and deeply entrenched challenges won't be magically fixed by the mayor's skin color, cultural competence or preference in romantic partner.

Yet ... what has been overshadowed in all the mentions of her making history with her demographics is the fact that Lightfoot overcame her skin color, culture and sexual identity to leap over the inevitable gatekeepers to achieve her professional goals.

Lightfoot somehow barreled past or sneaked around the myriad expectations that come with being a poor person and a gay woman of color. She earned a law degree and subsequently spent an award-winning career in law enforcement, first as a litigator and then in oversight roles at one of the city's most highly visible organizations, the Chicago Police Department.

The impact of her accomplishment is all the more impressive when we look at the research on everything from students clocking higher academic gains from teachers whose background fits theirs, to older patients faring better when cared for by a doctor whose race or ethnicity fits their own.

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