Lori Lightfoot is used to being different: She grew up in a working-class family in a small town in Ohio, where being an African American woman made her constantly underestimated. But those differences—not to mention being openly gay, which itself makes her a trailblazer as a big-city mayor—came together to propel her to a huge win for mayor of Chicago last year, despite being an outsider who had never run for office before.
Now she’s running America’s third-largest city.
“I get why people have lost confidence not only just in government, but in the governance of people,” Lightfoot told me.
The people Democrats are going to need in November are the people she’s been trying to reconnect with in Chicago, she said, and they’re like voters all around the country who have been feeling unseen.
“If we lose them, we have no shot at winning the White House,” she said.
Lightfoot was circumspect about which candidates she thinks are getting it right and which aren’t—but notably for a politician who doesn’t come from money herself and who is trying to speak for the voters she thinks get left out, she said she’s open to self-funders. She’s happy that the rich Republican businessman Bruce Rauner was booted as governor of Illinois by the even richer Democratic businessman J. B. Pritzker, and has made clear that she’s considering backing Michael Bloomberg in the presidential race.
Our full conversation can be heard on the latest episode of the Radio Atlantic podcast.
What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: Being a politician is new for you. How has the adjustment been to becoming one?
Lori Lightfoot: I go to places and people say to me, ‘I’ve never met a mayor before. I’ve never seen a mayor in my neighborhood.’ And these are not, you know, teenagers or 20-somethings. These are our elders, people who are 60, 70, or older.
Dovere: You grew up in a small town in Ohio, and the injustices you and your family faced there seem to have defined you. What left the greatest impact?
Lightfoot: We were the factory workers. We were the people who clean your houses. But being one of the few black families that lived in my neighborhood forever, that definitely left an indelible mark on me. I grew up at a time when racial discrimination was still very much on the top of the table, not under it. And no question that I was denied opportunities solely on the basis of my race.
The expectations for me were so low. But that’s not how I viewed my life. And it’s certainly not how my parents, and particularly my mother, viewed my life. The other thing that definitely shaped my experience as a child is watching my father struggle. My father was deaf my entire growing-up years. And seeing how difficult it was for him to be part of just that conversation, be part of a community, and knowing his experience, particularly in the workplace, being denied opportunities because of his disability, being treated differently and worse because he couldn’t hear—that had a profound effect on me.
Dovere: We are living through a moment when people are reconsidering what government does, what it should do, whether they can trust the government. Should people distrust the government, based on what you’ve seen?
Lightfoot: I certainly understand why people feel that way in the crosscurrents that have been blowing for some time—that I think are very much responsible for the election of Donald Trump. I get it. I get why people have lost confidence not only just in government, but in the governance of people. It’s important for us to understand that loss of confidence in public servants and public service, but all the more urgent for us to regain that trust. Our democracy depends upon participation. And as more and more people opt out and feel like government is irrelevant to their lives, that makes the challenges that we have to face and the problems that we have to solve … We have way too many people in public life who feel like they’ve won the lottery and that their primary mission is to make sure that they have a lot of pecuniary gain at the public’s expense.
Dovere: President Trump has often taken shots at Chicago. If you could show him the city on a tour, where would you take him?
Lightfoot: There’s a lot of great things that are happening if you really want to know who we are as Chicagoans. Then let me take you to neighborhoods outside of the glamour of downtown and show you how Chicagoans are living their lives every day, talk to you about the challenges but also the triumphs of our city. You know, I don’t think he really cares about the facts, but he’s got a very misguided notion of who we are.
Dovere: Do you think the Democratic Party nationally is getting that conversation right?
Lightfoot: I’m challenging our presidential candidates to think about who we are as a party, what our core values are. And, you know, as a lifelong midwesterner, it’s important to me that the candidates are really speaking the values of the people that made the Democratic Party, the working-class people, the folks in organized labor, and the folks who are worried that their life and the life that their parents had or their grandparents had is slowly slipping away from them and won’t be there for their kids. We have to speak to those folks, because those are the people that we need to show up in huge numbers in November to vote. And if we lose them, we have no shot at winning the White House. But also we run the risk of losing a lot of down-ticket races as well.
Dovere: The last two governors of Illinois have both been very rich self-funders—first a Republican, now a Democrat. Self-funding business leaders are now a big part of the presidential race. What, from your experience, is that going to mean on the national level?
Lightfoot: I don’t think we will, in the long term, benefit if the only people who can afford to run at the national level, or really at any level, are folks who come with a lot of individual wealth. Wealth doesn’t buy you leadership experience, great ideas, and an ability to navigate difficult policy in political terrain. So I don’t want to see us exclude a whole category of people simply because they can’t go into their own pocket and run for office … Fundamentally, it’s not the wealth that I think is the thing that we should focus on. It’s: Who is the person, what’s her ideas? What’s the track record of being able to make a difference in people’s lives? Do they understand people who don’t come from that kind of massive wealth? What have they done over the course of their lives to really invest themselves in learning about people who come from very different experiences? And what are their ideas about how we create a different kind of vision for families and communities who are struggling?