The deeply unpopular former mayor of Chicago has begun her new role as a Harvard lecturer – teaching a course on leadership, despite voters in her city ousting her after only one controversial term.
Lori Lightfoot, 61, presided over four years dominated by soaring crime, war with teachers’ unions and police, and battles with the City Council. She stepped down on May 15 as the first mayor not to secure a second term in 40 years.
In June the Harvard Chan School of Public Health announced Lightfoot was joining their faculty for a semester, and on Monday she told Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ that she had begun the job.
She said students told her they wanted to learn from her as she had been ‘in the trenches’.
Lori Lightfoot, 61, stepped down as mayor of Chicago in May. On August 30 she began teaching her one-semester, once-a-week class at Harvard
The former mayor will teach graduate students about ‘health policy and leadership’
Her graduate-level course is entitled ‘health policy and leadership’, and will discuss the COVID pandemic and dealing with the media. Her time as mayor was notable for her combative approach to the media, and the anger many on the press corps felt about her dealings with news crews.
By the end of her term, press conferences had become so hostile she refused to hold them at all.
‘When you think about that context, and then try to communicate something in the midst of the noise, it’s really complicated to do. And I want my students to be very clear-eyed about the challenges,’ Lightfoot said.
‘So one of the questions that I posed yesterday was: ‘Should you concern yourself with what the media landscape is in a particular locale?’ ‘
Lightfoot is seen on her final day in office as mayor of Chicago. She was the first mayor in 40 years not to be re-elected
Lightfoot said her students at the weekly Wednesday classes were eager to hear the stories.
‘I heard that from the students yesterday – they want to learn from somebody who’s kind of been on the front lines, and in the trenches,’ she said, speaking to WBEZ after her first class.
‘But also how you bring people together in a moment of crisis, how you get things done, how you build lasting foundations to build on to address other issues that come up.’
Lightfoot said she did not intend to address in detail the myriad controversies of her rule, such as her war with the Chicago Teachers Union over reopening schools during the pandemic.
The CTU disagreed with her demand to resume in-person teaching, and went on strike.
But, she said, the issue may come up in class discussions.
‘I’m not specifically planning to talk about the issues with the CTU and getting kids back to class, but obviously, talking about the challenges that communities have faced and the politicization, COVID fatigue, it wouldn’t surprise me if that issue came up,’ she said.
‘But it’s not a specific part of my lesson plan.’
Lightfoot said she was ‘proud’ of her tenure as mayor, despite leaving office with only 17 percent of the vote.
‘People say to me all the time, it’s too bad that you were the mayor during COVID, because you weren’t able to actually get a lot of things done,’ she said.
‘I will tell you, I bristle at that a little bit. Because I’m very proud of the record.’
Asked about her successor, Brandon Johnson, and his decision to fire health department commissioner Allison Arward, Lightfoot declined to comment.
‘I think that the current administration and the mayor need to have the room to do their jobs,’ she said.
‘And they don’t need me to be on the sidelines, giving commentary or analysis.
‘Of course, I have my views and opinions about a range of different things. But I think Mayor Johnson has earned my silence.’
She said that she wanted to teach her students how best to communicate their policies.
‘I want the students to understand that they can’t sit in their laboratories or in their offices and think grand thoughts,’ she said.
‘Because when you’re talking about trying to convince a skeptical public about any issue in public health, and what they should be concerned with, they’ve got to think about how they communicate.
‘And communicating, obviously, building up that trust in those personal relationships is invaluable. But the media also has a role to play.’
Michelle Williams, the dean, praised Lightfoot when her appointment was announced, commending her ‘strong leadership in advocating for health, equity, and dignity for every resident of Chicago.’
Lightfoot will teach at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health in the fall for one semester
Williams commended ‘her declaration of structural racism as a public health crisis’ and her ‘innovative initiative to bring mental health services to libraries and shelters.’
Lightfoot – who on May 10 told Politico she was ‘excited about being a full-time mom, full-time spouse and a full-time private citizen’ – said she was delighted at landing the prestigious job.
Michelle Williams, the dean of the school, celebrated Lightfoot’s appointment
She was a lawyer before entering politics, and had an acrimonious relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union which saw an 11-day strike, and two actions during the height of the COVID pandemic.
Lightfoot has taught courses on trial advocacy at the University of Chicago and Northwestern law schools.
‘I’ve always loved teaching, and the opportunity to get back to it is something I am excited about,’ she tweeted.
‘Looking forward to sharing the experiences and perceptions I learned governing through one of the most challenging times in American history with the @HarvardChanSPH community!’
Lightfoot said her wife, Amy, and daughter will remain in Chicago as she takes on the Harvard fellowship, which lasts eight weeks. Though this is a residential fellowship, Lightfoot said she expects to travel back and forth from Chicago.
She follows in the footsteps of Bill de Blasio, the widely-disliked mayor of New York, who taught at Harvard on leaving office last year.
Bill de Blasio, the former mayor of New York, taught at Harvard on leaving office
Lightfoot had a contentious relationship with the City Council (pictured)
Lightfoot had a troubled relationship with the press: pugilistic Newsmax reporter William Kelly is seen in February 2022 having the microphone wrestled from him
Her appointment to teach leadership has raised eyebrows.
Lightfoot’s approval ratings in office were consistently low: in January this year, only 9 percent of Chicagoans said their city was heading in the right direction.
By the time of the first round of the election, in February, she was the only candidate who had an unfavorable rating higher than her favorable rating: a net favorable rating of -10 percent.
She did not make it through to the run-off vote.
Lightfoot immediately clashed with members of City Council, sparking angry scenes. She also had a distinctly frosty relationship with the governor, J.B. Pritzker – a fellow Democrat.
But she insisted it was necessary.
‘I came into government with a mandate of 75 percent of votes to break up the status quo and to make sure that I was doing things and putting ordinary residents of our city front and center,’ she told Politico on leaving office.
‘With that mandate, you’re going to disrupt the status quo. You’re going to make some people angry.’
She was widely disliked among the press – the Politico discussion was her only exit interview, bucking tradition; and in 2021 she announced she was only giving interviews to journalists of color, deeming the press corp too white.
She was sued over the decision, with it being condemned as a First Amendment violation.
Lightfoot was also attacked as heavy-handed in her COVID policies.
Thousands marched through Chicago in October 2019 during a teachers’ strike
Lightfoot’s tenure was marked by repeated clashes with teaching unions
She hosted a news conference with the chief of police, David Brown, and warned that those defying the stay-at-home order would be punished. On leaving the conference venue, she saw a group of black teenagers playing basketball, and told them to go home and stay there – angering progressives with her heavy-handedness in a struggling neighborhood.
In February 2021, it emerged she had used $281.5 million in COVID-19 federal relief funds to cover the cost of salaries and benefits for Chicago Police Department officers – a move which enraged progressives further, who saw her prioritizing police over local people.
The police were not on her side either – despite her efforts to position herself as pro-police.
They complained about staffing shortages and being over-worked, and she frequently clashed with the police union head, John Catanzara.
In May 2021, the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police issued a symbolic vote of no confidence against Lightfoot, Brown and the department’s second-in-command, Eric Carter, for reasons including day-off cancellations and shift extensions.
And crime continued to soar.
During her time running the city, overall crime rose 42 percent.
Crime under Lightfoot rose 42 percent overall, across four years
Police in Chicago are seen at the scene where an officer was shot and killed on March 1
In the first three months of 2023, Chicago’s murder rate of 4.2 per 100,000 residents made it one of America’s deadliest cities — worse than in New York and Los Angeles, according to a WalletHub study
Homicide under her rule rose 13 percent, and shootings 10 percent.
Theft was up 30 percent, and motor vehicle theft 204 percent.
Researchers last month found that firearm shootings are so common in the city of 2.7 million people that 56 percent of blacks and Hispanics are caught up in one before their 40th birthday.
In the first three months of 2023, Chicago’s murder rate of 4.2 per 100,000 residents made it one of America’s deadliest cities — worse than New York and Los Angeles, says a recent WalletHub study.
Lightfoot’s supporters say she was elected to shake up the status quo, and has done so.
They also point to economic development on the neglected South and West sides, the expansion of the city’s rail system into the South Side, championing a minimum wage hike and mobilizing $1 billion for affordable housing construction.