UM alum Lightfoot to be Chicago's 1st black female mayor

Kim Kozlowski Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
University of Michigan alumna Lori Lightfoot said her mayoral campaign sent an important message to youth that "anything is possible." She defeated a former schoolteacher Tuesday to become Chicago's first black, female mayor.

A University of Michigan alumna made history Tuesday for African American women and the LGBTQ community when she was elected the first black female and openly gay mayor of Chicago.

Lori Lightfoot  defeated Toni Preckwinkle, a former schoolteacher who served on the City Council for 19 years before becoming Cook County Board president in 2011.

“Together we can and will make Chicago a place where your zip code doesn’t determine your destiny,” Lightfoot told a cheering crowd at her victory party. “We can and we will break this city’s endless cycle of corruption and never again, never ever, allow politicians to profit from elected positions.”

She said people are seeing “a city reborn” — a place where race and “who you love” don’t matter."

Lightfoot, 56, who earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UM in 1984, said her campaign sent an important message to youth.

"(L)iterally anything is possible and it is important you live your authentic life and be yourself even against great forces and odds," Lightfoot told the Chicago Tribune in March.

Former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who is now a professor at UM's law school, remembers going to college with Lightfoot.

“Lori was a great leader even as a college student,” said McQuade, from Detroit. “She was destined to go places. She was an RA while we were at the University of Michigan.”

McQuade said Lightfoot is a quiet but strong leader any city would be proud to have. 

“She is every bit the leader I would imagine she would become,” McQuade said. “I think she’s an excellent problem solver and would use the qualities she developed as a lawyer and would bring those problem-solving qualities. We should all be so lucky to have her be the mayor of a major city in America.”

Lightfoot is the youngest of four children born to Elijah and Ann Lightfoot, who grew up in the segregated South and then migrated to Ohio, according to her website. Her family often lived paycheck to paycheck though her father worked two, and often three jobs to provide food and shelter. Meanwhile, her mother worked in mental hospitals, nursing homes, and then in people's homes as a home health care aide.

In a pivotal life moment, Lightfoot went home during her sophomore year at UM and learned that her older brother, who she had put on a pedestal, had robbed a bank and shot a security guard, according to an account in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Her parents were contemplating mortgaging their house for her brother's bail, even though he had said he'd run if he got out of jail.

 "So here I am, a 19-year-old, the youngest of four," Lightfoot told the Sun-Times, "and I have to help my parents navigate through this incredibly painful and difficult circumstance, which really kind of reshaped my relationship with them for the rest of my life and their lives, and tell them it would be absolutely foolish for them to take this money out because he was going to flee and that, if he fled, they would lose their house."

Lightfoot paid her way through college with loans and work-study jobs. She went home during the summers, and worked factory jobs to pay for her education.

She graduated from UM with honors, then went on earn her juris doctorate from the University of Chicago Law School, where she was the quarterback of an intramural football team.

Lightfoot had a one-year clerkship on the Michigan Supreme Court in Detroit, but has lived in Chicago since 1986.

She is married to Amy Eshleman, and lives on the near northwest side of Chicago with their 10-year-old daughter.

Lightfoot and Preckwinkle were the top two vote-getters in the February general election that saw 14 vie to succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He decided against running for a third term.

Lightfoot will be sworn in May 20.

Associated Press contributed to this report.