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Lori Lightfoot claims she’s the next progressive darling, Democratic Socialists say otherwise

The Chicago mayoral candidate plans to ride the Ocasio-Cortez wave without endorsing her policies.

PHOTO CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES / EDIT BY DIANA OFOSU
PHOTO CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES / EDIT BY DIANA OFOSU

It was a Tuesday in late June when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turned the world upside down. The New York machine shuddered to an unexpected halt. A 28-year-old socialist had taken on the King of Queens in the state’s 14th congressional district and won.

Some 800 miles west, in Chicago, mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot was hoping to replicate that victory. A little more than seven months out from the city’s election, Lightfoot and her campaign have tried to paint her as the next insurgent progressive to knock out a more moderate, white, establishment incumbent in the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory.

Lightfoot, however, is more hesitant to take on the same ultra-progressive stances Ocasio-Cortez made central to her campaign. And, at least at this juncture, Lightfoot hasn’t yet managed to inspire the same activist energy that propelled Ocasio-Cortez to victory — energy crucial to Lightfoot’s bid against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the field of nine other challengers.

Two days after Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win, Lightfoot’s communications director reached out to me over email. She noted that I had written about Ocasio-Cortez, New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, and several other women candidates in the past, pitching Lightfoot as the next progressive sensation.

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“While Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a familiar figure on the national stage, his third reelection bid is ‘the toughest challenge he’s ever faced,’” the email read. “[A]t a time when women, people of color, and grassroots candidates are ousting incumbents nationwide, Lori Lightfoot is building momentum with progressives and, if elected, will be the first African American woman and first LGBTQ+ person to hold the position.”

When I spoke to Lightfoot a few days later, she compared herself to Ocasio-Cortez again, saying, “There is a wave of women, and particularly women of color, who are standing up and saying we believe we have a right to have access to tools of power…. We’re going to stand up, we’re going to uplift voices, [and] we’re going to fight every day.”

But the Ocasio-Cortez comparisons essentially stop there.

A difference of opinion

Lightfoot repeatedly touted her working class background when we spoke, but she has a significantly different background than Ocasio-Cortez, who as recently as last year was working as a bartender and community organizer.

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Lightfoot, by contrast, is a former federal prosecutor who practiced corporate law, and was appointed by Mayor Emanuel himself to lead the city’s Police Board. Activists told ThinkProgress they believe this proves Lightfoot is someone Emanuel trusts, not someone who can effectively challenge him.

While Lightfoot is clearly aiming to stake out progressive ground, she also refuses to go as far, policy-wise, as many other progressives have. In her interview with ThinkProgress, she criticized ICE but did not go so far as to call for its abolition.

“If I were mayor, one of the first things I would do is demand a meeting with the head of ICE here in Chicago,” she told me. “I would be really clear about the fact that the things they’ve been doing… they’re not happening on my watch.”

Lightfoot said that there is “obviously” a role in our system for border and immigration enforcement, but said parents feel insecure and ICE treats children like criminals. “I think the way ICE is being used has to stop,” she said.

“Look, I understand why people are calling for the abolition of ICE,” she added. “But ICE is not going to disappear today or tomorrow. In the short-term, the mayor can shape how they are working in Chicago.”

Lightfoot also does not support a single-payer health care system — another issue Ocasio-Cortez made central to her campaign — and urged caution about the potential of Medicare expansion, saying Medicare is “not an incredibly well-run system.”

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“What I favor is that we have health care access to people that is not income based,” she said. “We have to have health care that is acceptable and it’s going to come in a number of forms.”

Instead, Lightfoot said she believes people who get their insurance through their job should be able to keep it. “The truth is, there’s no simple solution,” she said.

Those stances have raised red flags for Steve Weishampel, the co-chair of Electoral Working Group for Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Chicago branch of the socialist group that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to victory in New York.

“Every elected official should be figuring out how to push proposals like [Medicare for all],” Weishampel told ThinkProgress in an interview.

Similarly, Weishampel said that a good mayor, in his eyes, would be fighting alongside DSA as they push for the abolition of ICE, as well as for the abolition of the city’s gang database, a wide-ranging tracking system Chicago Police share with ICE.

“In the opinion of Chicago DSA, it’s a baseline requirement to abolish the gang database,” Weishampel said.

Asked whether she would support abolishing the gang database, Lightfoot’s campaign didn’t give a straight answer. In an email after our interview, her campaign shared a quote from Lightfoot saying that the database has “serious and troubling flaws.”

Later, asked for clarification, they added, “This database is illegitimate and should be shutdown.”

Jumping on the bandwagon

Lightfoot is hardly the only Democrat looking to hitch her wagon to Ocasio-Cortez’s star. Three days after Ocasio-Cortez’s June 26 primary victory, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cheered the young candidate in his weekly interview with WNYC.

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is someone who absolutely comes from my wing of the Democratic party,” de Blasio said, despite having previously supported her rival.

In the same interview, de Blasio called for the government to abolish ICE. “ICE’s time has come and gone,” he said.

A few days after de Blasio’s interview, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez — who ousted the more left-leaning Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) for the role in early 2017 — called Ocasio-Cortez “the future of our party” in an interview with Bill Press.

“She ran a spirited campaign,” Perez added.

Notably, in his time as mayor, de Blasio has consistently worked to woo real estate developers, said panhandlers are just begging for “fun,” and recently implied that an increase in harassment complaints at the state Department of Education is due, in part, to false reports.

And while Perez is now calling Ocasio-Cortez the future of the party, it was just days before her victory that Perez endorsed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his reelection bid. In his time as governor, Cuomo has reportedly worked behind the scenes for years to keep Republicans in power in Albany and only came out in favor of a number of progressive stances after Cynthia Nixon emerged as a legitimate primary challenger. Ellison was reportedly not on board with the decision to endorse Cuomo.

In Lightfoot’s eyes, however, it’s antithetical to the progressive movement for activists to create litmus tests for her or any other candidate or current office holder.

During our interview, she defended her time as a federal prosecutor, saying that she wanted to “go and be part of the man” because she understands the toll the criminal justice system takes on black and brown families, unlike many other federal prosecutors.

Lightfoot said she thinks progressive activists who criticize that choice need to “take a look at [her] entire background,” including the financial struggles of her childhood and some of the cases she worked pro bono for people facing criminal prosecution.

“As progressives we are very quick to cast the finger of blame and suspicion,” she said. “It’s equally important to look at ourselves… We need to expand the tent of people that share our values.”

Progressive challengers

At least one other Chicago mayoral hopeful, Troy LaRaviere — a longtime lefty critic of Emanuel and former Chicago Public Schools principal — has raised concerns about Lightfoot’s current campaign.

Speaking with ThinkProgress, LaRaviere pointed to the fact that Lightfoot’s early fundraising reports showed her donations came almost entirely from attorneys, with 50 lawyers and law firm partners donating more than $120,000 combined.

“Rahm gets a lot of money from law firms, too,” LaRaviere said, adding that those attorneys — among many other top Emanuel donors — have had business in front of the city. To LaRaviere, it looks like Lightfoot is headed down the same path: taking big contributions for people who want favors if Lightfoot is elected.

“To the extent that she’s doing the same thing, then I don’t expect much of a different result,” he said.

LaRaviere, for his part, said he won’t be taking corporate donations and that he supports Medicare for all, saying “Hell yeah” when asked if he supports a single-payer system. LaRaviere also said he “leans heavily” toward abolishing ICE, but needs to do additional research on the issue before giving a definitive answer. He supports abolishing the city’s gang database.

“If it were me, I might put together a different kind of database. I might put together a vulture capitalist database,” LaRaviere said with a laugh. “These are the people we need to look out for.”

“I say that in jest,” he added. But, he said, “Actually do some fucking detective work, do your damn job and investigate…instead of creating a database of people you can harass for no apparent reason.”

LaRaviere is realistic about the costs of his progressive agenda, but he was passionate about reframing the way we talk about taxes. That’s one of the things that he said makes him different than Lightfoot, who has talked about “relieving the tax burden.”

“I’m sick of people who call themselves progressives parroting Republican talking points,” he said. “When you fail to meet your responsibility as a progressive to change the conversation to [be about] legitimate taxes as an investment — a legitimate investment of our tax dollars — you either lack imagination or you lack courage.”

While LaRaviere aligns closely with Ocasio-Cortez on policy matters, he noted that comparing Ocasio-Cortez’s race in New York to his and Lightfoot’s respective campaigns in Chicago would be unwise. In New York, Ocasio-Cortez, as Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY)’s sole challenger, was the clear alternative. The field in Chicago, by contrast, is crowded.

But there are lessons to be learned. If one candidate can establish themselves as the clear alternative to Emanuel, LaRaviere believes taking down the incumbent will be easier.

“We want to make sure we put the person up against Rahm who is the biggest contrast,” he said. “Instead of the person who is able to raise almost as much as Rahm.”

In the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, Weishampel said DSA members feel more than ever that they can help the right candidate do that. He said he had encouraged every candidate who was interested to meet with the group, adding that it would offer an endorsement if they find the right person.

“There’s a lot of excitement and energy. I think DSA members are really pumped,” he said.

He added, somewhat cautiously, “Politicians out there are wondering where exactly they can hook onto this. We are watching very closely. [We] are not about to be fooled.”