CHICAGO — Lori Lightfoot, a political novice, swept into Chicago’s City Hall in staggering style, winning 73 percent of the vote and sending a deafening message to the political veteran she had defeated. She pronounced the results a “broad mandate for change.” She promised to break the city’s endless cycle of corruption. She pledged to remake Chicago.
“Thriving, prosperous, better, stronger, fairer — for everyone,” Ms. Lightfoot said, beaming from a microphone in the hours after the votes were cast.
But this is Chicago, a city that is vast, complex, set in its ways and full of problems that are now Ms. Lightfoot’s to solve.
Ms. Lightfoot, who will become this city’s first black woman mayor and its first openly gay mayor when she takes office in May, made clean government a centerpiece of her agenda. But Chicago still carries the vestiges of its notorious political machine and, by some measures, more corruption than any other American city. Chicago’s entrenched and decades-long struggles with crime, segregation, policing and inequity loom. And its longstanding fiscal problems are urgent: Ms. Lightfoot must come up with another $1 billion to deal with a looming pension crisis, and fast.
“This is all hard,” said David Axelrod, a longtime Chicagoan and political strategist. “She’s just pulled off an extraordinary political feat and that bespeaks a certain intellect and strength that is important.
“There are other skills that will be needed now — to cajole people, to get people to accept compromise, to recognize how much of the loaf you can have,” he added. “This is really a challenging job and she comes to it in not optimal times.”
Uncertainty in the City Council
When Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, arrived at City Hall in 1983 promising change, he was greeted with a stone wall of opposition from a large group of white aldermen. What followed was a period of racially charged political fighting that came to be known as Council Wars.
While Ms. Lightfoot is unlikely to encounter that level of organized resistance from the 50-member City Council, she will have to contend with it as a formidable governing body: theoretically powerful, thick with alliances and at least partly stocked with aldermen who supported Ms. Lightfoot’s opponent in the mayoral race, Toni Preckwinkle. Historically, mayors like Ms. Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, have held a firm hand over the council in setting the city’s agenda, but Ms. Lightfoot’s relationship with the aldermen is uncertain for now.
“None of them owe their elections to Lori, and so for the first time in perhaps 55 years, you may see the emergence of the kind of Chicago city government that during that time has only existed on paper — a weak mayor/strong City Council government,” said Marilyn Katz, a political consultant who worked on the Harold Washington campaign. “What she uses to get them to vote for her proposals is unclear.”
David Orr, a former county clerk who served briefly as an interim Chicago mayor in the 1980s, said he thought Ms. Lightfoot’s overwhelming margin of victory — she won all 50 of the city’s wards — would ease her efforts to make inroads with the City Council.
“It’s going to be a battle, O.K. — a battle in the sense that power never wants to give up what it’s got,” Mr. Orr said.
Ja’Mal Green, an activist and former mayoral candidate who supported Ms. Lightfoot, said he believed that voters understood that Ms. Lightfoot could not instantly make all the changes she has pledged.
“She’s not going to be able to make good on every promise,” Mr. Green said. “She’ll be able to start the path for all the things that she promised.”
The City Council is not the only possible roadblock between Ms. Lightfoot and her ambitious agenda. Ms. Lightfoot, who promised in her campaign to kill what’s left of the sputtering “Chicago machine,” a system of patronage and corruption that once dominated city politics, will also face the challenge of working with Ms. Preckwinkle, who remains the president of the Cook County Board and will work in an office near Ms. Lightfoot.
Ms. Preckwinkle and Ms. Lightfoot sparred during debates this year, yet they exited the campaign on a gracious note. At the urging of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, they both appeared on Wednesday morning at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition on the city’s South Side, holding hands in a gesture of unity.
Crime, Policing and Promises of Reform
Another challenge ahead for Ms. Lightfoot: the scandal-prone police department and persistently high homicide rate, both of which damaged the city’s reputation and vexed Mr. Emanuel through eight years in office.
She will quickly be tested. After running on promises to reduce gun violence, Ms. Lightfoot will take office just before summer, the season when shootings traditionally spike.
“No child should have to worry about the consequences of going to the park and no parent should have to keep their kids inside on a warm day for fear of violence,” Ms. Lightfoot’s campaign website said.
Generations of Chicago mayors have struggled to tamp down violence and root out police misconduct, sometimes making progress but never ending the problems. Ms. Lightfoot, who made the issues central to her campaign, will have to decide whether to pursue her promised changes with new leadership in the Police Department or keep Superintendent Eddie Johnson in his post.
Ms. Lightfoot’s role with law enforcement is complex. She emerged in recent years as one of the chief critics of the police, and she led a panel that found patterns of excessive force, systemic racism and strained community relations in the department. But she has a background in law enforcement, including a stint as a federal prosecutor, and has worked in police oversight roles in Chicago, including as the president of the Chicago Police Board.
Vague Plan for a Financial Mess
Perhaps most of all, Ms. Lightfoot will be tested by the city’s urgent fiscal woes.
All four of the pension funds are miserably underfunded. Ms. Lightfoot also must dream up a plan to solve an expected budget shortfall in the coming year. That all comes as Chicagoans are increasingly frustrated over mounting taxes and increased fees — and loath to even talk about digging up any more cash for City Hall. And the possibility of worse economic times could make matters even more dire.
“The city and state of Illinois descended into their worst-in-the-nation financial condition during one of the longest economic expansions in U.S. history,” Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a watchdog group, said. “Neither government is currently prepared to weather the storm in the event of a recession, particularly if it is deep or long-lasting.”
The fiscal challenges have developed over decades and multiple mayors, and they loom. During a combative campaign, neither Ms. Lightfoot nor her opponent laid out a comprehensive plan to solve the problem.
“The hard part starts now,” said Eric Adelstein, a political consultant in Chicago who helped with Ms. Lightfoot’s campaign. “There are huge challenges facing this city. It’s an exciting moment, but these jobs are rough.”