CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot was standing guard all over Chicago — virtually, anyway.
In March 2020, in the early, frightening days of the coronavirus pandemic when city officials had closed down public spaces to stop the spread of the virus, a meme began circulating on social media with Ms. Lightfoot as the star: an image of her stern, unsmiling face Photoshopped around Chicago.
There was Ms. Lightfoot in front of the giant, stainless steel Bean sculpture in Millennium Park, guarding the entrance to beaches along Lake Michigan and standing in a parking garage behind Ferris Bueller as he tooled around the city in a lipstick-red Ferrari.
“Lori Lightfoot don’t play,” wrote one Twitter user, with an image of Ms. Lightfoot’s glowering face superimposed over picnickers in a Seurat painting that hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Because she’s not a hero. She’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Lightfoot. pic.twitter.com/UzxT1wyozo
At first, the real-life mayor was baffled by it. But after her City Hall aides explained that the meme was an affectionate nod to her tough persona and no-nonsense countenance, she warmed to the scolding Lightfoots that began to spring up all over the city, cardboard cutouts in the windows of apartments and shuttered stores. Chicagoans needed a laugh, and the image of the mayor — diminutive, a little surly, dressed in fedoras and trousers so long as they puddled at the ankles — had provided.
But after Covid-19, a crime surge and a tough four years in office, what began as something friendly now also reflects harsher perceptions of the mayor and her time in office.
This week, Ms. Lightfoot is in a fight for survival as she runs for a second term as mayor in a city that has yet to recover from its pandemic-era struggles. The blunt, tough-talking persona that earned Ms. Lightfoot early affection and respect turned into something else: the image of a mayor with an exhausting capacity for feuds and insults, whether aimed at her own staff, city employees or fellow elected officials.
She is one of at least four candidates viewed as having a good chance to make it into a runoff election and could very well lead the current nine-person field. But even some supporters now worry that she may have alienated many people she needs as allies. Those include business owners, City Council members and voters, some of whom are fed up with her tone and substance on issues like crime, policing and public education — and are turning to other mayoral candidates.
Take Bruce Heyman, a former ambassador to Canada, who remembers during the pandemic when his children printed a picture of the stern Ms. Lightfoot and hung it on the refrigerator in his Chicago home — a wry warning not to eat the food inside.
“She was endearing, there was no doubt about it,” he said. “She was somebody we had a lot of hope for.”
Mr. Heyman, a former partner at Goldman Sachs who worked closely with the former mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, voted for Ms. Lightfoot in 2019. But he grew frustrated and disappointed with the mayor in the years since. During the pandemic and riots that tore through downtown after George Floyd’s murder, Mr. Heyman watched as Chicago’s problems began to multiply.
“She didn’t tackle them as an effective leader — she began a very defensive, authoritarian style,” he said. “We’ve had strong mayors in our city before. But they got stuff done, and they were able to communicate and collaborate.”
Andre Vasquez, a member of the City Council who represents a ward on the North Side, said that council members called her “the great unifier,” since so many members were lined up against her.
“When there is disagreement, she takes it personally in a way that isn’t helpful,” Mr. Vasquez said. “It’s always felt very personal coming from her. And she can be dismissive and condescending.”
Ms. Lightfoot has responded to critiques of her style by invoking previous mayors and saying she is no different.
“I personally get asked this question of, ‘Well, Mayor, you know your relationships with City Council, shouldn’t you be nicer?’ Which I have to laugh at,” Ms. Lightfoot said last year. “When I think about who my predecessors were — I worked for Rich Daley and I was around Rahm a lot — it’s not like they won contests for Mr. Congeniality.”
And to many voters, her message and record resonated far more than her leadership style. Giavonni Downing, who works in marketing and lives on the South Side, said she liked Ms. Lightfoot’s message on investing in neighborhoods with fewer resources and thought the mayor deserved another term.
“Covid hit, so, realistically, whatever you thought you were going to do when you got in office, all that had to go on the back burner,” said Ms. Downing, 40.
In the final days of her campaign, the mayor has crisscrossed the city, trying to shore up support in neighborhoods that were once full of enthusiastic Lightfoot voters.
On Friday afternoon, Ms. Lightfoot and her wife, Amy Eshleman, stopped in a record store in the Andersonville neighborhood on the Far North Side, an L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly community where rainbow flags peek out of storefront windows and hang above the porches of greystone buildings.
Four years ago, Andersonville was a power center of Ms. Lightfoot’s support. Now many front yards are decorated with signs bearing her opponents’ names: Brandon Johnson, a county board commissioner; Paul Vallas, a former schools executive; and Representative Jesús G. García, a congressman from Illinois.
Chris Hawkins, a manager at a nearby shop on Clark Street, was in the record store browsing when Ms. Lightfoot stopped in. Mr. Hawkins, who was born and raised in Chicago, said he would vote for Ms. Lightfoot again. She took care of the city during a trying time, he said, and she had been judged harshly because she is a woman.
“We’re living in a society where women are marginalized and not perceived as leaders — they’re perceived as a stereotype,” he said. “I look at crime and stuff that’s happening in the city, and I just think, it’s easy to point the finger at one person. This is a mayor who’s taken on a lot.”
Mitch Smith contributed reporting.
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