Lori Lightfoot has become the first incumbent mayor in 40 years to lose their re-election bid in Chicago, garnering just under 17% of the vote after failing to keep rising crime rates in the city under control. She made history as the first black woman and openly lesbian mayor of Chicago, but her tenure in office was not without controversy, especially when it came to her decisions that impacted the Italian American community.
In late July of 2020, the death of George Floyd sparked many protests, and riots, throughout the area. As violence ensued, the city’s Christopher Columbus statues became a target for violence. The best-known example of this was when a mob of hundreds descended on the statue in Grant Park, leading to a confrontation with the Chicago police force.
In the wake of the violence, Mayor Lightfoot decided to have all three Columbus statues in the city “temporarily” removed from Grant Park, Arrigo Park, and the Drake Fountain under the guise of public safety. Yet, her words and actions to follow suggest otherwise. Not only do all three statues continue to be absent from their respective pedestals long after the riots have ended, but Lightfoot refused to work with Italian American organizations like the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA) who wanted to bring these symbols of Italian heritage back to the Windy City.
Lightfoot repeatedly stated that she would not restore the monuments to their original locations until a clear safety plan was in place that did not put Chicagoans and its police force at risk. Taking these words to heart, the JCCIA presented Lightfoot with a security plan that called for safety measures like cameras and motion detectors, among other installments to appease Columbus’ detractors such as plaques to “tell the story of the Native American experience.”
However, Mayor Lightfoot refused to play ball. After being stonewalled for nearly a year, the JCCIA decided to take matters into their own hands and filed a lawsuit against the city and Lightfoot, seeking to return the statue in Arrigo Park specifically. The JCCIA argued that the removal of the statue violated an agreement from 1973 between the group and the city that requires written consent to make any alterations to the statue or the plaza.
An additional lawsuit was filed by the JCCIA against Lightfoot for her disparaging remarks against George Smyrniotis, who previously worked for the park district as deputy general counsel. Smyrniotis claims that Lightfoot killed a deal that would have allowed the statue to be included in the city’s annual Columbus Day parade. She told a leading representative of the Italian American community that if the statue were to appear during the celebration of Italian heritage, she would pull the permit for the entire parade. During this dispute, Smyrniotis alleges that he was berated by Lightfoot over a Zoom call when she stated the following:
“You d*cks, what the f*ck were you thinking? You make some kind of secret agreement with Italians, what you are doing, you are out there measuring your d*cks with the Italians seeing whose got the biggest d*ck, you are out there stroking your d*cks over the Columbus statue, I am trying to keep Chicago Police officers from being shot and you are trying to get them shot. My d*ck is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest d*ck in Chicago.
Where did you go to law school? Did you even go to law school? Do you even have a law license? You have to submit any pleadings to John Hendricks for approval before filing. John told you not to do a f*cking thing with that statute without my approval. Get that f*cking statue back before noon tomorrow or I am going to have you fired.”
While the classy Mrs. Lightfoot will not be Chicago’s next mayor, former head of Chicago Public Schools Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson will head to a runoff election on April 4th to see which candidate will replace her. Vallas is already proving to be an ally to Chicagoans of Italian descent, as he promised the JCCIA that he will bring the Christopher Columbus statues back to their rightful homes in Grant Park and Arrigo Park.
Chicago has a population of nearly three million, of which almost 500,000 are Italian American. For Vallas and Johnson, working with our community and not against it like their predecessor may be the key to becoming the next chief executive of the third-largest city in the United States.