CHICAGO — Days into a dispute between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union, labor leaders outlined what they described as a grand compromise. Students, who had been receiving no instruction after teachers voted to stop reporting to classrooms amid a coronavirus surge, would attend a few days of online school, followed by a full, in-person return.
Ms. Lightfoot was having none of it.
Within minutes, she and the head of the school district released a statement that accused union leadership of not listening. “We will not relent,” they said, calling instead for a swift return to in-person classes. Days later, it was the union that largely relented: Students returned to school buildings earlier than teachers had wanted, with some additional Covid safeguards in place.
The highly public, acerbic dispute with the teachers this month was characteristic of Ms. Lightfoot’s stewardship of Chicago. In nearly three years marked by a pandemic, soaring rates of violence and frequent labor battles, Ms. Lightfoot has shown herself to be a blunt orator and an unflinching negotiator. But her lofty campaign promises to “bring in the light,” reduce violence and overhaul governance in America’s third-largest city have repeatedly run up against an overwhelming news cycle, decades of inertia and her uncanny ability to make political enemies.
“Her style is a top-bottom approach, very different from what she campaigned on,” said Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, whom Ms. Lightfoot once referred to as a “jackass” in hundreds of pages of her frank text messages that were obtained by The Chicago Tribune.
told Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a fellow Democrat, that his administration was being “petty.”
As a gay, Black woman who grew up in Ohio and had never before held elective office, Ms. Lightfoot stood apart from previous mayors, and her inauguration in 2019 was seen by some as a potential moment of change for the city. She won all 50 City Council wards in the runoff election while decrying corruption and the infamous Chicago political machine. She also vowed to address the racial and economic disparities that have long defined Chicago, where the downtown and North Side have often prospered while disinvestment and violence have plagued many neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.
most in a generation. Downtown has struggled to bounce back from the pandemic. And clashes with the unions representing police officers and teachers have proved destabilizing.
Ms. Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who worked in the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley, and who led a police disciplinary board under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has defended her record. At the time of her election, she said this month, “Nobody had in their mind’s eye that we would be shortly thereafter laboring under a massive global pandemic and all of the consequences.”