Lori Lightfoot, Satya Rhodes-Conway, and (Maybe) Jolie Justus: Meet America’s New Lesbian Mayors
Led by a victorious Lori Lightfoot in Chicago, on Tuesday night Democratic lesbian candidates either won mayoral races or advanced in primary contests.
This was a good week to be a lesbian candidate for mayor.
On Tuesday night, three Democratic lesbian candidates either won their mayoral races or advanced in their primary contests.
Gaining the most headlines, former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot won in Chicago with a cushion of over 40 percentage points, making her both the first out LGBT and first black female mayor in the city’s history. Chicago will now be the largest U.S. city to have an openly LGBT mayor, surpassing Houston, where out lesbian Annise Parker served from 2010 until 2016.
Former city councilor Satya Rhodes-Conway won the Madison, Wisconsin mayoral race in a landslide, beating incumbent Paul Soglin by a margin of over 20 percentage points.
Former Missouri state legislator Jolie Justus placed first in her primary for the Kansas City mayoral race and will advance to a general election in June.
Parker now serves as the president of the Victory Fund, an organization that works to elect LGBT candidates—and she believes that lesbian electoral success is no accident.
“What we have found at Victory is that our lesbian candidates outperform our male candidates,” she told The Daily Beast.”Women tend to wait longer before they run, they want to be more qualified, and they’re often better prepared.”
On the other hand, Parker acknowledges that the particular stigma around gay men may also play a role: “I think for a lot of really unpleasant reasons, lesbian candidates are [seen as] a lot less threatening in some ways than gay male candidates.”
According to the Victory Institute, the Victory Fund’s partner organization, there are currently 38 U.S. cities with openly LGBT mayors. That list includes several lesbian mayors, like Salt Lake City’s Jackie Biskupski, Seattle’s Jenny Durkan, and Key West’s Teri Johnston.
Still, though, Tuesday night’s wins mark a major step forward for lesbian electoral representation. As Parker noted in a press release, the number of lesbians who are elected mayor of a big city could triple by the time this cycle is over.
Tuesday night’s candidates ran on local issues—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t celebrating the new national precedents they have set.
“We’re going to be working on affordable housing and transit and trying to bridge our racial opportunity gap and preparing for the impacts of climate change,” Rhodes-Conway, who will be the first openly LGBT mayor of Madison, told The Daily Beast. “But at the same time, that in no way keeps me from being, I hope, a national leader and role model for the LGBTQ community.”
For Rhodes-Conway, these two roles—local mayor and potential national role model—aren’t mutually exclusive, especially because LGBT people are disproportionately affected by many of the problems she is hoping to address while in office.
“I don’t see those [roles] as conflicting or separate necessarily,” she said. “All the issues that I talked about are LGBTQ issues.”
Tuesday night’s lesbian electoral wins—which all took place outside of coastal states—show that running as an openly LGBT candidate is becoming less of a liability than it once was, says Parker. In fact, she believes it could be an asset in some cases.
“It’s not always a positive to run openly LGBT, but it’s not necessarily a negative,” she told The Daily Beast. “And we’ve had success everywhere.”
In her initial statement to press, Parker shared her belief that “lesbian mayors bring unique experiences and perspectives to the position that make them more empathetic, principled, and values-driven leaders.”
Parker expanded on that sentiment for The Daily Beast, observing that empathy and honesty are qualities the electorate seems to want, and so “people respond” when they hear candidates be “clear about who they are.” When those candidates have had experiences of marginalization, Parker contends, they may better relate to others.
“Taking a clear look at yourself and how you relate to the world, and then deciding to come out and approach the world more head-on—I think that’s a good quality for any public official,” said Parker. “That sense of being on the outside, of being different—I think that makes you more aware of being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
Rhodes-Conway agrees that her experiences as a lesbian have informed her politics in the same way that any candidate brings their background with them into office.
“I think being a woman, being a lesbian, is certainly core to my identity and affects how I see the world and how I think,” she told The Daily Beast.”One of the most valuable things in leadership—whether that’s in the public sector or the private sector, we know how valuable it is to have a diversity of opinions at the table.”
After 2018’s “Rainbow Wave” of LGBT electoral wins in state legislatures, lesbian wins across the Midwest in 2019 are another sign that the electoral map might be changing for candidates who aren’t straight or cisgender.
In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans said they would be comfortable with a gay or lesbian presidential candidate, which is up significantly from 43 percent in 2006.
That poll made headlines in large part because of another openly LGBT mayor: South Bend, Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg, whose presidential exploratory committee has gained widespread media attention in the past two weeks.
In the midst of the Buttigieg buzz, Parker hopes that the LGBT community can take some time to celebrate these mayoral-level lesbian accomplishments to make sure they don’t get “overshadowed.”
“I love Mayor Pete and we’re all excited,” said Parker. “We haven’t endorsed him because he’s still in the exploratory phase, but we’re cheering him on from the sidelines.”
In the meantime, Victory Fund is looking ahead to the Tampa mayoral run-off election, where out lesbian Jane Castor could become the first openly LGBT big-city mayor in the American Southeast, as the advocacy group noted.
“There’s still a long way to go toward achieving equality,” said Parker.
To that end, new Mayor-elect Rhodes-Conway hopes that younger generations of LGBT people will be encouraged by this week’s victories.
“I want them to know that they can see themselves in leadership and that they should see themselves in leadership,” she said.