Lori Lightfoot has become mayor-elect of Chicago in an election confirming the waning power of the Chicago machine. Newscasters’ muted coverage of Lightfoot’s lopsided victory over her only remaining challenger, the comfortingly familiar Toni Preckwinkle, registered the unexpectedness of Lightfoot’s achievement and what it really portends for this troubled city. While the scope of the new mayor’s work is gargantuan, her mandate is alarmingly slight.
In a town of some 2,7 million souls, just under 1.6 million of its adults are registered voters, and, on April 2, only 504,123 (31.65%) of them cast a vote for mayor. Lightfoot received 73.7 percent of these votes to Preckwinkle’s 26.3, but the salient fact is that, given the low turnout, Lightfoot became mayor with just 371,529 votes, representing 23.3 percent of Chicago’s voters and 13.65 percent of its total population.
Most voters did not turn out, presumably out of apathy or because they did not like or approve of either of the two remaining mayoral candidates. Lightfoot and Preckwinkle beat out all the other candidates who had qualified for the first mayoral election on February 26, 2019, their first- and second-place showings putting them ahead of their thirteen rivals, including all whites and all men of color. One wonders how many black and Hispanic men stayed home from the polls this week, disdaining to choose between two gifted black women who had risen above the males in a wild competition. Several black women I spoke with reported meeting with angry silence from men in their workplaces when the subject of the mayoral race came up.
Thus, when, the day after the election, the Chicago Tribune blared, “Lightfoot In a Landslide,” the message it communicated was somewhat misleading. Support for Lori Lightfoot is intense, but it’s not particularly broad. The media’s emphasis on identity politics is likewise of little help in understanding what happened in this week’s momentous election. Voters did not turn out for Lori because of her race or sexual orientation; most turned out for her irregardless of these traits. She won the liberal white vote everywhere, racking up her biggest margins on the north and northwest sides.
Lightfoot won because she is extremely smart and deadly serious about waging war on corruption and the “Chicago way.” She won because she’s committed to equal treatment for Chicago’s neighborhoods and peoples. Yet given the slimness of her mandate and the legions of Chicagoans still loyal to the old patronage system, Lori will be sorely challenged to “Bring In the Light.”