Lori Lightfoot’s Mandate


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.”

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Lori v. Goliath

Black and white photo of City Hall and the Daley Plaza.

CHICAGO.  Yesterday’s mayoral election put Lori Lightfoot in position to prevail against the entrenched interests that have long determined how things go down in Chicago, interests that in the next phase of the mayoral race will likely back her remaining opponent, Cook County Board president, Toni Preckwinkle.

In yesterday’s election, Lightfoot emerged as the top vote getter, far eclipsing many other of the fourteen candidates who received more media attention and were thought more likely to win.  Lightfoot received some 90,000 votes (17.48 percent), far outstripping Bill Daley (whom the Chicago Tribune endorsed) and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, whose relationship with the corrupt Ed Burke, 14th ward alderman, is such that her wedding was held in his house.  Daley and Mendoza received roughly 76,000 (14.78%) and 47,000 votes (9.09%), respectively.  The second-highest vote getter was Preckwinkle, who received some 82,000 votes (just under 16%), out of a total of 515,771 votes cast.  (Totals are current as of this writing, with the official count still ongoing.)

Because no candidate received a majority, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle will face one another in a run-off election on April 2.

Ironically, Lori and Toni have some similarities. Both are brainy and have roots in Hyde Park. Both have little Afro halos of hair. Both are competent, ambitious, and palpably serious. Lightfoot, in particular, rarely smiles. Both were visibly delighted last night, however, emerging victorious from one of the most unpredictable contests Chicagoans have seen.

Now their contest will get more interesting.  The votes scattered across yesterday’s large field will now be gathered behind the two remaining candidates.  Today will see the Lightfoot and Preckwinkle camps bidding to secure endorsements and support from the candidates who lost.  Who will Willie Wilson, Amara Enyia, Bill Daley, Garry McCarthy, and Gery Chico, throw their weight behind?  How many anti-establishment forces will mobilize behind Lori, and will they end up prevailing over the old interests (including journalistic ones) that favor the incumbents and the status quo?

Toni Preckwinkle was all smiles last night, knowing that party regulars will rally around her.  She will get the money that would have gone to Vallas, Chico, and Daley.  She will get support from all the predictable places: the unions, old party hacks like Berrios and Dorothy Brown, the developers who like aldermanic privilege and want the basics of city government to remain what they are.  Preckwinkle opened her campaign against Lightfoot last night, shrewdly timing her “victory speech” to correspond with the 10 o’clock news.  She received several minutes of free political advertising, broadcast live.  She will position herself as the more experienced executive, with a clearer economic vision and a more palatable tonic for the fiscal ills that have poisoned Chicago.

Lori Lightfoot will run on a platform of fairness, public safety, and equal investment.  She is explicitly anti-establishment but not necessarily “progressive,” as dismantling “the Chicago way” will entail taking on the public unions.  She will get the vote of the poor and the ordinary, the dispossessed and struggling folk of the city.  She will get a lot of the liberal vote–and the vote of the cynics and those seasoned enough to see through Preckwinkle.  She will get the “roulette” voters, who after a lifetime of being betrayed by Chicago’s power elite, will look at little Lori Lightfoot and say “What the hell.”

Image: 1981 view of Chicago’s City Hall and Daley Plaza,
 from this source.

Chicago’s Mayoral Election

Black and white perspectival view of Chicago's City Hall taken from the southeast.

Tomorrow is Chicago’s mayoral election, with fourteen candidates vying to replace the incumbent Rahm Emanuel.  The large number of candidates and an unusually unsettled political climate make this a particularly exciting and unpredictable contest.  If one candidate among the fourteen pulls way ahead and receives a majority of all votes cast tomorrow, that candidate will be Chicago’s new mayor.  But, given the absence of a clear front-runner, it is more likely that no one will receive a majority, setting the stage for a run-off between the two highest-polling candidates.  (In fact, election-eve polling shows no one candidate getting more than fourteen percent.)

So, the most significant mayoral race in decades is coming down to the wire.  Three or four events have shaped the race and influenced the way voters are assessing the candidates.  The first of these is the Laquan McDonald shooting, which destroyed Mayor Emanuel’s reputation and chance of re-election.  One year into the mayor’s second term, it came out that he had been responsible for suppressing the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting in favor of covering up the police’s misconduct and buying off the dead teen’s family.  Since then, the shame of a colossal moral failure has dogged Emanuel’s administration.  But the fallout from this event has galvanized the electorate to expect more from the city and its police department, to demand better policing, and to look for leaders who will be on the side of citizens and have the courage to stand up to the police and to entrenched interests that do nothing but tolerate unacceptably high levels of violence in the city.

Mayor Emanuel’s disgrace has left him in too weak a position to ensure that his office will go to a chosen successor, even though he appears to hope the office will go to Bill Daley.  Bill Daley’s election would represent a terrible step backward, however, at a time when the city desperately needs an honest, fresh, independent guide.

The second event shaping the race is the feds’ recent sting.  In January, the FBI raided the offices of Alderman Ed Burke, who symbolizes the hermetic quality of Chicago machine politics, having enjoyed a controlling influence over local affairs while occupying the same seat in the city council for 49 years.  Burke is now, as Chicago Magazine put it, “facing federal charges for allegedly extorting legal business from the owner of a Burger King in his ward.”  Four candidates in the mayor’s race have “come up” through the machine and represent a continuation of politics as usual: Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Gery Chico, and Bill Daley.  The raid on Burke’s offices has been followed with the even more sensational revelation that Alderman Danny Solis wore a wire for the FBI for almost two years.  Solis chose to cooperate with the FBI rather than face charges of criminal misconduct himself.

As the FBI’s work opens up the happy possibility that more corruption will be exposed in Chicago, the prospects of many of the city’s erstwhile leaders are being recast.  Will Chicago voters finally turn against candidates such as Bill Daley, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, and Gery Chico, who are clearly creatures of the Chicago machine?  If voters do turn decisively toward “outsider” candidates, they may at last succeed in draining the swamp and liberating the city from “the Chicago Way.”

Identity politics is a third factor that makes the outcome of the contest hard to predict.  With so many candidates in the mix, including four women and many people of color, the contest will ultimately hinge on attributes other than the candidates’ skin color or sex.  It becomes nonsensical to talk about how “the black vote,” or “the female vote,” or “the white male vote” will go.  Will the upstart Amara Enyia and the solemn Lori Lightfoot split the black vote with Willie Wilson and Toni Preckwinkle?  Or will blacks simply vote for whomever seems likely to do the most for their communities and their pocketbooks, regardless of how they look?  In this day and age, what demographic is viscerally devoted to Bill Daley?  Looking at the contest in terms of superficial attributes seems particularly futile and nonsensical this time around.

It’s a momentous day for Chicago.  Personally, I hope either Lori Lightfoot or Gary McCarthy wins: either would make a fine, iconoclastic mayor.  Chicago needs to reject machine politics and all its creatures.  Peace, public safety, and honest governance: this, above all, is what Chicago needs.

Image: 1981 Hedrich-Blessing photograph of Chicago’s City Hall, taken from the southeast,
from this source.