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.

Democrats: Shake It Up

CAN THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY change from within?  Probably not, because most very active Democrats see no need to.  The party has its entrenched blocs of support, just as the Republican Party does.  The Democratic Party’s need to retain its base, which it counts on to win in national elections, enforces its own tendency to be conservative.  Sadly, the party is unlikely to give up or disregard interests already in its column, even if doing so would bring it a base of support that’s broader, stronger, and more fervent.

It’s an unfortunate situation for several reasons.  1.) The Democratic Party is at risk of losing control of the Senate to an observably weaker party that’s on the verge of disintegrating.  Yet rather than boost its popularity by advancing a constellation of smart new ideas, the Democratic Party is coasting along defensively, its identity defined by its historical positions and the reactive posture it habitually assumes vis-à-vis the Republican Party.  What the Republicans attack, the Democrats defend.

2.) The Democrats’ patchy ideological vision leaves the country vulnerable to a rightward lurch: the staleness that might seem a parochial problem is a problem for the country, too.  The party’s failure to take up feasible positions on matters like fiscal reform or entitlements, for instance, leaves us with a defeated, going-nowhere feeling.  (Did you know that many Democrats, including my own representative Jan Schakowsky, voted against the bill to increase the debt ceiling?  Their numbers equaled the number of Republicans who voted no.)  Democrats’ inability to change with the times is creating an ideological vacuum that other ideas—other candidates—other factions are filling.

3.) In the meantime, large blocs of disaffected or simply bored voters have been left without partisan representation.  Such voters now comprise a plurality of the electorate, as the percentage of Americans affiliated with either party has continued to decline.  If the Democrats wish to remain relevant, they as a group must fashion an ideology that appeals to a greater number of these voters, and that’s compelling enough to induce them to identify with the party.

It’s not enough for a few leading Democrats (e.g., the President) to espouse new ideas.  The Democrats collectively must shift to new ground.  It’s not enough for a few Democrats reach out to young voters, or to green voters, say, because, in themselves, such gestures have no efficacy.  Without the power of a whole party behind them, the proposals of a few men or women mean nothing.

Until the Party modifies its identity, its would-be adherents will know the party is not really about them.  They won’t be able to rely on it as a vehicle of their values and concerns.  This is why enthusiasm for voting and the parties is waning.  This is why so many Americans are dissatisfied with the work their political leaders are doing.  The parties do not faithfully mirror modern Americans and their world; the mirrors they hold up are cloudy with the treacly cliches of decades.  They’re distorted with age.

Democrats must give up their comfortable mantras and embrace efficiency.  They must become champions of small, smart government, because this is the only kind that we can sustain.  There’s no reason why Democrats can’t continue to champion a constructive federalism (that’s only sensible), but they must work to rid government of its bloated, statist qualities.  Democrats must work toward a sort of state that maximizes individual freedom, which paradoxically might include becoming more protective of our economy, our skills & labor, and our resources and environment.

Democrats should identify themselves with the project of restoring civic integrity to the country, whether through increased emphasis on civics education in schools, through clearer paths to citizenship, or through the embrace of a party-wide pledge to renounce things like super-PAC money.  Democrats should acknowledge that entitlements must be reformed and take the lead in proposing changes that are practical and humane.

There are glimmers of hope within the Democratic Party.  I find it hopeful that the president and the Clintons are working together more closely.  Though none are ideologues, each has personified a pragmatic liberalism that could help catalyze a new outlook party-wide.  If aided by an echelon of leading Democrats, their inclinations could form the nucleus of an all-out movement.

Meanwhile, closer to home, a progressive version of Democracy is very much on display, with Illinoisans like Rahm Emanuel, Toni Preckwinkle, and now even Governor Quinn pushing against the party’s traditional constituencies in a quest for more efficient government that reins in spending.

Can the Democrats shake it up and become a new party?  Though it seems up to them, perhaps the answer’s with you.

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