By Erick Johnson
On a historic election night in Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, an underdog, who for months trailed in opinion polls and campaign donations in the mayoral race, overcame odds to top 13 candidates to force a runoff against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
The runoff will be held April 2.
That race will produce Chicago’s first Black female mayor some 36 years after the city elected its first Black mayor, Harold Washington. Chicago will now be the largest city in history to have its first Black female mayor. With both candidates getting support from opposite ends of the city’s racial and geographic landscape, the Black vote may prove once again to be the game-changer in the city’s second mayoral runoff in its 182-year history.
“We’ve been saying for the last couple of days that this will be a race that comes down to inches, and you have been remarkable in the amount of effort in the cold, the rain, through the sun, and through the petition challenges. I am so grateful to you,” Lightfoot said during her election night speech.
It was a stunning win for Lightfoot, who surged past the heavily favored and wealthy Bill Daley in the final hours of the election count to become a surprise contender in an election where the odds were stacked against her. With low voter turnout and little support from Black voters, Lightfoot shocked Chicago with a win that sent a strong message to the political establishment that cast her off in favor of Daley and Preckwinkle as the top contenders for the city’s highest job. In sixth place with $1.6 million in campaign donations, Lightfoot was at the bottom among top opponents.
Lightfoot made a powerful statement by defeating Daley—a member of Chicago’s political dynasty who received $2 million in the final two weeks from hedge fund mogul and billionaire Kenneth Griffin, who contributed over $36 million to Governor Bruce Rauner’s campaigns in 2014 and 2018. Initial election numbers showed Daley leading the pack at six percent, but his lead dwindled as Lightfoot made significant gains during the count.
At Daley’s election night party at Ventura West on the Near West Side, the mood dropped and supporters began to leave as Daley’s numbers failed to climb as the night went on. At 7:39 p.m., Daley conceded the race, saying he experienced “an outcome none of us had wanted.”
Lightfoot grabbed 17.45 percent of the vote. Preckwinkle was second with 16.06 percent to Daley’s 14.72 percent. Willie Wilson was fourth with 10.69 percent.
Turnout was low among the city’s 1,581,755 voters. According to the Chicago Board of Elections, only 33.56 percent of them or 530,797 showed up at the polls.
There was concern that Daley, despite his pledge to help the poor and Black community, would be beholden to wealthy businessmen whose vast contributions to his mayoral campaign put him far ahead of his opponents. It was a message that Lightfoot expressed throughout her campaign and the large contributions may have backfired against Daley. With the corruption scandal involving Alderman Ed Burke 14th), Lightfoot is moving closer to a plan of cleaning up City Hall.
“I thank those who have the courage to stand against the machine…This, my friends, is what change looks like,” said Lightfoot to a roaring crowd at her election night watch party in the Loop. “We need to continue this very important dialogue about our city’s future, about the narrative of who we’re going to be—to break from the past and have a vision for the future that includes all of us in every neighborhood. All of you here tonight stood with us and so many others said this day would never come.”
After she announced her run for mayor in May 2018, Lightfoot, an attorney and former prosecutor, was considered a strong contender to challenge incumbent Rahm Emanuel. As president of the Chicago Police Board, she was a vocal critic of the mayor and urged police reforms in the wake of the shooting of Laquan McDonald. Public outcry of the shooting fueled her momentum among angry voters seeking to oust Emanuel, who was accused of suppressing the police video as he was re-elected with the help of city’s predominantly Black 18 wards. When Emanuel announced his decision on September 4 not to run for a third term, Lightfoot’s campaign lost steam among a growing field of candidates that swelled to 21. At one point, she failed to make the top seven candidates in opinion polls. At a mayoral discussion forum in Bronzeville in January, Black voters removed her from the list of preferred candidates.
But after an endorsement by the Chicago Sun-Times on February 8, Lightfoot’s electability grew as she climbed into the top five in opinion polls. When a judge approved the city’s consent decree to implement reforms in the Chicago Police Department, it ushered in a new era that made the political climate ripe for Lightfoot’s emergence as a serious mayoral candidate.
“The field was too crowded. There was no path for a new reformer without huge donors, (nor) being an elected official for 10,000 years amidst a pack of establishment figures,” Lightfoot said. “People said that I had some good ideas, but I couldn’t win. And it’s true that it’s not every day that a little Black girl from a low-income family, from a segregated steel town makes the runoff to be the next mayor of the third-largest city in the country.”
Lightfoot is gearing up for a big runoff battle against Preckwinkle. The two are a contrast in their leadership style, but Lightfoot’s background is far from the 28 years of political experience that Preckwinkle accumulated as an aldermen and Cook County Board president. At her election night watch party, Preckwinkle attacked Lightfoot, saying, “It’s not enough to stand at a podium and talk about what you want to see happen. You have to come to this job with the capacity and the capability to make your vision a reality.”
But Lightfoot’s win proved that political experience isn’t always necessary in winning an election. With corruption and distrust in the political establishment, Lightfoot is campaigning as an outsider who aims to sweep out the machine politics that has infested City Hall for decades.
According to preliminary figures by the Chicago Board of Elections, Lightfoot’s voter base that propelled her to victory on Tuesday came largely from Chicago’s affluent North Side, while voters on the South Side supported Preckwinkle. Both candidates held their election night watch party in locations within their voter base. Lightfoot held her election night watch party in an apartment building in the Loop. Preckwinkle held her election night watch party at the Lake Shore Café. White voters were the majority at Lightfoot’s election watch party. At Preckwinkle’s event, most of the guests were Black, including businessman John W. Rogers, Jr., chairman of Ariel Investments, Larry Huggins, Everett Rand, Cook County Commissioners Bill Lowry and Brandon Johnson, as well as other prominent Black leaders.
The real question is which candidate will win the Black vote?
Both candidates have flaws in appealing to Black voters. Blacks are still reeling from Preckwinkle’s failed soda tax, as well as her perceived abrasive and elitist leadership style, which has drawn widespread criticism. Despite this, Preckwinkle still received more Black votes than Lightfoot on Tuesday.
Lightfoot is a progressive who does not have a strong bond with Chicago’s Black community. She’s openly gay and her sexual orientation may clash with senior Black conservative voters, many of whom are members of the city’s Black voters. Lightfoot’s sexual identity was never a campaign issue during the campaign, and she may become the city’s first openly gay Black female mayor.
There is a question as to which candidate Willie Wilson and Amara Enyia will endorse for the runoff. Wilson whose impressive fourth place finish in the race has earned him the reputation as “The Unifier,” said he will make an endorsement after speaking with Lightfoot and Preckwinkle.
Whoever becomes mayor of Chicago, they will join a growing list of Black females who, in recent years, have been elected to lead some of the nation’s biggest cities. They include San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. This year, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana is seeking a third term as the city’s first Black female mayor.