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In Windy City Politics, Race Still Matters – One Mayor’s Demise, Another’s Rise

Windy City Politics

She succumbed on a snowless winter’s election day in this blustery, still deeply racially-divided Democratic town. But in a race for a second successful bid as mayor of Chicago, it was “race” that killed her in this Windy City of politics and stubborn racial segregation. Race. Plain and simple. Race.

Not any inattention on her part to the city’s burgeoning violent crime. Not some insurmountable police scandal or debacle by which she committed political suicide. No alleged financial impropriety or sordid accusations in Mayor Lori Elaine Lightfoot’s political postmortem. No absolutely unforgivable blunder. No hidden Laquan McDonald shooting tape. No 16 shots.

No major snowstorm, like the blizzard of ‘79 that ushered Jane M. Byrne, Chicago’s first woman mayor, into the city’s chief executive office, defeating her opponent, Mayor Michael A. Bilandic, amid voter backlash over the city’s failure to plow residential streets and parking lots, to pick up garbage, and the paralysis of CTA buses and trains.

Not snow and ice. Not cold, this time. It was race that led to Lightfoot’s political demise in this glistening Midwest city on the lake once known as Al Capone’s town, home to crooked Democratic machine politics. Lightfoot, 60, elected in 2018, was the city’s first openly gay mayor, and only the second woman to hold the city’s chief executive office. She was Chicago’s third Black mayor, but only the second elected (Eugene Sawyer was chosen to serve out Harold Washington’s term 1987 after he died suddenly in office).

Inasmuch as Lightfoot’s race was notable in her historic successful mayoral bid in 2018, it is also worth noting in her defeat four years later—something she pointed out after her unsuccessful Feb. 28 reelection bid. And the fact that she is also a woman? Well, in Lightfoot’s own estimation, that may have been the proverbial nail in her coffin.

“I’m a Black woman in America. Of course,” Lightfoot said, asked by a reporter if she had been treated unfairly as mayor, the New Yorker reported. In an interview with the New Yorker before the election, Lightfoot explained: “I am a black woman—let’s not forget. Certain folks, frankly, don’t support us in leadership roles.”

“The same forces that didn’t want Harold Washington to succeed, they’re still here,” Lightfoot reportedly told one Black audience, referring to the city’s first Black mayor who won by a narrow margin in the historic 1983 election—and a second term in 1987—by a coalition of Black and Latino voters and also progressive whites and Asians.

Sure, she’s no Harold Washington. But neither was Richard M. Daley, nor Rahm Emanuel or either of the two candidates in the April 4 mayoral runoff. But unlike 53 other previous Chicago mayors, she is Black, like Harold.

The idea 40 years ago of a Black man being elected mayor scared the hell out of some Chicago whites. I still remember watching television at home in the hood late that night in 1983 and seeing the faces of white reporters aghast as it became clear Washington would win. It was, in fact, a racially-charged campaign in which the Democratic Party chose to support Washington’s Republican opponent Bernard Epton whose campaign slogan was “Epton: Before It’s Too Late.” Marilyn Katz and Bill Zimmerman write in In These Times, in May 2013, in an article titled, “Harold Washington and the Elephant in the Room”:

“To our dismay, the scarcely veiled racist appeal worked. Whereas immediately after the primary, both independent and internal polls showed Washington with a commanding lead, week by week the lead eroded as white voters responded to the message that it was ‘O.K.’ to vote your race.”

Racial animus, in fact, took center stage. The authors note that on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1983, as former Vice-President Walter Mondale and mayoral candidate Harold Washington visited a Catholic church in an all-white neighborhood on the Northwest Side, “onlookers and parishioners attacked them with stones, vicious shouts and racist jeers.”

Forty years later, here in this town, race still seems to trump all. Even in an age of political correctness, it ebbs and flows like a cresting river as the April 4 election looms just days away, and candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas, both democrats, appear locked in a race too close to call. Among the latest fuel added to the flame: President of the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7, which supports Vallas, 69, told the New York Times, there would be “blood in the streets” and mass police resignations if Johnson, 47, wins.

Same old scare tactic. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And whether it was Lightfoot’s own race, or the overcrowded field of Black candidates during the February general election (which effectively splintered the Black vote) in a race that had only one white candidate; or whether it is the insistence that Lightfoot during her mayoral tenure by her style, unapologetic moxie, or words alienated “friends” and “allies,” or failed to effectively address Chicago’s crime problem; whether it was February’s lackluster voter turnout (35.85 percent, according to the Chicago Board of Elections data); or whether it boils down to voters ultimately deciding to reject Lightfoot’s bid for a second term, I, a Chicago native son, see the same old elephant in the room.

Dog Whistle

This is “Bigger Thomas’” town. Land where Black Panthers Fred Hampton, 21, and Mark Clark, 22, were slain Dec. 4, 1969, by a police assassination squad; where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was attacked in August 1966, by a jeering white mob that hurled slurs and stones as he marched through the South Side’s Marquette Park.

It was here in Chicago that former police detective and commander Jon Burge and his team of police henchmen tortured false confessions out of hundreds of Black men from 1972 to 1991, according to FBI records.

Here, on these bloodied, shell-casings laden streets, where 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was fatally shot 16 times on Oct. 20, 2014, by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, later convicted of murder, despite an attempted police cover-up, and who is free after serving less than half of his less than seven-year sentence. This is also the land of Rekia Boyd, Kierra Coles and the “Unforgotten 51,” where the cases of missing and murdered Black and brown women and girls remain largely unsolved and seem to elude a continual mainstream media spotlight.

In this town, settled by Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, a Black man, I—a 62-year-old Black man—am well aware of the existence of neighborhoods where my Black face is still not welcome. Where my presence, even in certain restaurants and hotels in downtown Chicago, as I stand manicured in my pinstriped suit and silk tie, can cause some white people to glare at me revoltingly.

This is America.

An America where “the problem of the color line,” cited by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, remains the question in the 21st century, more than 100 years later. An America where the flame of hope, promise and equality was embodied in the election of the nation’s first Black president but soon doused by a public resurgence of hate uncorked by Trumpism, even if it was always quasi-dormant. An America where only three states have ever elected a Black governor. A Chicago that has elected a Black mayor twice. A city where the very essence of life is blurred by racial lines.

The nation’s third largest city, Chicago (population 2.697 million) remains one of America’s most racially segregated. And the “Black factor,” in my estimation, was too much for Lightfoot to overcome in the election, which on Tuesday, Feb. 28, thrust Vallas, former Chicago Public Schools chief, endorsed by the F.O.P., into the April 4 runoff against Johnson, a Cook County board commissioner criticized for echoing the call to “defund the police,” and who is endorsed by the powerful Chicago Teacher’s Union.

With the election just days away, reportedly nearly half of 570 precincts in majority-Black and majority-Latino precincts, where neither candidate finished first, are located on the South and West Sides. It’s also worth noting that one poll shows that neither candidate has secured a majority in Hispanic voters, though polls show that Johnson leads among Black voters and Vallas apparently has a wide lead among white voters. Clear is that whichever candidate makes the greatest inroads among Black and Hispanic voters, even at the eleventh hour, will reap a significant harvest.

Vallas has made crime his No. 1 campaign issue, vowing repeatedly to hire more police, campaigning on “law and order,” and taking the so-called “handcuffs” off of police.

Apparently, a good number of voters hear him loud and clear. But for some Black voters Vallas is whistling an old familiar tune.

“Law and Order” is a racist dog whistle. For Black folks, it means, “Lock them up.” “Stop and frisk.” George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton. It means potentially open-season on Black men and more police abuse against African Americans.

For many Black Chicagoans, an endorsement by the city’s police union—which historically has protected blue, not Black, and stood behind white officers involved or charged in cases of abuse, misuse of force and wrongful shootings—is not seen so much as a vote of confidence for Vallas as a red flag.

This week, both Vallas and Johnson criticized F.O.P. President John Catanzara, an outspoken Trump supporter, over his “blood in the streets” comment. Still, Catanzara and the F.O.P. stand with Vallas. And Vallas stands with them. A not unreasonable question for Black voters in neighborhoods besieged by violent crime long before it began to trickle downtown and to the Magnificent Mile, however, is: ‘Who stands with us?’

Black folk know all too well that any campaign promise to get tough on crime has less to do with making poor Black and brown neighborhoods safer, and more to do with quelling crimes like armed carjackings, muggings and other violent attacks that have seeped into white neighborhoods and on the city’s Gold Coast.

Truth is, Black folk on the West and South Sides have felt unsafe for decades of Chicago mayors amid perennial drug and gang wars, and unsolved murders that have left a trail of blood, tears and grieving mothers in a consuming sea of economic and social neglect in some neighborhoods that now look like carpet-bombed vacant lots of rubble and desolation. The police arrive in these neighborhoods well after the shooting has stopped, after the bodies of innocents have fallen like autumn leaves to the street in crimson pools of blood.

The heightened concern over crime, and the promise to beef up police and take the so-called handcuffs off of them panders to white fears. Has always meant something different in policy and practice for Black folks who live life on the other side of the tracks, especially in a city where racism and racial segregation glares like her towering skyscrapers. Johnson’s campaign proposal to attack crime by addressing systemic issues—notwithstanding his “defund the police” gaffe—offers greater potential promise, strategies and also resources for dealing with poverty, mental health issues, affordable housing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution, and for community building than a blanket law enforcement approach. That’s at least my two cents.

Even the crowded field of Black candidates in the February mayoral election boils down to race. To deep divisions within Chicago’s Black community and to Chicago’s history of plantation politics used historically to divide and conquer. That undermine a collective strategy and spirit of unification among Black folk that might be reached in some smoky-back-room deal from which they emerge with a candidate around whom to rally for the good of all the nearly 2.7 million people in Chicago, which, according to U.S. Census figures, is now a majority minority city.

In fact, according to 2022 U.S. Census projections of white alone, not of Hispanic or Latino, make up 33.1 percent of the city’s population, compared to Blacks at 29.2 percent, Hispanics or Latinos at 28.7 percent, and Asians at 6.8 percent.

But current political winds and history of the city favor the election of a white mayor. They always have.

Lightfoot’s win in May 2019, seemed much less probable before the runoff, and more the result of a perfect storm in which she overwhelmingly defeated Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, also a Black woman, in a runoff after they finished top two in a crowded field of 14 candidates. In this year’s election, however, Lightfoot received 16.81 percent of the vote behind Vallas at 32.9 percent, and Johnson at 21.63 percent, as slightly less than 36 percent of registered voters turned out to vote, according to the Chicago Board of Elections.

An analysis of those votes, according to a Brookings Institution report, concludes that while Lightfoot carried most of the city’s Black wards on the South Side, Johnson fared better among white progressives and among ethnic groups on the Northeast Side. And Vallas, the only white mayoral candidate, won significantly among ethnic whites on the Northwest Side and other whites of both working class and middle class, and 58 percent of the city’s only Asian ward.

Some analysts have argued that contributing to Lightfoot’s failed mayoral election bid occurred because she made enemies within her own party, was hard to get along with, picked so-called unnecessary fights. That she was embattled with the powerful teachers’ and police unions, and poorly managing the COVID-19 crisis and also crime, which spiked during her tenure.

I’m not sure exactly what this all means, or how any mayor worth their salt can completely avoid conflicts, even within their own party, and even sometimes with powerful labor unions. There are at least two sides to every story. But the assertion alone seems nebulous and an insufficient measurement of a mayor’s overall effectiveness or ability to lead. Besides, doesn’t effective leadership require stepping on a few toes and pissing some people off, even if there are some who from the beginning never liked you and who never will?

Criticisms against Lightfoot pale in comparison to previous Chicago mayors, some of whom were highly embroiled in controversy, by federal investigations into alleged corruption, by allegations of cover-up, or inarguably ineffective or failed policies, but whose reelection campaigns were successful. Among them, in recent memory: Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley.

Also, in what way did Lightfoot poorly manage the pandemic? By following state-issued guidelines and steering the city safely through the nation’s largest health crisis since the Spanish Flu 100 years ago? What major U.S. city came through the COVID-19 storm any better?

Can the spike in Chicago’s violent crime truly be attributed to Lightfoot? How much, realistically, could any mayor do to reverse dramatic trends in their first term, which began with the George Floyd murder and protests nationwide, and a 100-year pandemic a year after she took office?

Violent crime in Chicago is a constant, though unquestionably rising significantly during Lightfoot’s tenure. But shootings, carjackings and other violent crime had less to do with who is occupying the mayor’s seat at City Hall and more to do with the elements that caused crime to rise significantly across the nation during the pandemic.

Sure, Chicago lost the multi-billion-dollar Citadel hedge fund to Miami, and the aerospace giant Boeing to Miami, as each chose to relocate its headquarters. Touting her record as mayor, however, Lightfoot herself points to the “S&P and Fitch rating agencies both upgraded O’Hare’s bond rating to “A+”; the City Council’s approval of the “first sole casino license for a Chicago casino to Bally’s,” resulting in a $40M payment dedicated to pensions with $2M annually per year thereafter,” and projections that the casino will create thousands of jobs, generating about $400 million annually in gaming and other revenues for Chicago and Illinois; approval of the Red Line extension beyond the Dan Ryan terminal at 95th Street, which opened Sept. 28, 1969, to the Far South Side; a reportedly more than $2.2 billion in public and private investment commitments within 10 South and West Side community areas; and other projects and policies.

Whatever her self-assessment of accomplishments as mayor, it did not translate to a victory for Lightfoot at the polls on Feb. 28, when she became the first incumbent Chicago mayor in 40 years to not win a second term. The last was the city’s only other woman mayor, Jane Byrne, who lost her reelection bid in 1983.

Frankly, I thought Lightfoot deserved a second chance.

But the unforgiving winds of race and politics blow cold here, even if they are mostly predictable.

‘Even Ray Charles could see that’

Lori Lightfoot is Chicago’s 56th mayor. The first Black woman. The second Black elected mayor in the city’s history. If Chicago is jacked up, if violent crime long-term has gone unchecked and ravaged some city neighborhoods, and has now spread downtown, to the Gold Coast and Magnificent Mile; if the city’s pension fund and poor Black and brown neighborhoods lie in crisis or catastrophic ruins, how is all of that Lightfoot’s fault alone in a city in which she was preceded by 55 other mayors—52 of them white men— over the city’s last nearly 200 years?

Not passing the buck. But there are plenty of suspects beyond the city’s outgoing one-term, Black woman mayor.

Did Lightfoot kick the pension fund can down the road? Did she segregate Chicago neighborhoods? Exacerbate a failing public school system that remains largely separate and unequal nearly 70 years since Brown v. Board of Education? Is she responsible for the torture cases involving former rogue Chicago Police Detective Jon Burge and his officers who beat false confessions out of Black men, attaching electrodes to their genitals, and ultimately costing the city, Cook County and the state of Illinois a reported $132 million?

Was it under Lightfoot’s tenure that the city paid a $5 million settlement to the family of Laquan McDonald?

Was it Lightfoot who sold the Chicago Skyway? The city’s public parking? Did she command police in 1968, to “Shoot to kill?” Is Lightfoot the architect or champion of a failed $100 million bid to win the Olympics?

Between Richard M. and Richard J. Daley, 43 years of Chicago were shaped. I was a crime reporter at the Chicago Tribune when the city was under King Richard II’s reign. I remember tallying the city’s homicidal toll, which exceeded 900 in three times in the 1990s.

I was a ghetto boy in poverty in a West Side neighborhood the Chicago Tribune later dubbed the “American Millstone” under King Richard I. I watched from my third-floor apartment window as the West Side went up in flames after Dr. King was assassinated and Daley gave the order, “Shoot to kill.” Witnessed buildings that burned down that night and that remain vacant lots. And I am clear that the decision was made to let parts of the West Side rot.

Chicago’s public housing projects crumbled under the Daleys. Gangs on the South and West Sides flourished and terrorized under the tenure of the Daleys. All the while Black alderman must have been consenting—at least did not prevent the neglect and decay.

Neighborhoods disintegrated, and any economic revitalization plan or policies on the South and West Sides of Chicago failed to make a real dent in poverty. Crack came and went. Police brutality went on unchecked. And the beat played on.

But back to Lightfoot…

I’ve heard talk these recent years about how she wasn’t this, or she wasn’t that. That she didn’t keep campaign promises and had earned from critics a failing grade. Except none of this talk seems to take into account that Lightfoot was mayor through a global pandemic, a summer of racial reckoning and protests, even the Jan. 6 insurrection. That as mayor she was a woman operating in a city, with a city council, even judged by a largely white press corps—each of these used to Chicago being run by a white man. It does not take into consideration that whites are afforded privilege, a certain grace and even room for error that America is general does not afford Blacks.

I can’t help but wonder whether Lightfoot received the same measure of fairness as her white predecessors. Frankly, I suspect she didn’t.

Epilogue

On a cloudy damp day in April, amid the political aftermath of Lightfoot’s ousting, I am reminded of all the hate Lightfoot received upon announcing in May 2021—in light of her two-year anniversary as mayor—that she would provide one-on-one interviews exclusively to journalists of color who, by what she could detect with her own eyes, were most often missing among the City Hall press corps. Her gesture toward media parity on one single day caused some in the largely white press to damn near lose their minds.

Lost was her real point: That reporters—flawed and human—ultimately see the world through their own eyes. That so-called objectivity in journalism is a misnomer, elusive, and far too often MIA when it comes to shining the light on certain stories, particularly those through which a reporter’s lens, jaded by their own perspective and life experiences, prevent them from clearly seeing the picture before them.

Among the criticisms of Lightfoot’s declaration was that she perhaps thought that Black reporters would be willing to cut her some slack, perhaps wouldn’t be as tough or critical, might give her a pass. Using that logic, perhaps the same could be said of all those white reporters in a predominantly white press corps that has covered Chicago’s mostly white mayors for nearly two centuries.

Maybe a Black reporter might be more inclined to take a good look at the numbers—and the facts—in light of the criticism of a Black mayor in Lightfoot’s case, ask tough questions, and assert that whatever mess Chicago now finds itself in, it couldn’t all be a sister’s fault. How could it be when she was mayor for only four years?

Even Ray Charles could see that. That’s as clear as black and white, even as the April 4 runoff election approaches.

Not lost on me is the historic significance of the date April 4—the day when Dr. King was assassinated, and, not long after, when the West Side was engulfed in angry flames that licked the pale night sky, stealing hope.

Chicago’s 57th mayor certainly doesn’t have to be Black. But after all these years, why does the city’s next mayor have to be white? And whether Black or white, isn’t the litmus test for a city desperately in need of more than empty campaign promises, at the end of the day, accountability?

Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Perhaps a spring election day, 55 years to the day Dr. King was slain, will bud with change and a new season, even in this divided city where race still billows like the wind. Email: [email protected]

John W. Fountain
John W. Fountain
Professor of Journalism at Roosevelt University | [email protected] | Website

John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and a 2021-22 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ghana, where he is a visiting lecturer at the University of Ghana-Legon and researching his project titled, “Hear Africa Calling: Portraits of Black Americans Drawn to The Motherland.”

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