Lori Lightfoot is elected Chicago mayor, making her the first African-American and openly gay woman to lead America’s third most populous city.
BY BILL RUTHHART
CHICAGO TRIBUNE / TNS
CHICAGO – Lori Lightfoot won a resounding victory Tuesday night to become both the first African-American woman and openly gay person elected mayor of Chicago, dealing a stinging defeat to a political establishment that has reigned over City Hall for decades.
After waging a campaign focused on upending the vaunted Chicago political machine, Lightfoot dismantled one of its major cogs by dispatching Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, whose candidacy had been hobbled in part by an anti-incumbent mood among voters and an ongoing federal corruption investigation at City Hall.
Lightfoot’s campaign, which started last May as a long-shot bid to replace the city’s clouted politics with inclusive change, took the former federal prosecutor and first-time candidate from toiling in relative political obscurity to toppling the head of the Cook County Democratic Party.
“Today, you did more than make history,” Lightfoot told hundreds of supporters at the Hilton Chicago.“You created a movement for change.”
With roughly 97 percent of the city’s precincts reporting, Lightfoot had swept all 50 of Chicago’s wards, winning 74 percent of the unofficial vote to 26 percent for Preckwinkle, a 28-year officeholder who prior to her eight years as the county’s chief executive served 19 years as a Hyde Park alderman.
Lost badly at home
Lightfoot will be sworn in as Chicago’s 56th mayor on May 20 while Preckwinkle will return to her third term running the county after a humiliating defeat that included losing her home 4th Ward by 20 points.
“This may not be the outcome we wanted, but while I may be disappointed, I’m not disheartened,” Preckwinkle told supporters.
“For one thing, this is clearly a historic night. Not long ago, two African-American women vying for this position would have been unthinkable. And while it may be true we took different paths to get here, tonight is about the path forward.”
Tuesday night’s results marked the culmination of an improbable journey for Lightfoot, from the diminutive daughter of poor parents who worked multiple low-wage jobs in the segregated steel town of Massillon, Ohio, to graduate of University of Michigan and the University of Chicago law school, to federal prosecutor, major law firm partner and now mayor of America’s third-largest city.
“My parents didn’t have much money, but they had their dignity and their dreams, dreams for their children, dreams for me,” Lightfoot said. “They taught me the value of honesty, decency, hard work and education, and they gave me faith, the faith that put me where I am today.”
Lightfoot becomes the third African-American to serve as mayor. Harold Washington was elected in 1983 as the city’s first Black mayor and won re-election in 1987 before dying in office later that year. Eugene Sawyer, the city’s second Black mayor, was appointed to serve out Washington’s term until a 1989 special election.
She is just the second woman elected as mayor, following Jane Byrne, who served one term from 1979 to 1983, and the first person elected Chicago mayor not born in the city since Anton Cermak took office in 1931.
‘A little bit different’
While she didn’t mention it frequently on the campaign trail, Lightfoot’s win also makes Chicago the largest U.S. city ever to elect an openly gay mayor. “A lot of little boys and girls are out there watching us tonight, and they’re seeing the beginning of something, well, a little bit different,” Lightfoot said with a smile. “They’re seeing a city reborn, a city where it doesn’t matter what color you are, where it surely doesn’t matter how tall you are and where it doesn’t matter who you love, just as long as you love with all your heart.”
Both self-styled progressives, Preckwinkle and Lightfoot didn’t disagree much on the issues, from advocating for more affordable housing to driving more city resources to economically starved neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides. As a result, the race largely boiled down to change versus experience.
Preckwinkle repeatedly argued mayor “is not an entry level position” and cast her opponent as unprepared for the job while Lightfoot stressed her independence and attacked the County Board president’s deep ties to what she often described as the “corrupt, broken Democratic machine.”
In the end, Lightfoot’s message prevailed in a landslide.
“Together we can and we will remake Chicago – thriving, prosperous, better, stronger, fairer for everyone,” Lightfoot said in her victory speech.
At the outset, the 2019 race centered on whether polarizing Mayor Rahm Emanuel could win a third term after a tumultuous eight years in office headlined by the Laquan McDonald police shooting scandal. By late summer, Emanuel had raised $10 million toward his reelection campaign but faced a field of 12 challengers, including Lightfoot.
Previous mayor criticized
The mayor had appointed the attorney to two oversight positions, but Lightfoot frequently criticized the mayor for not doing enough to reform a police department tainted with misconduct amid the fallout of the McDonald shooting that ultimately led to former Officer Jason Van Dyke being convicted of second degree murder.
In September, Emanuel decided he didn’t want to go through with a bruising campaign against a large field of challengers and made the stunning announcement that he would not seek a third term.
Four bigger-name establishment candidates quickly jumped into the race, including Preckwinkle, who was in the midst of running for her third term as County Board president. With Emanuel out, Lightfoot worked to recalibrate her campaign, but she struggled to raise money and get her message through a crowded field.
Lightfoot, however, caught her break on Nov. 29, when FBI agents raided the City Hall and ward offices of the longest-serving alderman in Chicago’s history, Edward Burke. About a month later, federal authorities charged the 50-year incumbent with attempted extortion.
Suddenly, the former federal prosecutor’s campaign for change drew renewed attention and her message of ushering the status quo out of City Hall gained traction.
Just before the Feb. 26 first round election, Lightfoot raised enough money to air a late TV ad in which she flipped on a light switch in a shadowy backroom, promising an independent City Hall and debuting her campaign slogan, “Bring in the Light.”
Remarkably, she won the February race with 17 percent of the vote with a small grassroots campaign organization and far less money than the bigger-name candidates.
Damaged by scandal
Preckwinkle moved on, too, but her political brand had been badly damaged by the Burke scandal. When federal authorities charged the alderman, they revealed Burke’s alleged shakedown included illegally soliciting a $10,000 campaign contribution that the Chicago Tribune reported had been intended for Preckwinkle.
Preckwinkle faced further questions about her cozy relationship with Burke after the Tribune reported she hired the alderman’s son to a six-figure county job while he faced sexual harassment allegations at the sheriff’s office.
Coalition of supporters
Lightfoot’s message of reform coupled with Preckwinkle’s political baggage helped the former federal prosecutor quickly expand her political base. Lightfoot’s February victory came thanks to wins in predominantly White liberal wards, but she quickly won the support of seven former opponents in that race who themselves had won diverse swaths of the city.
Lightfoot also won the support of the city’s firefighters union, several influential trade unions and some downtown business leaders, helping turn her fundraising disadvantage in the first round into an edge over Preckwinkle in the runoff.
In March, Lightfoot raised $3.8 million to Preckwinkle’s $1.6 million, allowing her to air a sustained TV campaign while the County Board president largely remained absent from the airwaves in the campaign’s final two weeks.
For her part, Lightfoot never wavered from her message of changing City Hall, but campaigning and governing are two different enterprises. As Preckwinkle frequently reminded her opponent during the campaign, “Change is not easy.”
Lightfoot seemed eager for the brewing fight.
“The machine was built to last. … There are a lot of people who are very, very happy with the status quo, who have profited in every conceivable way, so they’re not going to give up power easily,” Lightfoot said Tuesday afternoon.
“I’ve heard lots of rumblings of, ‘We’re going to teach her if she gets elected.’ “We’ll see.”