The race to be Chicago’s next mayor pits a longtime political insider against a former prosecutor who’s never held public office, and it comes at a time when many voters are weary of the old machine-style politics for which Chicago has long been known.
In some ways the contest between Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot reflects a movement happening nationally in the Democratic Party as typically younger, fresh faces with less political experience challenge the more established “old guard.” But Tuesday’s election also is uniquely Chicago, occurring when the city’s financial problems, gun violence and allegations of public corruption have left many voters fed up and looking for change.
Preckwinkle served on the Chicago City Council for 19 years and later became president of the Cook County Board. The 72-year-old former teacher also is chairwoman of the Cook County Democratic Party, which wields tremendous political power by, among other things, “slating” or endorsing candidates for offices ranging from governor to county assessor and judges.
Lightfoot, 56, is a former federal prosecutor who never has held public office and is now considered the front-runner. She decided to run even before Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, announced he wouldn’t seek a third term, saying she wanted to do something to help low-income and working-class people she believes have been “left behind and ignored” by Chicago’s political ruling class.
“I stand as a Democrat,” Lightfoot told voters at recent candidate forum, “but a different kind of Democrat.”
Either candidate would make history as the first black, female mayor in racially divided Chicago and would become the eighth black woman to currently serve as mayor of a major U.S. city. Lightfoot also would be Chicago’s first openly gay mayor.
The city has only elected one black mayor, Harold Washington Jr., who was elected in 1983 and died months into his second term. His predecessor, Jane Byrne, is the only woman to serve in the job.
Whether it’s Lightfoot or Preckwinkle, the next mayor will step into a climate in which city leaders have taken some hits.
Emanuel’s administration was rocked by claims of a cover-up after a white Chicago police officer fatally shot black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014. The city, responding to a judge’s order, released dashcam video of the shooting more than a year after it happened.
Then earlier this year, longtime Chicago Alderman Ed Burke was charged with attempted extortion for allegedly trying to shake down a fast-food chain that wanted to build in his ward. He is one of several aldermen facing criminal charges or federal investigation.
“When we keep putting the same politicians in office, nothing changes. … They get elected, and they forget about us,” said voter Marcia Lewis, who lives on the city’s South Side and says she’s backing Lightfoot. “I’m ready for someone new to come in.”
More than a dozen candidates jumped in the race to replace Emanuel, including Bill Daley, the brother and son of previous longtime Chicago mayors.
Lightfoot finished as the top vote-getter, followed by Preckwinkle, in a February election though neither had overwhelming support among blacks, who make up about a third of the population in the segregated city. Lightfoot’s base was predominantly white wards along Lake Michigan on Chicago’s North Side, while Preckwinkle’s support was strongest in predominantly black wards on the West and South sides.
Because neither candidate received a majority of votes cast, the two will meet in a runoff election. In another sign voters are looking for change, several aldermen — including some of Emanuel’s closest allies — are also facing runoffs.
Preckwinkle is campaigning as an “independent Democrat,” noting that when she first ran for alderman more than three decades ago she lost her first two elections and then barely beat “the machine” to win a seat on the City Council on her third try. She says her 25 years of public service experience make her uniquely qualified to lead the nation’s third-largest city and to tackle its deep financial problems, which include some of the worst-funded pension systems of any major U.S. city. By 2023 Chicago must come up with almost $1 billion in new revenue to make its annual pension payments.
As the top leader in Cook County, the second-largest county in the U.S., Preckwinkle closed a nearly $500 million budget gap, expanded access to health care and reduced the population of an overcrowded jail, in part by reducing the number of nonviolent offenders being held because they couldn’t post cash bail.
“This is not an entry-level job,” she said. “It’s easy to talk about change. It’s hard to actually do it. And that’s been my experience — being a change-maker, a change agent, transforming institutions and communities.”
Preckwinkle picked up an endorsement from Chance the Rapper, whose father is Preckwinkle’s campaign manager. The Grammy-winning music artist from Chicago said Preckwinkle was the most qualified of the two candidates. He noted her work to reduce the jail population and provide health care to more than 350,000 people, saying “actions speak louder than words.”
Voter Rhonda McFarland, who lives in the ward Preckwinkle represented on the City Council and is supporting her for mayor, also cited her proven track record. She said the race comes down to “what we will do” versus “We know what (Preckwinkle) has done.”
Lightfoot also has faced criticism from some activists who say she has sided too often with police when leading police oversight boards in Chicago.
Lightfoot said her showing in the February election helped people see it might be possible to topple the city’s political “machine.”
“For those people who hungered for change, for the first time they got a glimpse of what that might look like, and that it was actually attainable,” she said. “That’s why I think this campaign has gained so much momentum over these last few weeks because of that prospect for real, meaningful transformative government.”
She said she will bring transparency and accountability to City Hall and restore people’s faith in government.
“The machine’s been in decline for a while, but it still has a grip on certain things,” Lightfoot said. “This is our opportunity to send it to its grave, once and for all.”
Associated Press video journalist Teresa Crawford contributed to this report.