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Chicago mayor’s race featuring two Black women, headed to runoff election

By Bryan Crawford -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Mar 5, 2019 - 9:44:08 PM

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CHICAGO—When Rahm Emanuel announced he would not be seeking re-election for a third term as mayor of Chicago, it sent shockwaves throughout the city’s political community. Mr. Emanuel stepping aside created a golden opportunity in the country’s third largest city. After his announcement, the field instantly became flooded with candidates vying for the open mayoral seat.

(l) Lori Lightfoot (r) Toni Preckwinkle
Photos: MGN Online

On the eve of the February 26 election, there were as many as 14 candidates still in the race, with no clear frontrunner. However, when polling closed, despite one of the lowest voter turnouts ever in the city, history was made when two Black women emerged as the top candidates in the field, setting the stage for a runoff election when the City of Chicago will have its first ever Black woman as mayor, and potentially, its first ever openly gay mayor as well.

Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who served as president of the Chicago Police Board, and who is gay, walked away with 90,000 (17.5 percent) votes while Toni Preckwinkle, who currently serves as Cook County Board president, received 83,000 (16 percent) of votes.

The two beat out a loaded field which included Bill Daley, a member of one of Chicago’s oldest political families, whose brother and father both served as mayor of Chicago for 43 of the last 55 years prior to Emanuel being elected in 2011. Willie Wilson, a local Black businessman who has campaigned for public office before, also ran, as did Comptroller of Illinois Susana Mendoza, upstart political candidate and activist Amara Enyia, attorney Jerry Joyce, former Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education Gery Chico, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Paul Vallas, former Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department Garry McCarthy, Illinois House of Representatives member La Shawn Ford, former Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti, John Kolzar and Neal Sáles-Griffin.

“People said that I had some good ideas, but that I couldn’t win. And it’s true that not every day a little Black girl in 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,” Lori Lightfoot said at her campaign headquarters after polls closed and she emerged as a frontrunner. Ms. Lightfoot ran her campaign as somewhat of a political outsider, saying she’s never held a position as a politically elected official, while branding herself as a progressive, independent reformer. “This, my friends, is what change looks like,” Ms. Lightfoot added.

Ms. Preckwinkle on the other hand, is more or less a political lifer. She had served five terms as alderman of Chicago’s 4th Ward on the city’s South Side before being elected Cook County Board President in 2010.

“We may not be at the finish line. But, we should acknowledge that history is being made,” said Ms. Preckwinkle, before seeming to take a shot at her April opponent and her political inexperience, adding, “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.”

Ms. Preckwinkle also said of Ms. Lightfoot’s position as a political outsider, “While my opponent was taking multiple appointments in both the Daley and Emanuel administrations, I fought the powers who have been trying to hold this city back for decades. I remember when progressive wasn’t a positive. It was at best a euphemism for unelectable.”

Chicago’s first and only Black mayor, Harold Washington, served from April 29, 1983 until his death on November 25, 1987.

Outside of Chicago being on the verge of electing its first-ever Black woman mayor, the 2019 election was filled with more anomalies that may have gone unnoticed by people who are unfamiliar with the city’s political landscape. For starters, the turnout for the mayoral election was one of the lowest in the city’s history. Of the more than 1.6 million registered voters in Chicago, a little more than 521,000 votes were cast, which amounts to roughly 32.95 percent of people casting ballots, a number only slightly better than what was seen in 2007 when Chicago had 1.4 million registered voters and only 465,706 people cast ballots, which equates to 33.08 percent of voters.

In addition, Chicago’s mayoral races have essentially become nonpartisan, meaning there are no formal Democrat or Republican candidates to choose from. All of the candidates who ran this year, as in years past, have active ties to the Democratic Party. This has caused some in Chicago’s political circles to bristle at the lack of candidates with alternative options, ideologies and ideas to choose from, although many understand that Republican numbers in the city, whether as potential political candidates or voters, have dwindled to the point of being virtually nonexistent.

Now, the stage is set for a showdown set to take place in five weeks between two Black women vying for one of the most recognizable and high profile political seats in the country. Each will need to campaign even stronger than they did in their initial runs for mayor, only this time, instead of political mudslinging, each will need to address key issues concerning voters in the city. One of these is the all but nonexistent middle class in Chicago and how to bring back a demographic that has been completely decimated as jobs that once helped bolster the city’s middle class communities have disappeared, forcing residents to leave as well.

“Conditions now force many middle-income families to either leave the city to find housing they can afford, or to move into lower-income communities,” said Janet Smith of the Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois, which conducted a study of Chicago’s dwindling middle class communities.

“Leaving the city often means longer commutes to work, often driving rather than using public transportation. Moving to lower-cost housing areas helps to further fuel gentrification—intentional or not—which can then continue to exacerbate the divide.”

Ms. Smith added, “Politicians always talk about families. But if this is a city for families, we will need to look at housing affordability and school policy to really support them. So they can thrive and be part of building a better Chicago.”

Other issues the two mayoral front runners will have to address, is the corruption at City Hall which some observers note ultimately led to Rahm Emanuel stepping down. Since 1972, more than 24 Chicago aldermen have been convicted of crimes related to their duties as elected officials. Other areas of focus will be a poor and failing Chicago Public Schools system, reforming the Chicago Police Department, addressing the issue of rising pension debt and a crime rate in the city that has been consistently portrayed in the media as one of the worst in the country. Chicago’s mayoral runoff will take place on April 2.