No matter who wins Tuesday’s election for mayor of Chicago, the United States’ third-largest city will be led by an African-American woman for the first time.
The historic race pits Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle against Lori Lightfoot, a lawyer and former head of a police oversight board who also would become the city’s first openly gay mayor.
The free-for-all campaign has represented a sharp contrast to almost every past election in a city that has been synonymous with Democratic machine politics and bossism for nearly a century.
In the first-round election in February, Lightfoot, 56, and Preckwinkle, 72, were the top two vote-getters among 14 candidates. Lightfoot led the crowded field with 17.5 percent of the vote, while Preckwinkle received about 16 percent, qualifying them for Tuesday’s runoff election.
The wide-open succession battle began with a surprise retirement announcement last year from two-term Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a prolific fundraiser and former White House chief of staff to then-President Obama. The famously combative and profane Emanuel had earlier said he planned to run for a third four-year term.
But Emanuel’s popularity suffered major blows as he grappled with the city’s deep financial crisis and the increasingly volatile relationship between police and the black community. Those tensions rose dramatically after the 2015 release of a videotape showing a white officer firing 16 shots into Laquan McDonald, killing the 17-year-old African-American.
Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have sought to brand themselves as much more progressive Democrats than Emanuel, a centrist who often feuded with public-employee labor groups, including the teachers’ union.
After recent polls gave Lightfoot a big lead, many Emanuel backers in the city’s business community gravitated toward her.
In her first campaign for public office, Lightfoot has argued that she’s the best candidate to “break from the status quo that has failed us” and deliver “equity, inclusion and fairness.”
“It’s unacceptable, the condition of our communities on the South and West sides,” she said during a candidate forum last week on WBEZ-Chicago Public Media, referring to predominantly black and disadvantaged areas of the city of 2.7 million people. “The only way we are going to carve a new path for the city, to take us in a direction that our communities don’t continue to be resource starved, is to vote for change.”
Lightfoot also appeared to benefit from the anti-incumbent, reformist mood of an electorate rocked by yet another City Hall corruption scandal.
In January, federal prosecutors alleged attempted extortion by veteran City Council member Edward Burke. And they accused Burke of shaking down a businessman to give a campaign contribution to Preckwinkle, who is also leader of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Preckwinkle and her backers countered that Lightfoot is not a true progressive or outsider, having worked under Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Preckwinkle also warned that Lightfoot’s thin political résumé shows she would be far too inexperienced for the daunting job.
“It’s easy to talk about change,” said Preckwinkle, who once served as a member of the City Council, representing the ward where Obama lived. “Change is not easy. It takes hard work. It takes experience. Being mayor is not an entry-level job.”