Political Winds Shift In The Windy City
An Incumbent Mayor Loses And Voters Are Offered A Stunning Contrast
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s tumultuous four years as mayor of the country’s third-biggest city ended Tuesday night when she failed to advance in the first round of Chicago’s mayoral election. Lightfoot, Chicago’s second woman mayor, saw her time at City Hall end in a similar fashion to the city’s first woman executive, and what follows now, according to several Chicago political operatives, is a political battle that echoes that era of Chicago politics forty years ago.
Chicago has what’s called a jungle primary to elect its mayor. Since 1995, mayors are elected without party labels. Candidates run in the first round and the top two challengers advance to a runoff. Lightfoot came in third on Tuesday behind former Chicago Schools CEO Paul Vallas, a former candidate for Illinois governor and lieutenant governor, and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, making Lightfoot the first incumbent mayor to be defeated since Jane Byrne in 1983. Vallas and Johnson will face off in the race to succeed Lightfoot on April 4.
Lightfoot’s tenure as mayor has been volatile. Her 2019 election came as sort of a surprise. The race was to succeed former White House Chief of Staff and staunch Obama-ally Rahm Emanuel. who had, shall we say, an acrimonious relationship with the Democratic Party’s left wing. Emanuel angered both progressives and Chicago’s politically-powerful black communities during his time as mayor, and the race to succeed him featured over a dozen candidates representing various political factions.
The 2019 election was arguably the most competitive since the notorious 1983 election that split the city along racial lines. More on that later. Because the dozen or so candidates all split the votes among themselves, Lightfoot made the runoff winning only 18 percent. It was considered an upset as among the other candidates was Bill Daly, a member of Chicago’s most powerful political dynasty. Daley’s brother, Richard M. Daley, was mayor of the city from 1990 through 2011 and their father, Richard J. Daley, was mayor during the 1960s and one of the most iconic of the “city political bosses” of the 20th Century. Daley was widely expected to win and face Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in the runoff. Preckwinkle was the favorite of progressives, anti-establishment voters, and police reformers. Lightfoot, however, ate into both candidates’ support in the later days of the campaign. Her campaign focused on her time as head of the Chicago Police Board and her conflicts with Emanuel over police accountability, which helped her build a coalition that had become a winning one for progressive Democrats in the Trump era; black voters and young progressive reformers. As police accountability became a huge issue in the late 2010s, Lightfoot was able to leapfrog over Daley, who was considered to be too close to the unpopular Emanuel (both had served at different times as Obama’s Chief of Staff) and she and Preckwinkle were headed to a runoff.
Lightfoot utilized her status as an insurgent candidate in the runoff and defeated Preckwinkle in a landslide, despite Preckwinkle winning a lot of establishment support. The 2019 election saw one of the lowest turnouts in history.
The Lightfoot Era
In many ways, Lightfoot winning a low-turnout open race sealed her fate. She came in with a mandate, but only among the one-third of Chicagoans who actually voted. She already didn’t have the support of many of the city’s moderates and conservatives, who make up probably half the voters, and many progressives, especially those who supported Preckwinkle, were skeptical. Much like former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the fact that Lightfoot was considered to be an anti-establishment, insurgent progressive who supported unorthodox positions on crime and policing, made it hard for her to build support beyond her coalition.
Lightfoot was faced with a number of crises that defined her early tenure. First, a teacher’s strike in 2019 earned her the animosity of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union. During the pandemic, became the face of Chicago’s strict COVID mitigation strategies. At one point, her administration inexplicably placed cardboard cutouts of a stern-looking Lightfoot in Chicago playgrounds and athletic courts to dissuade young people from breaking the city’s stay-at-home rule. The move was tongue-in-cheek at the time and provided some levity to the stressful crisis, but it also made light of a serious situation and came across as patronizing and tone-deaf.
The pandemic may have been the biggest contributor to Lightfoot’s problems. Because of the crisis, her affordable housing plan, the backbone of her agenda as mayor, was put on hold indefinitely. Her plan to reduce crime and gun violence went awry, as the social and economic ramifications of the pandemic shutdowns lead to stubbornly high crime and unemployment. Chicago also endured pandemic restrictions until well into 2021, which hurt the city’s economy and lead to the city’s population falling for the first time since the 1990s.
Lightfoot also won no allies on her position on pandemic-era education. Already having a strained relationship with the teachers union, she angered them by trying to reopen schools when the union was hoping to leverage the closures for better pay and working conditions. Meanwhile, critics of school closures, especially those in poor black and Hispanic communities, blasted her for keeping schools closed too long and contributing to learning loss.
By mid-2021, her approval rating tanked and never recovered. Her biggest vulnerability was the fact that she did not have a portfolio of successful policies to sell to voters. She had alienated allies on both the right and the left, and that showed up in Tuesday’s election results.
Lightfoot finished third but won the plurality of voters on Chicago’s South Side, the politically-powerful black community that launched President Obama’s career. The first-place finisher, Paul Vallas, ran to the right of Lightfoot on a number of issues, especially crime, and policing. He had the support of Chicago’s police union and won some of the more conservative parts of the city, including Mount Greenwood on the South Side and Norwood Park and the area around O’Hare Airport on the north side. Vallas also did well though in rich liberal areas like the Downtown Loop, the Magnificent Mile, and Lincoln Park, showing some cracks in the progressive coalition of the past. Another area where Vallas did well was Chinatown and Bridgeport. both home to growing Asian-American communities, continuing a trend seen in the two largest American cities, New York and Los Angeles, where Asian Americans vote for more conservative Democrats who focus on “law and order” issues.
Lightfoot was edged out for the second place spot by Brandon Johnson, a Cook County Commissioner who helped organize the 2019 teachers’ strike that rocked Lightfoot’s first year in office. Johnson ran with the support of Chicago progressives, including U.S. Rep. Delia Ramirez and the Working Families Party. The progressives were actually split in this race, with notable labor unions and longtime progressive figures like U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky backing U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia, a longtime favorite of Chicago leftists who ran against Emanuel in 2015.
Garcia’s campaign faltered, in part because he accused Johnson of being too close to the teachers union, a move that lost him support among labor-orientated progressives. Garcia managed to win Latino-dominated neighborhoods, especially those in his Congressional district, like South Lawndale and Archer Heights. Johnson, meanwhile, won much of the progressive North Side, where the main voting block is young educated progressives, much like Astoria or Greenpoint in New York City. Johnson’s strongest areas included Logan Square, Avondale, Albany Park, and Lincoln Square. He also did well in the North Side communities along the lakefront like Lake View.
Johnson’s advancement to the runoff was a bright spot in an otherwise mediocre night for Chicago progressives. Chicago’s chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, energized by left-wing opposition to Lightfoot, failed to make many inroads in City Council races.
Their incumbents who won reelection represented wards – what districts are called in the Chicago City Council – mostly concentrated in their stronghold communities on the North Side, though incumbent Paul La Spata, who represents Logan Square, was narrowly forced into a runoff against Sam Royko, who has endorsed by U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley. Two incumbents, Jeanette Taylor of Englewood and Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who represents the East Side, both won, but narrowly escaped runoffs. Only one challenger advanced to a runoff – Angela Clay in the Lake View-based 46th Ward. In one of the more interesting campaigns by a DSA-endorsed candidate, in the Bridgeport and New City-based 11th Ward, Ambria Taylor finished fourth as Vallas dominated the mayoral race there. The ward is represented by the first Chinese-American on the City Council, Nicole Lee, who was appointed by Lightfoot after the previous incumbent resigned due to corruption allegations. Taylor ran in the largely Asian-American ward against Lee, accusing her of being tied to the corrupt establishment, a move that slighted the growing Asian-American voting bloc in the district.
Echos of 1983
There are some stunning similarities between Chicago’s 2023 election and the one that was held almost forty years ago to the day. Back then the elections were partisan. Since longtime Mayor Richard Daley died in 1976, Chicago had endured two one-term mayors; first Daley’s successor, Michael Bilandic, who won a 1977 special election, later faced his former Consumer Affairs Commissioner, Jane Byrne, in the 1979 primary. Bilandic was expected to win, but several weeks before the election, the city was hit by a massive blizzard and the slow city response was blamed on the mayor. Byrne, who had run her campaign on the narrative that Bilandic was an incompetent hack, use the blizzard to validate that message and won the primary. She later won the general election.
But by 1983, Byrne’s popularity plummeted. Chicago, like most American cities at the time, was locked in a period of decline. Byrne faced Daley’s son, future mayor Richard M. Daley, but she also faced Harold Washington, a Congressman from the South Side who would be the first black mayor of the city. In the primary, Washington narrowly won with 36 percent after Byrne and Daley split their bases and Washington locked up the black vote. What occurred next was a massive schism in Chicago politics, entirely on racial lines.
Byrne’s top political ally was Edward Vrdolyak, a Chicago Councilmember and chair of the Cook County Democratic Party. Vrdolyak represented communities in the far Southeast side of the city along the Indiana border that were dominated by working-class European immigrants and white union members. He was staunchly opposed to the idea of a South Side black congressman as mayor and tried to push white Daley votes to stick with Byrne in the primary. When she lost, Vrdolyak took the unprecedented move of endorsing the Republican candidate, Bernard Epton, in the general election. Epton was considered a sacrificial lamb, but Washington’s nomination on the Democratic line led both working-class whites in the outer wards and “lakefront liberals” in affluent communities like the Loop, Lincoln Park, and Magnificent Mile to unite in fear of the already declining city declining further under Washington’s leadership. The move was entirely racist and a common narrative in urban white working-class communities at the time; a black man couldn’t be trusted to govern a city because he would be emboldened to the interests of the black community, which, people like Vrdolak believe, are what contributed to Chicago’s decline.
In the end, Chicago voters were offered a contrast between a progressive vision led by a black legislator and the most conservative candidate to run for mayor in decades. Washington narrowly won, buoyed by strong support from South Side black voters and the fact that he was a Democrat in a strongly Democratic city. The race though was a close one and inspired Republicans to make attempts at winning in other longtime Democratic cities. Epton’s campaign served as a template for Republican candidates in other cities, like Rudy Giuliani in New York and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles
Today, the Chicago mayor’s race is nonpartisan, a change born from the 1983 race. When Epton lost, Republicans figured he could’ve won had party labels not been on the ballot, so the party pushed for nonpartisan elections, a change they were able to make in 1995 after winning full control of Illinois’ government.
Vallas is a longtime Democrat – but he is running a similar campaign that a Republican would run, focusing largely on law and order issues and overreach by the progressive left. Johnson is running as a reformer looking to push progressive policies at City Hall. The contrast in the runoff election may be the biggest since 1983.
Who Wins The Runoff?
To try to predict who will the runoff election on April 4 is difficult. The race is seen as a tossup and to get some insight into the election for mayor in America’s third largest city, one can look at the recent elections in the two larger ones – New York and Los Angeles.
Who wins will depend on who gets the most support from the powerful block of black voters on the South Side and far East side, who backed Lightfoot. If Vallas is able to make a strong law and order message in that community, and also among Hispanics who supported Garcia, as Eric Adams did in New York City, he could win. But if Johnson plays down his more progressive rhetoric and sells himself as a pragmatic reformer looking to deal directly with Chicago’s crime-related issues, such as gang violence and proliferation of guns – he could manage to overcome the rising law and order narrative and rebuild the successful coalition of black and brown voters and white progressives that served leftists through the Trump era. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass was able to do that last year.
A Vallas win would be a massive blow to progressives and a win for moderates, struggling to retain their influence in the Democratic coalition against a strong progressive faction. Vallas is helped by the fact that crime remains a top voter concern. A Johnson victory would also be a shot in the arm for police reforms who have taken it on the chin recently since rising crime caused a backlash to efforts born from the death of George Floyd in 2020. Though Chicago’s murder rate is higher than in 2019 – a fact that undermined Lightfoot – it is lower than last year and dropping. The reprieve may give Johnson a chance to remake an argument for police reform, especially since Illinois’ bail reform law has been stopped by the state’s supreme court, a move that has angered and emboldened the left.
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