Lori Lightfoot rode into the Chicago mayor’s office in 2019 as a reform candidate, offering a break from the city’s clubby political scene while making history as the first Black woman and first out gay person to hold the office as she won all 50 wards.
Four years later, the Second City’s voters demonstrated how drastically its political dynamics have shifted when Lightfoot on Tuesday failed to finish in the top two and advance to the April runoff. Chicago is now the third major city in recent years with a mayoral election that will test attitudes – among a heavily Democratic electorate – toward crime and policing.
Lightfoot had clashed with police and teachers’ unions, while developing frosty relationships with city aldermen and Illinois’ Democratic governor – leaving her with few influential allies. Voters, too, were uneasy: Violent crime spiked on Lightfoot’s watch. Chicago’s public transportation system remains saddled with service gaps and delays. And though Lightfoot’s management of the coronavirus pandemic was popular, the city’s economic rebound has been sluggish.
The result was a municipal election in which Lightfoot finished third in the nine-person field, with the support of only about one-in-six Chicago voters. She is the first full-term incumbent Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose reelection.
The outcome especially underscored the electorate’s focus on public safety. Violence in the city spiked in 2020 and 2021. And though shootings and murders have decreased since then, other crimes – including theft, car-jacking, robberies and burglaries – have increased since last year, according to the Chicago Police Department’s 2022 year-end report.
Paul Vallas, a former schools chief who campaigned on a tough-on-crime message, and Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner with the backing of the influential teachers’ union, advanced to the head-to-head match-up in five weeks.
Vallas, the most conservative major candidate, says he will take on crime by hiring more police officers, while Johnson, the most liberal, has focused his crime message on addressing its root causes and at one point advocated reducing police funding.
“We will have a safe Chicago. We will make Chicago the safest city in America,” Vallas said at his campaign party Tuesday night.
The city’s slow economic recovery from the pandemic is also connected to crime. McDonald’s president and chief executive officer Chris Kempczinski said at The Economic Club of Chicago last fall that the chain was struggling to convince potential employees to relocate to work in its West Loop headquarters.
“It just shows up in so many different ways,” he said. “Crime becomes pervasive in peoples’ psyche, and it affects us. Ultimately it is holding all of us back.”
The race’s focus on crime and public safety showed how voters’ attitudes and the city’s concerns had shifted in the four years since Lightfoot had campaigned as a police reformer who would overhaul the way officers are supervised and disciplined.
In 2019, Lightfoot was the surprise first-place finisher in another crowded mayoral primary with just 17.5% of the vote. She trounced Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County board president and a long-time Chicago political mainstay, in the runoff as voters sought change.
“We can and will remake Chicago,” Lightfoot pledged on the night of her victory.
However, the results of 2019’s first round – with the first-place finisher qualifying for the runoff with the support of less than one-in-five Chicago voters – proved to be an omen of Lightfoot’s future difficulties.
She’d won an office that has long been a political lightning rod without a durable base of support. And while her toughness was an asset on the campaign trail, it cost Lightfoot some of the allies she’d gained on her way to victory.
Most importantly, the pugnacious Lightfoot brawled with teacher and police unions before and during the Covid-19 pandemic – battles that ultimately led both groups to back rivals in the 2023 mayor’s race.
A 2019 fight with the Chicago Teachers Union over pay and class size as Lightfoot sought to curb spending led to an 11-day strike. Last year, the two were at loggerheads again as Lightfoot pushed teachers to return to classrooms despite rising Covid-19 cases.
The union last fall endorsed Johnson, who was relatively unknown outside his Cook County commission district – propelling him in the nine-candidate field.
“Chicago is ready to break with the politics of the past that ignore the needs of our students, their families and school communities,” union President Stacy Davis Gates said of Tuesday’s election results.
Lightfoot infuriated police last year, in a fight focused on overtime pay in a department that had struggled to retain officers and recruit new ones, when she said officers had an “incredible” amount of time off. It was the latest ugly chapter in years-long tension between police and Lightfoot’s administration as she sought to rein in overtime spending.
The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Vallas – a former schools chief in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Connecticut, who ran on a pro-police message and pointed to officers in his family.
His tough-on-crime pitch also attracted more conservative voters. Chicago is a diverse, overwhelmingly blue city, with 83% of the electorate backing the Democratic ticket in the 2020 presidential election. But in such a fractured field, any foothold of support is critical.
On Wednesday, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown announced he will resign in March – which will allow the next mayor to install new leadership at the department.
The dynamics in Chicago echoed mayor’s races in New York City in 2021, won by Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, and Los Angeles in 2022, where then-Rep. Karen Bass defeated Rick Caruso, a billionaire developer who had pumped more than $100 million into a campaign focused on law and order.
Bass defeated Caruso in part by offering her own plans to increase the number of police officers on the streets and declare a state of emergency to address a crisis of homelessness.
While Vallas’ message bears similarities to Adams’ in New York, the messengers are different – Adams is Black and Vallas is White.
On Tuesday, Vallas and Johnson’s strongest areas were in the city’s northside, which is more White, while Lightfoot turned in her strongest performance in the city’s predominantly Black areas to the south and west.
Those results underscore the extent to which the runoff is poised to become a battle for Black voters’ support – and one in which the contrasting visions of Vallas and Johnson over policing are likely to take center stage.
Johnson, in his celebratory speech Tuesday night, showed the first signs that he will seek to consolidate liberals who supported someone else in the nine-person field. He cited each candidate by name.
“If you voted for one of those other candidates, I want you to know that I’m running to be the mayor of you, too,” Johnson said.
He said he would fight for public safety across the city, as well as “a city where the trains actually run on time and the public schools are fully resourced.”
Vallas, on Twitter on Wednesday, said he is “running to be a Mayor for ALL of Chicago, because public safety is a human right and people in every neighborhood deserve to feel safe.”