CHICAGO – The two candidates vying to become mayor of the nation’s third-largest city are both transplants from elsewhere in the Midwest who are casting themselves as progressives.
They’re also no strangers to Chicago’s rough-and-tumble politics.
Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, 56, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, 71, finished first and second in the election to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday.
They advance to a runoff vote on April 2. The winner will be Chicago’s first black woman mayor; Chicago will become the largest U.S. city to be led by a black woman.
The race could be a turning point for a city that’s shifting further to the left ideologically as it tries to shake a reputation for political corruption and the scourge of gun violence.
“It’s clear we’re at a defining moment in our city’s history,” Preckwinkle said. “The challenges that our city faces are not simply ideological. It’s not enough to say that Chicago stands at a crossroads. We need to fight to change its course.”
The city has had a large African-American population for much of its 181-year history, but only two of the city’s 55 mayors have been black: Harold Washington from 1983 to 1987 and Eugene Sawyer from 1987 to 1989. Only one woman, Jane Byrne, has held the mayor’s office, from 1979 to 1983.
Lightfoot would also be Chicago’s first openly gay or lesbian mayor.
Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the moment is significant for a city that has long suffered racism and the marginalization of its black residents.
“Toni and Lori’s respective platforms are the products of pressure from sustained community organizing efforts on issues of education, police accountability, and racial and economic equity over the last couple of decades,” Todd-Breland said.
“This does not mean that Chicago has suddenly transformed into a politically progressive city. But the next mayor will have run on relatively progressive promises.”
The race between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle will likely be as hard-fought as the first round of voting when 14 candidates fought for the mayor’s seat.
A head-to-head poll published by 270 Strategies before the vote Tuesday showed Lightfoot leading Preckwinkle 42 percent to 25 percent.
The two candidates attacked each other relentlessly in the lead-up to the first round of voting.
Preckwinkle attempted to paint Lightfoot as a relic of the Emanuel and Richard M. Daley administrations. Both mayors selected her to serve in high-level positions on police accountability panels.
“While my opponent was taking multiple appointments in the Daley and Emanuel administrations, I fought the power elites that were trying to hold this city back for decades,” Preckwinkle said.
Lightfoot has punched back.
She frequently pointed to Preckwinkle’s ties to Alderman Ed Burke, the 50-year veteran of Chicago’s city council who was charged by federal authorities last month with attempted extortion.
Burke is accused of trying to shake down the operators of Burger King restaurants in Illinois. He has pleaded not guilty and was re-elected on Tuesday.
Burke hosted a fundraiser for Preckwinkle last year that netted her more than $100,000 in campaign contributions.
Lightfoot criticized Preckwinkle last week after a senior Preckwinkle campaign adviser posted a photo of Nazis at the Nuremberg trials on social media to argue against supporting Lightfoot.
Preckwinkle fired the aide and apologized to Lightfoot.
“Politics is a tough business,” Lightfoot said. “I knew that before I jumped in. But it is disturbing to me that a mayoral candidate’s top adviser believes the genocide of millions of people is a casual enough subject to be used as a joke to settle a political argument.
“Take note of those that surround the people we expect to lead.”
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Preckwinkle, a former high school teacher from St. Paul, Minnesota, spent 20 years as a Chicago alderman representing the South Side ward where President Barack Obama lived.
She was an early backer of Obama, dating back to his first run for the state legislature in 1996. She was elected president of the Cook County Board in 2010 and became head of the Cook County Democratic Party last year.
Preckwinkle has also been critical of the former president. She suggested in a 2008 interview with the New Yorker that Obama ignored his South Side base after he was elected to the Senate in 2004.
“My view is you have to bring your constituency along with you. Granted, you have to make some tough decisions,” Preckwinkle said. “Granted, sometimes you have to make decisions that people won’t understand or like. But it’s your obligation to explain yourself and try to do your supporters the courtesy of treating them with respect.”
Obama did not endorse a candidate during the first round of voting for mayor. The field included Bill Daley, who served as his White House chief of staff.
A spokesman for the former president did not respond to a request for comment about whether Obama will endorse for the runoff.
In her victory speech Tuesday, Preckwinkle joked that she’s been a progressive since the days when the word was “at best a euphemism for unelectable.”
She argues that she’s not only ideologically aligned with most working-class Chicagoans, but that she’s also got the experience with political sausage-making to know how to make substantial changes in the city.
“It’s not enough to stand at a podium and talk about what you want to see happen,” Preckwinkle said. “You have to come to this job with the capacity and capability to make your vision a reality.”
Lightfoot is the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper grew up in Ohio steel country. She moved to Chicago in 1986 to attend law school at the University of Chicago.
She’s worked as a federal prosecutor in Chicago and a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown. She was appointed by Emanuel to the Chicago Police Board and the city’s Police Accountability Task Force.
In 2002, She was appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley as chief administrator of the Office of Professional Standards, a disciplinary arm of the Chicago Police. It was criticized for rarely taking action against officers for excessive use of force and eventually was abolished.
Lightfoot has never held elected office, and raised just $1.6 million, little more than a third of the $4.6 million Preckwinkle hauled in. (Bill Daley, who finished third on Tuesday, led the field with more than $8.7 million.)
Still, she managed more votes than any other candidate.
Lightfoot has cast herself as an independent who will work to improve the city’s public schools and address gun violence as a public health issue. She’s also said that she supports mayoral term limits.
The former prosecutor has a brother who has spent a significant portion of his life incarcerated. When she worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, she has noted, she was asked to sign a loyalty oath because her brother was a fugitive at the time.
“As a black woman leading the Police Accountability Task Force and the Police Board and paving the way for police reform in this city,” she said, “I knew full well the devastating impacts of the criminal justice system on black and brown families and, really, all families in the community.”
Emanuel, a moderate Democrat who served as a top aide to President Bill Clinton, a member of the Democratic leadership in Congress and White House chief of staff to Obama, leaves office after two terms.
His legacy is seen as mixed.
Emanuel was already a national figure when he arrived in the mayor’s office. He’s credited with persuading several big corporations, including McDonald’s, Walgreens and Motorola, to move their headquarters from the suburbs to the city.
But his standing in the city’s sizable African-American community plummeted in 2015 with the release of chilling police video that showed a white police officer firing 16 shots at a black teen on the city’s Southwest Side.
Emanuel was pilloried by the left as “Mayor One Percent” as the city’s chasm between rich-and-poor widened. He was criticized for the closure of 50 Chicago public schools in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. And he faced enmity of the Chicago Teachers Union, which in 2012 struck for seven days – the first time in 25 years Chicago endured a system-wide work stoppage.