CHICAGO — Voters in Chicago on Tuesday elected former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot to become their next mayor, making Chicago the largest city to elect an African-American woman as its top elected official.
The Associated Press called the race for Lightfoot shortly before 8 p.m. With votes in 85% of precincts counted, Lightfoot had 73.9% of the vote and Preckwinkle 26.1%.
The win by Lightfoot, who identifies as a lesbian and will be Chicago’s first woman of color to serve as mayor, also means the Windy City is the biggest U.S. city to pick an openly gay mayor.
Lightfoot, who has never held elective office, easily defeated Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who was one of Chicago’s most prominent politicians.
In a city weighed down by myriad problems—economic inequality, persistent gun violence in pockets of the city, $28 billion in unfunded pension obligations and endemic political corruption—Lightfoot made the case to voters that she was the outsider that could shake up Chicago’s political scene.
Chicago has had a large African American population for much of its 182-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 will succeed Emanuel, who announced last September that he would not seek a third term in office.
She stunned Chicago in the first round of voting five weeks ago by finishing ahead of the entire 14-candidate field. Since no candidate won a majority of the vote, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle as the top two vote-getters advanced to Tuesday’s runoff.
Lightfoot, 56, finished sixth in fundraising but topped the crowded field of candidates during the first round of voting. She billed herself as a change agent who could best battle the city’s longtime problem of corruption.
On many of the central issues, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle held similar positions, and both called themselves progressives.
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Both said they supported some form of a real estate transaction tax to help generate revenue for the cash-strapped city. Lightfoot and Preckwinkle said they opposed pursuing an amendment to the state constitution to reduce pension benefits for city workers and retirees.
And they agreed that reducing the city’s gun violence problem would require holistic remedies, including investments in economically distressed neighborhoods and improving schools in some of the most violence-plagued neighborhoods.
But some on Chicago’s political left remain suspicious of Lightfoot.
While she never served in elected office, Lightfoot received appointments from Mayors Emanuel and Richard M. Daley. She served as president of the Chicago Police Board, headed the police department Office of Professional Standards and the city’s Police Accountability Task Force.
Both the police board and Office of Professional Standards have criticized by some critics of the Chicago Police Department—which in January entered into a federal court-monitored agreement to implement reforms—as feckless organizations that rarely seriously punished police officers for misconduct.
“There is genuine confusion in this moment of what it means to be progressive,” said Emma Tai, executive director of the group United Working Families. “We’re in this moment when most of the candidates—regardless of the past positions they’ve taken or work that they’ve done—were running as far from Rahm Emanuel’s record as they could. That’s not the same thing as being progressive.”
Lightfoot hammered Preckwinkle, 72, who is also the Cook County Democratic Party chairwoman, as a relic of the city’s political machine.
More than 30 Chicago city council members have been convicted of public corruption since 1973, and federal prosecutors have racked up hundreds more convictions of elected officials, city employees and contractors over those years.
Throughout the campaign, Lightfoot knocked Preckwinkle for her ties to Alderman Ed Burke, a city council member who federal prosecutors charged in January with attempted extortion for allegedly trying to shake down the operators of a company that operates Burger King franchises in Illinois.
After prosecutors announced the charges against Burke, Preckwinkle acknowledged she had received a $10,000 donation from the Burger King operators but had returned the money.
Preckwinkle has also said that she would return $116,000 in political donations she collected at a fundraiser at Burke’s home last year.
Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle acknowledged that a victory by either of them would mark a historic moment for African-American women, but neither dwelled on it during the campaign.
No love was lost between the two candidates during their battle for the mayor’s office.
Before the first round of voting, Lightfoot compared Preckwinkle and three other mayoral candidates with ties to Burke to “cockroaches.”
At their first one-on-one debate, Lightfoot called Preckwinkle “sad and pathetic” and accused her of lying about Lightfoot receiving the endorsements of two City Council members who back President Donald Trump. Lightfoot actually received an endorsement from the firefighters union, of which the aldermen are members.
Lightfoot questioned whether Preckwinkle “was blowing some kind of dog whistle” to conservative voters after the county board president brought up her sexual orientation at a debate. She also expressed outrage after one of Preckwinkle’s campaign advisers 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.
One of Preckwinkle’s surrogates, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., suggested that Chicagoans should be suspicious of Lightfoot, who served on two police oversight boards. He said voters would have blood on their hands if they voted for Lightfoot. Preckwinkle declined to disavow the comments.
Lightfoot said earlier this week that she needed to hear just two words from Preckwinkle to begin burying the hatchet, “Congratulations, mayor.”
With her victory, Lightfoot is among the most prominent openly LGBTQ mayors in America. (South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, is having his own star moment.)
Lightfoot is one of several openly gay candidates running for mayor in medium and large U.S. cities around the country this election cycle.
In Tampa, Jane Castor – who previously served as that city’s police chief – is looking to become the first out woman to lead a major Florida city when voters go to the polls on April 23. Kansas City council member Jolie Justus is a top contender in Tuesday’s crowded non-partisan primary, vying to succeed outgoing Mayor Sly James.
Meanwhile, in Madison, Wisconsin, former council member Satya Rhodes-Conway is attempting to unseat Mayor Paul Soglin, who has held the seat for 22 years, in Tuesday’s runoff. She hopes to become the city’s first openly gay woman mayor.
Lightfoot said while history-making was important. But the vast majority of city residents who voted for her were primarily motivated by a desire to shake up the city’s political scene.
“I think it’s more about (voters wanting) a break from the corrupt political machine,” Lightfoot says. “Obviously, it’s going to be historic because a black woman is going to be elected no matter who wins. But if I win, what it is going to speak to is the desire to really break from the past.”
Anita Williams, a voter from the Garfield Park neighborhood on the city’s West Side, said she wasn’t hopeful that either candidate would bring much hope to her economically ravaged and violence-plagued corner of her city.
Williams said she decided to cast her vote for Lightfoot because she liked that the candidate was open about her sexual orientation and family life.
“I like that she was just open and honest about who she is,” Williams said. “I am not optimistic that any politician is going to do much to help us out here, but I liked that part of her.”
Lightfoot follows several other LGBTQ candidates to win high-profile seats, including Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin; Sen. Kristen Sinema, of Arizona; and Gov. Jared Polis, of Colorado. All three are Democrats.
Still, a “rainbow wave” hasn’t yet arrived in American politics, notes Stephanie Sandberg, executive director of LPAC, an LGBTQ political organization that backed Lightfoot’s candidacy.
About 4.5% of American adults identify as LGBTQ, according to a 2017 Gallup Poll. There are roughly 600 openly LGBTQ elected officials in the U.S. — about 0.1 percent of elected officials nationwide, according to the Victory Institute, a national group dedicated to promoting openly LGBTQ leaders.
“Having a Lori Lightfoot who is not only African American, not only a woman, but is an out lesbian becomes a role model for so many people—each of those communities,” Sandberg said. “No one has seen that before. Once you see it, it keeps breaking barriers.”