Chicago mayor’s race pits a longtime political insider against a former prosecutor who’s never held public office. (April 1)
CHICAGO— The city of Chicago will make history Tuesday when it becomes the nation’s largest U.S. city to elect a black woman as mayor.
Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle were the top two vote-getters in the first round of voting in February that included 14 candidates. Since no candidate won an outright majority in the first round, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle are squaring off in Tuesday’s runoff race.
Lightfoot, 56, has never been elected to office. Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel appointed her to serve on high-level positions on police accountability panels.
Preckwinkle is the top-elected official in the Cook County government, which includes Chicago, and is also the head of the county’s Democratic Party.
A former high school teacher from St. Paul, Minnesota, she spent 20 years as a Chicago alderman representing the South Side ward where President Barack Obama lived. She was elected president of the Cook County Board in 2010 and became head of the Cook County Democratic Party last year.
Should Preckwinkle win, she’d be the first to simultaneously hold the mayor’s office and county Democratic Party chairmanship since the late Richard J. Daley. As chairman of the county party, Daley oversaw one of the most powerful political machines in American history — one that famously helped President John F. Kennedy squeak out a narrow victory in Illinois in 1960.
“We’re working very hard, and we’ve worked to identify our voters, and we’re going to work to get them out by knocking on doors and making phone calls,” Preckwinkle told reporters following a campaign stop on the city’s West Side Monday.
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.
The winner of Tuesday’s election will succeed Emanuel, who announced last September that he would not seek a third term in office.
The most recent independent poll showed Lightfoot had an opened a wide lead over Preckwinkle. Lightfoot, who finished sixth in fundraising but first in votes in the crowded field of candidates during the first round of voting, has billed herself as a change agent who could best battle the city’s longtime problem of corruption.
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 was 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 authorities 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 said that she would return $116,000 in political donations she collected at a fundraiser at Burke’s home last year.
She also has faced questions about why her administration hired Burke’s son, Edward Burke Jr., in 2014 to serve as the training and exercise manager for the Cook County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department. The younger Burke left the job last year.
A victory for Lightfoot, who is a lesbian, would make her the most prominent openly LGBTQ mayor in America by taking reins of the nation’s third-largest city.
She 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 a win for her would be a double history-maker for Chicago. But the vast majority of city residents voting for her are primarily motivated by a desire to shake up the city’s political scene, Lightfoot argues.
“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.”
In the final days of the campaign, Preckwinkle has turned to several of Chicago’s most prominent black elected officials — including Rep. Danny Davis, Rep. Bobby Rush and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White — to remind voters that she has spent nearly three decades in elected office while Lightfoot has yet to serve.
“I don’t want to get ugly, but maybe I should,” White told about 50 voters at a campaign event at a church on the city’s predominantly African American West Side. “People talk about change, but sometimes they are misguided.”
“When we said we wanted change, we got Gov. Bruce Rauner,” added White, referring to the Illinois Republican governor who in November was voted out of office. “Then when we said we wanted change when it came to our president, we got Donald Trump— the worst president in the history of the United States. I want to make sure we don’t make another mistake.”
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