Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago, was trailing in the polls and struggling for votes. Three weeks before the election, with eight opponents wanting to deny her a second term, she stepped out of a black SUV on North Leavitt Street, her security team in the lead. There to greet her were two men playing Yoruba dùndún drums and smiling broadly. She was led in a spirited procession up a narrow flight of stairs to a party space in a converted redbrick factory, where nearly a hundred people cheered.
Lightfoot stepped to a microphone and spoke without notes, recounting his administration’s investments in the long-neglected heart of Black Chicago, which stretches south and west from downtown. He is widely blamed for the city’s high crime and low morale, and is often attacked for what critics call his imperious tendencies. But he said he would “never apologize for bringing wealth and opportunity to Black and Latino families that have been locked down for too long.” Without it, he warned, those communities “would go back thirty more years without having a seat at the table.”
In debates, Lightfoot’s pugnaciousness may come off as dismissive, but this was a supportive crowd, and his voice was friendly. She described Chicago as a “welcoming city” at a time when “we are losing our ability to see the humanity in everyone.” She remembered her late father, Elijah, who worked three low-paying jobs to keep the family afloat in Massillon, Ohio, even after losing his hearing due to illness. “My father has been on my head a lot this week,” she began. But her words caught in her throat and she stopped to collect herself. She continued in a shaky voice: “He’s telling me, ‘Lori Baby, keep your head up, keep your chin up. Finish the job you started.’” ”
Chicagoans may not give Lightfoot that opportunity. Four years ago, running as an outsider with no political experience, she led the way in a runoff and then won seventy-three percent of the vote, becoming the first black woman to lead the city. This time, shunned by many of her former supporters, many of whom now back other candidates, she is an outsider in a different way. TO recent Harris poll found that only thirty-six percent of likely voters believe Lightfoot deserves to be re-elected. Will Johnson, the CEO of the company that conducted the poll, told me that voters want “strength and pragmatism. There’s a big band that wants that vibe. I don’t think he’s getting as much credit for those features as when he ran before.” Early in the pandemic, Lightfoot posted charming video sketches urging people to stay home and wash their hands, but now he seems to be defined by his sharp elbows. “I feel like I’ve been reduced to this two-dimensional character,” he told me.
Unless a candidate gets more than fifty percent of the vote in the first round, which is highly unlikely, the top two finishers will head to a runoff in April. To make sure she’s one of them, Lightfoot is asking black voters to unite against white and Latino candidates: Paul Vallas, a technocrat who is supported by the city’s hardline police union, and Jesús ( Chuy) Garcia, a progressive congressman. who lost a mayoral race eight years ago. He is also calling on black voters to unite against the six other black candidates in the field, including a well-funded county commissioner, two city council members, a state legislator and a wealthy businessman who won fourteen congressional districts in 2019. (Mayoral elections in Chicago are nonpartisan, though no Republicans are running.) In a fragmented field, where opposition to Lightfoot is divided, his message is that she is the only one who can beat Vallas. “I’m very confident,” she told me, less than three weeks before Election Day. “But you don’t know until you know, right?”
In her last election, Lightfoot, a corporate lawyer who had led Chicago’s civilian police disciplinary board, cast herself as a consistent, progressive and incorruptible leader who would steer the city away from the money grabs that have led to criminal convictions. . of thirty-seven councilors since the seventies. She vowed to invest in the abandoned, largely black and working-class sections of the city, not just the gleaming downtown favored by her white predecessors. Campaigning door-to-door on a snowy day in February 2019, she told me that her candidacy was “an incredibly important opportunity to chart a completely different course, one that would seek to include people who have historically been neglected. out of the seats of power.”
When Lightfoot moved into the mayor’s office, he had few allies. Most of the city council members, he said, “didn’t know anything.” In Chicago, the mayor presides over the council; at the first meeting of her, she abruptly release a theatrical challenge from Edward Burke, the influential chairman of the city’s finance committee, who had recently been accused by federal prosecutors of trying to direct the business to his law firm in exchange for city permits. (The trial date is set for November. He remained on the council while under indictment, but is not running for re-election.) “Councilman Burke is someone who likes to test people,” Lightfoot told reporters afterward. “He has tried to do this with me in the past, and he has failed spectacularly. And every time he tries, he’s going to fail spectacularly again.”
Pugilistic firings, especially from the old guard, earned Lightfoot plaudits from his progressive supporters. But then the layoffs began to seem repetitive and mean. In 2021, Lightfoot interrupted a council meeting to march to the back of the chamber to challenge Jeanette Taylor, a South Side councilwoman who was blocking one of Lightfoot’s appointments. “Who’s up against her?” Taylor protested. “He does this all the time and people let him get away with it.” In a dispute over a statue of Christopher Columbus, which Lightfoot had ordered removed from the city, she was allegedly so profane and dismissive of government lawyers that she his opponents sued. Even allies got fed up: Susan Sadlowski Garza, a councilwoman who helped Lightfoot pass a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, told the chicago readers, “I have never met anyone who has managed to anger everyone they come in contact with: police, firefighters, teachers, councillors, businesses, manufacturing.” (Garza declined to comment for this story.)
At the Lightfoot rally on North Leavitt Street, I saw Ghian Foreman, a South Side developer who worked with her on the police discipline board. He is still a fan of hers and was there to talk about her. She acknowledged critics who see her as headstrong and fair-skinned, but stressed the effectiveness of her personal style, demonstrated by a string of political successes and strong leadership during the pandemic: “Who am I to tell Steph Curry not to shoot so many triples? It’s working.” Foreman sees double standards when it comes to women, particularly black women. Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, a member of Congress who served as Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, was known for playing hard and use profanity.As a teenager, when he worked at Arby’s, he lost part of a middle finger to a meat slicer, which caused him to Obama to joke that the accident “left him practically speechless.” Lightfoot told me, “The idea that I’m somehow tougher or meaner than Rich Daley or Rahm Emanuel is laughable.”
One night, in the community room of a luxury condominium on the north side near the lakefront, Scott Waguespack, a prominent member of the Progressive Reform Caucus who has served on the city council since 2007, watched Lightfoot make a measured release to a mostly white audience. Later I asked him about the combativeness of the mayor. One explanation for her style, she said, is that she is trying to end the patronage policy that has long dominated city government. She offered an example. When Lightfoot took over in 2019, she appointed him to lead the finance committee, replacing Burke. The finance committee is heavily staffed, but Waguespack found that contractors and business owners were looking forward to meeting with him in person. That’s what they had done during Burke’s tenure, often evading public oversight, instead conducting business in open session, Waguespack told me. He finished that practice. Lightfoot has fought to stop the call councilor privilege that gives the city’s fifty aldermen significant influence over zoning issues in their districts, and the political spoils that come with it. “When you’re upsetting the apple cart after decades of doing it one way, a lot of people get mad,” he said. “That’s why we have to re-elect her, so we can continue with that. So we don’t go backwards.”
Lightfoot’s time in office has been marked by crises, not all of them under his control. He had only been in his tenure for a few months when the Chicago Teachers Union, which had backed his opponent, staged its longest strike in decades. Then came the pandemic, and with it came a sharp rise in violent crime that Lightfoot has fought to quell, despite city council-approved budgets containing nearly $2 billion a year for surveillance. Last year, the number of homicides fell from their pandemic highs, but the total, 695, remained one of the highest in a quarter of a century. There were 2,832 shootings. Robberies and carjackings are up, spilling over into predominantly white neighborhoods where Lightfoot drew significant support four years ago. Sixty-three percent of likely voters feel unsafe, according to A poll by four Chicago news organizations. Among black voters, the number was even higher: 84 percent.
Lightfoot’s eight challengers have vowed to fire David Brown, the police chief she appointed in 2020. Vallas says, in a televised announcement, “Crime is out of control and combative leadership is failing us.” Willie Wilson, a businessman who lost a son to gun violence in 1995, said police should be allowed to pursue suspects and “hunt them like a rabbit.” Four years ago, after winning fourteen predominantly black districts but not reaching the runoff, he endorsed Lightfoot, something he vowed never to do again. “People keep killing people and nobody gets caught,” he said.