Chicago elects Lori Lightfoot as first gay and first black female mayor in city’s history
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.
With votes in 95% of precincts counted, Lightfoot had 73.7% of the vote and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle 26.3%.
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.
“Out there tonight, a lot of little girls and boys are watching,” Lightfoot said in her victory speech. “They are watching us and they are seeing the beginning of something, well, a little bit different. They are seeing a city reborn. A city where it doesn’t matter what color you are . . . where it doesn’t matter who you love, just as long as you love.”
Lightfoot, who has never held elected office, easily defeated Preckwinkle, who is one of Chicago’s most prominent politicians. Lightfoot beat Preckwinkle in each of the city’s 50 wards.
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 Chicago needs to shake things up.
Chicago has had a large African American population for much of its 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.
On many of the central issues, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle held similar positions, and both called themselves progressives.
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 epidemic would require multiple remedies, including investments in economically distressed neighborhoods and improving schools in some of the most violence-plagued areas.
Addressing supporters Tuesday evening, Lightfoot repeated campaign promises to pour attention into Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods and take on the tough challenges that have led to the city losing tens of thousands of residents over the last decade from predominantly black neighborhoods.
“A shrinking city, which is where we are right now, just will not do,” Lightfoot said. “To thrive, Chicago must grow. It simply must.”
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 faced criticism. Some say the oversight agencies were feckless organizations that rarely took action against Chicago 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 powerful city council member who federal prosecutors charged in January with attempted extortion. He allegedly tried 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.
“For a while, I may be disappointed,” Preckwinkle said in her concession speech. “I am not disheartened. For one thing, this is clearly a historic night. Not long ago, two African-American women vying for this position would have been unthinkable.”
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.
In this March 24, 2019 photo, Chicago mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot listens to a question during a candidate forum sponsored by One Chicago For All Alliance at Daley College in Chicago. Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle are competing to make history by becoming the city’s first black, female mayor. (Photo: Teresa Crawford, AP)
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 because of her service on the 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 on Tuesday finished as one of the top two contenders in a crowded field vying to succeed outgoing Mayor Sly James. She will face fellow councilman Quinton Lucas in a June 18 runoff.
Meanwhile, in Madison, Wisconsin, former council member Satya Rhodes-Conway trounced Mayor Paul Soglin, who has held the seat for 22 years, in Tuesday’s runoff. She becomes the city’s first openly gay woman mayor.
Lightfoot said the 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, she said.
“I think it’s more about (voters wanting) a break from the corrupt political machine,” Lightfoot said.
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 the 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 who won 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% 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— (she) becomes a role model for so many people—(in) each of those communities,” Sandberg said. “No one has seen that before. Once you see it, it keeps breaking barriers.”