Lori Lightfoot, the first Black woman and the first openly gay person ever to serve as mayor of Chicago, on Tuesday became a one-term mayor.
With nearly 99% of the precincts reporting, the mayor who guided Chicago through the pandemic finished third in Tuesday’s election with 17.06% of the vote behind former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who won 33.77 %, and Cook County Commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson, who wound up with 20.29%.
Vallas, 69, and Johnson, 46, will face off five weeks from now in the April 4 runoff to decide who will become the 57th mayor of Chicago.
“Obviously, we didn’t win the election. But I stand here with my head held high and my heart full of thanks,” Lightfoot told supporters shortly before 9 p.m.
“You will not be defined by how you fall. You will be defined by how hard you work and how much you do for other people,” she said.
Vallas waited until Lightfoot’s concession call and speech before claiming his place in the runoff. When he did take the podium, he asked the crowd to give the outgoing mayor a round of applause for her service and courage.
“I haven’t been this happy since my son returned from Afghanistan,” Vallas told a crowd of supporters chanting his name.
Vallas then returned to the law-and-order message that carried him into the runoff.
“Public safety is the fundamental right of every American. It is a civil right, and it is the principle responsibility of government. We will have a safe Chicago. We will make Chicago the safest city in America,” he said.
“It will not only come from providing the police with the resources and the support that they need, but from building the bond between the police department and the community so we have true community policing. … I will also … have zero tolerance when it comes to violating the law or violating the Constitution. And this is coming from a family of four police officers, including my wife.”
A triumphant Johnson claimed his spot in the runoff a few minutes later — with an updated version of what former Mayor Harold Washington said on the day he became Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983.
“Here’s Brandon,” a beaming Johnson said as his supporters chanted, “We want Brandon.”
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“Well Chicago, we did it y’all. They said that this would never happen. I am so freakin’ proud because we did this. A few months ago, they said they didn’t know who I was. Well, if you didn’t know, now you know. … We have shifted the political dynamics in this city.”
He added, “Tonight is about building a Chicago that truly invests in our people. The most radical thing we can do as a city is to love the people of Chicago. Loving people and investing in people — that is the way my father raised me. The finances of this city belong to the people of the city. So, we’re gonna invest in the people of the city.”
A Vallas-Johnson runoff promises to be a generational battle between “the candidate of the Fraternal Order of Police” and the “candidate of the Chicago Teachers Union,” as veteran political strategist David Axelrod put it.
It will also offer voters the starkest of contrasts on the future of education and policing.
Lightfoot went down swinging and took U. S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia down with her.
By blanketing the television airwaves with commercials linking Garcia to two indicted political powerhouses — former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and former cryptocurrency mogul Sam Bankman-Fried — Lightfoot drove up Garcia’s negatives to the point where the Southwest Side congressman finished in fourth place with 13.74% of the vote.
It didn’t save Lightfoot. But it may well have helped Johnson.
As his campaign manager predicted, Johnson appears to have claimed a large share of undecided African-American voters who were “searching” for an alternative to Lightfoot.
That and the 1,000-strong army of CTU and SEIU members who helped turn out the vote for Johnson managed to propel a relative political unknown into the finals of the mayoral sweepstakes.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who endorsed Vallas, said there was a “show of force” for Johnson — with at least three CTU members or staffers paid by the teachers union — in every precinct he visited Tuesday in Old Town, Streeterville, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and the Gold Coast.
“They’re everywhere. It’s a saturation ground game — even in precincts where Johnson was not expected to do well. If they have that many people to spare, that’s incredible. It’s something to see. This is the new machine,” Hopkins said, harkening back to the pre-Shakman heyday of the old Democratic machine.
With violent crime and the perception of it foremost on the minds of voters, the mayor who chose Chicago Police Supt. David Brown and stubbornly refused demands from all eight challengers to get rid of him failed to make the runoff.
Forty years ago, Jane Byrne, the first woman to serve as mayor of Chicago, was turned into a one-termer by a defeat that paved the way for another first: the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Washington.
Now Lightfoot follows in the footsteps of Byrne after suffering the ultimate political humiliation — an incumbent mayor not only denied a second term: She couldn’t even make it into the runoff.
Lightfoot’s first and only term was marred by the pandemic, civil unrest, a teachers strike, battles with the CTU over the reopening of schools and a seemingly endless strings of public arguments with City Council members and other elected officials.
She started the race with a public approval rating stuck in the mid-20s and was never able to overcome that low rating.
Lightfoot was counting on African-American voters to help her over the finish line and compensate for the support she lost among lakefront voters disappointed with her record on reform, transparency and crime. She has pointed to her signature Invest South/West plan as proof that no mayor — not even Washington — has done more for the African-American community.
But with six other Black candidates in the race, Lightfoot’s narrow path to victory was ultimately sealed off.
“We can never, ever allow this to happen again,” retired U. S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Il.), a Lightfoot supporter, told the Sun-Times shortly before the mayor conceded.
“Chicago is the most segregated city in America. It’s tribalism at its worst and at its best.”
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