Lori Lightfoot Elected Chicago’s First Black Woman Mayor

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot gives her acceptance speech in front of a crowd of supporters on April 2, 2019. She is the first African-American woman to be elected mayor of Chicago.
Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot gives her acceptance speech in front of a crowd of supporters on April 2, 2019. She is the first African-American woman to be elected mayor of Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot gives her acceptance speech in front of a crowd of supporters on April 2, 2019. She is the first African-American woman to be elected mayor of Chicago.
Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot gives her acceptance speech in front of a crowd of supporters on April 2, 2019. She is the first African-American woman to be elected mayor of Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Lori Lightfoot Elected Chicago’s First Black Woman Mayor

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Updated 11:13 p.m.

Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who later led the city’s police board, scored a landslide victory Tuesday to become Chicago’s first black woman and openly gay mayor.

The 56-year-old Lightfoot is a first-time elected official and assumes control of a cash-strapped city from Mayor Rahm Emanuel – a centrist Democrat who was a White House chief of staff and congressman before serving eight years as mayor.

Lightfoot easily defeated Cook County Board President and county Democratic Party leader Toni Preckwinkle, a union-backed candidate once considered a favorite for mayor until becoming tainted by a City Hall corruption scandal.

With 97 percent of precincts counted, Lightfoot won 74 percent of the vote with Preckwinkle drawing only 26 percent, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

“Thank you, Chicago. From the bottom of my heart, thank you,” a beaming Lightfoot told her supporters shortly after 9 p.m. in a speech punctuated by fist pumps and waves to the crowd.

“In this election, Toni and I were competitors, but our differences were nothing compared to what we can achieve together. Now that it’s over, I know we’ll work together for the city we both love,” she said. “Today, you did more than make history. You created a movement for change.”

Then, in framing the rags-to-riches political climb she made from longshot to victor, she invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.

“When we started this journey 11 months go, nobody gave us much of a chance. We were up against powerful interests, a powerful machine and a powerful mayor. But I remembered something Martin Luther King said when I was very young. Faith, he said, is taking the first step when you can’t see the staircase. While we couldn’t see the whole staircase when we started this journey, we had abiding faith,” she said.

Earlier, Preckwinkle appeared before her supporters at a Hyde Park restaurant and conceded defeat during a speech interrupted several times by chants of “Toni! Toni! Toni!”

“This may not be the outcome we wanted, but while I may be disappointed, I’m not disheartened,” said Preckwinkle, who will remain as county board president. “For one thing, this is clearly an historic night. Not long ago, two African-American women vying for this position would have been unthinkable. While it may be true we took different paths to get here, tonight is about the path forward.”

Both candidates branded themselves as progressive and independent in a city that’s been synonymous with Democratic machine politics and political bossism for most of the past century.

Emanuel had been fundraising to run for a third term this year, but his shocking announcement in September that he would not run for re-election set off a free-for-all unlike any other mayoral race in living memory.

Lightfoot and Preckwinkle narrowly emerged from an unprecedented field of 14 candidates in the first-round election on Feb. 26. Under the rules of Chicago’s nonpartisan mayoral elections, Tuesday’s runoff was necessary because nobody won a majority of the votes in the first round.

That’s when Lightfoot finished a surprising first with 17.5 percent of the vote, despite being a political neophyte and attracting less campaign cash or endorsements than many of her rivals. Preckwinkle squeezed into the second runoff spot ahead of William Daley, the son and brother of Chicago’s two longest-serving mayors, who had been by far the best-funded candidate.

Political veteran vs. first-time candidate

Lightfoot sought to appeal to an angry electorate by promising to be an agent of change, a leader far different from those who have bossed Chicago for generations. During the campaign, she sought to paint Preckwinkle as an old school party boss and political hack.

But Preckwinkle, 72, shot back that her experience should be seen as a plus, and that it would be reckless to trust someone who has never held elected office. She argued that Lightfoot was no outsider to local politics, having served in the administrations of Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley. She also criticized Lightfoot as a lawyer for corporate interests rather than progressive causes.

Preckwinkle concession speech April 2019
Toni Preckwinkle delivers an emotional concession speech in front of her supporters at The Promontory in Hyde Park. Preckwinkle lost the Chicago mayoral seat against Lori Lightfoot on April 2, 2019. Pat Nabong / WBEZ

But Lightfoot said she was nothing but proud of having come from humble roots in small-town Ohio to become a graduate of the University of Chicago and a partner at one of Chicago’s biggest law firms, Mayer Brown LLP.

From the start of the runoff campaign, polls showed Lightfoot with a big advantage of as much as 30 percentage points over Preckwinkle. That’s despite Preckwinkle’s huge support from the powerful Chicago Teachers Union and the service employees’ union, which has been one of the biggest spenders in Illinois campaigns over the past 20 years.

But Preckwinkle seemed to suffer by far the most damage from the fallout of the mushrooming corruption investigation at City Hall.

She was forced to give back $116,000 that she got at a fundraiser at the home of 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke, who is accused of attempted extortion. Federal prosecutors say Burke also squeezed the owners of a fast-food outlet in his ward to make a contribution to Preckwinkle last year.

Preckwinkle had passed up the chance to challenge Emanuel in 2015, when polls showed she was highly popular. But in 2017, she received angry feedback for her tax on sweetened beverages, which the County Board swiftly repealed over her objections.

Lightfoot easily outraised Preckwinkle ahead of the runoff. And Lightfoot won over many progressive leaders, including Democratic Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who had lost the 2015 runoff to Emanuel and was County Board floor leader under Preckwinkle for years.

In the past few weeks, many longtime Emanuel supporters in the business community who were leery of Preckwinkle’s ties to public-employee unions also gravitated toward Lightfoot, sensing that she would win.

First woman mayor in nearly four decades

The new mayor inherits a city that faces deep financial woes and a sharp divide between communities of color and the police force that’s paid to serve and protect the public.

In his two terms as successor to Daley, Emanuel had suffered the political blowback from tax hikes and cost-cutting measures, including the record closure of 50 schools and the shuttering of mental health clinics.

The budget mess will be even more acute for Lightfoot, as the city will be forced to make increased payments toward pensions for retired public workers in 2020 and beyond.

Lightfoot also will have to grapple with a problem that she’s highly familiar with: the frayed relationship between the city’s police and the black community. The relationship reached a low point after the release in 2015 of a police video in which an officer fired 16 bullets into Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African-American boy.

Many cops are mad that the white officer who killed McDonald, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with murder and convicted. But others are furious that Van Dyke could serve less than three-and-a-half years in prison for the crime.

Still, the focus for Lightfoot and her jubilant supporters on Tuesday was on the historic nature of her victory.

Lori Lightfoot victory speech Finishing
Lori Lightfoot finishes her victory speech as at the Chicago Hilton, April 2, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago has had only one woman mayor, Jane Byrne, who served a single term from 1979 until 1983. The only black candidate to win an election for the office before Lightfoot was Harold Washington, who died months into his second term, in 1987.

During her victory speech, whose main themes were unity and giving a voice to those without clout, Lightfoot invoked Washington’s name and paid homage to other icons from Chicago’s black and LGBTQ past like Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ron Sable and Vernita Gray.

“Now, my friends,” she told her supporters, “I want you to grab the hand of the person next to you. You may be strangers, but in this room, in this city, we are all neighbors. I want you to feel that power, neighbor to neighbor, that comes when we unite and join together as one Chicago, indivisible and united for all.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @dmihalopoulos.