Lori Lightfoot made history on Tuesday. Her victory makes her Chicago’s first-ever black woman and openly gay mayor.
But she also made history by how she won.
Both the magnitude and manner of Lightfoot’s victory are among several key takeaways to draw from this week’s run-off elections that shed light on the shifting nature of Chicago’s politics. The message voters delivered on Tuesday may also signal the direction where we may be headed as a city.
David and Goliath
Lightfoot defeated Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle with an astounding 74 percent of the vote.
The last Chicago mayoral candidate to capture more than 70 percent of the vote was Richard M. Daley. And even with the family legacy at his back, Daley didn’t win by such a landslide until his fifth re-election in 2003. He repeated the feat in 2007.
Lightfoot did it without that kind of political pedigree. And she did it in her first run for any office.
What’s more, Daley’s landslide wins in those elections came against newcomers or others on the margins of the city’s political class. Lightfoot beat Toni Preckwinkle, the leader of Cook County government and the county’s Democratic Party who has nearly 30 years of experience in politics.
Maybe Tuesday’s thumping of Preckwinkle shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Lightfoot’s light grew brighter seemingly each day following her first place finish in the first round of voting on Feb. 26. She racked up endorsements and campaign contributions much faster than her more seasoned opponent in the five weeks between the two elections.
Is "The Machine" on life support?
Considering her margin of victory, it’s hard to argue with Lightfoot’s assessment that Tuesday’s result was a “mandate for change.”
Lightfoot’s resounding win came even though she lacked the political clout, fundraising and ground game of Preckwinkle. Those are the kind of advantages that typically guarantee victory in Chicago elections. They were the hallmarks of the Democratic Party machine that ruled Chicago with an iron fist for decades.
To be sure, to the degree that the Democratic Party machine still exists, it hasn’t exhibited that kind of power in years. But the defeat of that party’s leader in Cook County by such a wide margin, along with the losses or departures of machine-style politicians like Ald. Pat O’Connor, 40th Ward, and Ald. Danny Solis, 25th Ward, may represent Chicagoans finally calling for an end to a party-dominated, heavy-handed brand of politics.
Chicago City Council won't be business as usual
Among the things that could change are the ways in which Chicago aldermen conduct business. Part of that mandate for change could be a move away from aldermanic prerogative, the custom that gives aldermen nearly unilaterally control to decide what gets built in their wards. Though Lightfoot and Preckwinkle agreed on many issues, they were clearly out of alignment on this long-followed, unwritten rule of the Chicago City Council.
On top of that, the City Council that gets seated in May could include as many as five aldermen backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, which could give rise to voices and perspectives that have been absent in Chicago’s legislative body. Other voices that could grow stronger may be those of the city’s Progressive Reform Caucus, a small yet vocal group of aldermen who often pushed back against the wishes of Daley and outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel. With a politically diminished Ald. Edward Burke, 14th Ward, fewer longtime aldermen and a more receptive mayor, the progressives may become more aggressive in the coming years.
Chicagoans still disengaged
Despite several signs that city politics may be different moving forward, one thing remained the same in Tuesday’s run-off election: Voter turnout stunk.
Despite an open election for mayor and several intriguing aldermanic races, nearly two out of every three Chicagoans stayed home. Even wards long-known for their turnout prowess, like the 19th Ward, were less present at the polls on Tuesday than in previous years.
Majority-Black wards show their strength
The power of the black vote wasn't evident in a mayoral race with two black female candidates. But it was clearly apparent in Democratic State Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin's win in the city treasurer’s race.
Conyears-Ervin will join a long list of African-Americans who’ve held that seat. Collectively, she got more than 80 percent of the vote in black wards on Tuesday and enjoyed a much wider margin of victory there than outgoing Ald. Ameya Pawar got in the many North Side wards that he won.
Latino wards went heavily with Lightfoot –to the tune of 75 percent –after not showing her a great deal of love in the Feb. 26 race. Perhaps Jesus "Chuy" Garcia's endorsement and the lack of presence of Latinos in Preckwinkle's administration played a role. Garcia had served as Preckwinkle’s floor leader during his time on the Cook County Board. But their relationship fizzled following Garcia’s failed run to unseat Emanuel in 2015.
Preckwinkle’s role reversal
Ultimately, the night may have been more of a story about Preckwinkle's fall than Lightfoot's rise.
The election clearly showed who was the most "progressive" candidate, at least in the eyes of the city's most progressive wards. Preckwinkle didn't even win the 4th Ward –her own ward where she serves as the Democratic Party committeeman. The Lakefront Liberal wards where Preckwinkle had been strongest in her County Board victories were among her weakest areas.
It was a complete reversal from Preckwinkle's Democratic primary win over Todd Stroger in 2010 when she clearly played the role of the progressive promising change against a machine-backed candidate. Preckwinkle seemed to wear that label in this year’s mayor’s race given her stature as a well-funded, established candidate who had supported an unpopular soda tax and couldn’t shake her connections to Burke.