A black woman will lead the third largest city in America, elected by voters who said they wanted change and the symbolism of a new era of politics in segregated Chicago.
Lori Lightfoot has never held office but won all 50 of the city’s wards in a crushing landslide on Tuesday.
Lightfoot’s win breaks race and gender barriers, and she’s openly gay with a wife and daughter. On the campaign trail, she leaned into her blue-collar roots growing up in a deeply segregated Ohio steel town. In her acceptance speech, Lightfoot invoked the legendary Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor and others.
“I stand on the shoulders of so many. The shoulders of strong, black women, like Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks and Annie Ruth Lowery. The shoulders of LGBTQ+ trailblazers, like Dr. Ron Sable, Vernita Gray and Art Johnston,” Lightfoot said.
She’s the former president of the Chicago police board, and also a former corporate attorney and federal prosecutor. Her message of “bring in the light” resonated with voters who raged against the local Democratic Party machine, notorious in Chicago for dynastic politics, patronage hiring and corruption.
“People felt like this is a moment where we can try something new. We can possibly go in a different direction, and we can represent to the world that we need something fresh,” said Cathy J. Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
Lightfoot’s election is the latest in a record number of black women elected mayor in the nation’s 100 largest cities. Lightfoot will become the eighth such woman to lead one of those cities, Chicago being the largest, when she takes office in May.
The movement has been swift. Just five years ago, there was only one black woman leading any of the nation’s top 100 cities.
Last year, voters elected London Breed mayor of San Francisco, then the largest city run by a black woman, while voters in Atlanta and New Orleans elected Keisha Lance Bottoms and LaToya Cantrell, respectively, as their leaders. Charlotte, N.C., Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Baton Rouge, La., have also elected black women as mayors.
The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University produces annual reports tracking the progress of black women and other women of color in elected office. Though they remain grossly underrepresented, throughout the country, women of color are gaining in unprecedented numbers – from U.S. Congress to City Hall.
But the rapid rise of black women mayors in large American cities is a sign that black women are making strides in an area where all women have long been absent, said Debbie Walsh, the center’s director.
“One of the challenges that we’ve seen over time for women, in general, is women in executive leadership,” Walsh said. “There’s an assumption that women in legislative positions, whether federal level, state level or even at the city level work well in committee, work well on councils. It fits for the stereotype for women.”
“Breaking that final glass ceiling of women as executives really opens up a world of possibilities. To be the person who is the final decider, the place where the buck stops, is something that we think voters may be more hesitant about,” Walsh continued.
What’s more, in some cases, the rise of black women mayors transcends race.
Consider that in Chicago alone, two black women were the top two vote-getters in a pool of 14 candidates that included a white man whose family name has been synonymous with Chicago politics for more than half a century. In that February race, which led to Tuesday’s runoff between mayor-elect Lightfoot and opponent Toni Preckwinkle, Lightfoot didn’t win any of the city’s majority-black wards. Her support tilted toward North Side white wards.
Similarly, Breed was elected mayor in a city where African-Americans are just 5 percent of the population.
Still, the challenges don’t end for black women once they’re in those executive seats.
As a black woman leading, Breed said she has to be even better than expectations. “I feel like I have to work five times as hard,” she said.
She also noted the double standard that women face when it comes to how they look. Breed said past male mayors got away with a simple wardrobe of blue, gray and black suits.
“It’s different for women than it is for men. For example, your wardrobe, your hair, your appearance, how you look, makeup,” Breed said. “It shouldn’t matter, but it does.”
For Lightfoot, there’s no shortage of challenges awaiting her. Education access, housing instability, police accountability in black and brown neighborhoods, economic opportunity on the black South and West sides and a shrinking middle class are among the most pressing issues in Chicago.
Voter turnout in Tuesday’s runoff clocked in at an abysmal 31 percent, but civic engagement is high as is a reform mood in the city. The tenor of the election is markedly different from four or eight years ago. Activists here helped shape the discourse during this election cycle around issues of criminal justice and racial inequity.
One of the questions facing Lightfoot is whether she’s really not connected to the Democratic party machine and the city’s political elite. It’s complicated.
On Tuesday, Lightfoot bested Preckwinkle, who is president of the Cook County board and head of the Democratic party in the county. But outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped Lightfoot to lead the city’s police board. Years earlier, former Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Lightfoot to police oversight and procurement posts during a time when the city struggled with scandals in both areas.
“She has the possibility of setting a new course of bringing new people in around her but it could be difficult if you’ve never run a big bureaucracy in a city like Chicago. You are going to lean in on people who know how to do that and a lot of people like that are affiliated with the machine,” said the University of Chicago’s Cohen.
Lightfoot’s fiercest critics take umbrage with her styling herself as an outsider and progressive. They aren’t happy with her role on the police board. But in the wake of the video release of the Laquan McDonald shooting, Lightfoot led a police reform task force that released a scathing report on the police department — a far more critical assessment than the one delivered months later by the U.S. Department of Justice. Then, she quit the police board and announced her mayoral candidacy months before Emanuel surprised the city by saying he wouldn’t seek a third term.
“It’s the year of the woman. It’s time for us to take charge and change some things in our community,” said activist Jeanette Taylor, who won a seat on Chicago’s City Council Tuesday night.
Indeed, a record number of black women in Chicago and the state hold offices or were recently elected — from lieutenant governor, to city treasurer, to county clerk to top county prosecutor.
Against the backdrop of this mayoral historic moment is the activism of black women who toil behind the scenes on grassroots movements — from Mute R. Kelly to Black Lives Matter to Say Her Name to reparations for survivors of Chicago police torture.
“We can never allow any mayor to be as powerful as Rahm and Daley ever again. Lori has to deal with the city of Chicago, all of its constituents and this council who is going to push her,” Taylor said.
Lightfoot pledges to put more resources in neighborhoods, not just downtown.
“I hope that the sea change we’re witnessing lives up to the hype,” said Delmarie Cobb, who founded a political action committee called Ida’s Legacy to help black women get in office.
“I’d like to see investment in the black community. We’ve been ignored for decades now and what we’re seeing in terms of the exodus of black people from the city has been 40 years in the making,” Cobb said. “It’s going to take a lot to turn this around.”
Perhaps inspired by her words, her vision and her passion, Lightfoot’s convincing victory at least suggests that voters of this fractured and often divided city believe in a black woman to lead and to try and unite them.