Voters head to the polls Tuesday after months of pitches from eight candidates challenging the incumbency of Mayor Lori Lightfoot in what’s been a bitter campaign season dominated by racial politics and heated debates over the city’s crime problem.
The election is largely a referendum on the record of the first-term mayor, who has spent much of her four years in office dealing with unprecedented challenges brought by the global COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest after the police murder of George Floyd and a spike in crime that cities across the country have grappled with.
Lightfoot’s tenure has inspired a slew of qualified candidates who have tried to convince voters she is unfit for the job as she fights to become the first woman mayor in Chicago’s history to win a second term.
Voters will also elect the city’s 50 aldermen and will for the first time choose representatives for new district councils, a body that aims to increase civilian oversight over Chicago policing. Two other citywide offices on the ballot — clerk and treasurer — are uncontested.
Chicagoans appeared to be highly engaged in this election. More than 214,000 Chicago voters requested a vote-by-mail ballot this election cycle — more than in any previous Chicago municipal election. But the city’s election board had still not received thousands of those ballots as of Monday. In-person early voting topped 100,000 for the second municipal election in a row.
Recent polling and overall fundraising has put five mayoral candidates at the front of the pack, including former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and businessman Willie Wilson to Lightfoot’s right, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson to her left, and Congressman Jesús ‘Chuy’ García who’s been running somewhat in her political lane.
But as of earlier this month, 18% of voters remained undecided according to a WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times/Telemundo Chicago/NBC5 poll. It’s likely that Tuesday’s results will lead to a run-off election set for April 4, unless one candidate is able to receive more than 50% of the vote.
While polling has shown a tight race among the frontrunners, it remains to be seen if any of the four candidates lower in the polls will soar to the top. Those include state Rep. Kam Buckner, Alds. Sophia King and Roderick Sawyer, and activist Ja’Mal Green.
If Lightfoot does not make the runoff, she will become the first elected mayor since Jane Byrne, who was mayor from 1979 to 1983, to not win a second term.
Connie Mixon, an Elmhurst University political science professor and director of its urban studies program, said despite the challenges, she’s “not counting [Lightfoot] out one bit.”
“She came from behind in 2019. And I think there’s still a good chance that she makes the runoff,” Mixon said. “I think there’s a lot of undecided voters still out there still up for grabs.”
The price of running for mayor
More than $24 million has been poured into this mayoral race as donors from the business community, labor unions and candidates themselves have painted this election as a city at a crossroads.
In a city where in recent decades roughly a third of registered voters have turned out to vote in Chicago’s cold, February municipal elections, frontrunners are often determined by who has the money to get and stay on TV.
Lightfoot was the first of the pack to do so. With a little more than $6 million raised since the start of last year, Lightfoot has brought in the most money of any other candidate aside from Wilson, who has self-funded his mayoral bid to the tune of $6 million. But her leading opponents have nearly kept pace with her fundraising, particularly in the final stretch of the campaign.
Lightfoot went on air early, often and on the offensive against her chief rivals. She’s attacked Vallas over his record on abortion and conservative positions, highlighted Johnson’s past support of “defunding” the police and spotlighted García’s ties to federally indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan and cryptocurrency entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried.
Vallas, who trails slightly behind Lightfoot overall in terms of total fundraising, has still brought in millions in the final eight weeks of the election, largely from individuals in the business and finance community. He has used his money to pay for ads presenting himself as a tough-on-crime candidate, but also defending himself as a “lifelong Democrat” in response to Lightfoot’s attacks.
With less name recognition, Johnson spent more of his TV time introducing himself to voters, staying mostly positive and saying he is “better” for Chicago.
Independent expenditure committees have also poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in support of Vallas, García and opposing Johnson.
Candidates and voters prioritize crime issues
Crime and criminal justice reform have dominated the campaign trail. Homicides decreased in 2022, but the issue has still been top of mind for Chicagoans who experienced the city’s most violent year in a quarter century in 2021.
While the mayor’s race is nonpartisan, Vallas and Wilson are largely running to the right of Lightfoot, and have stood out as they pushed tough-on-crime policies that have resonated with some Chicagoans.
As Chicago remains under a federal consent decree prompted by the finding that its police department has violated the civil rights of Black and brown Chicagoans, Wilson has repeatedly said he’d “take the handcuffs” off the police as a way to reduce crime.
He drew ire when during a candidate forum last month he said police should be able to chase those who flee and “hunt them down like a rabbit.” Wilson has avoided questions about whether he continues to support Donald Trump after previously saying he voted for the Republican former president in 2016.
When submitting his paperwork to run for mayor, Vallas described what he saw as the top three issues facing the city of Chicago: “public safety, public safety, public safety,” he told reporters at a Board of Elections site downtown. That remained the tone of his campaign, as he focused on crime as a root cause of other challenges, including vacancies downtown, and dissatisfaction with Chicago’s public transit system.
Vallas, who is endorsed by Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, has been criticized by opponents for taking the stamp of approval from a union whose leader has compared COVID-19 vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany. Vallas has said publicly he does not agree with that sentiment, but has defended accepting the support.
“You’re not going to have real police reform unless you get cooperation from the FOP,” Vallas said at a mayoral forum late last month. “Just as you’re not going to have real school reform unless you have negotiation and unless you demonstrate respect with the Chicago Teachers Union.”
The focus on crime, both by voters and candidates, has perhaps forced progressive challengers such as Johnson to avoid “defund the police” rhetoric on the campaign trail. Having once said that defunding is a “political goal,” Johnson has been less clear about police spending during the election, and has not committed to cutting the police budget.
In January, Johnson did not answer yes or no to a WBEZ and Sun-Times candidate questionnaire about whether he’d reallocate resources from the police to address root causes of violence, and said “it’s not a matter of reallocating resources but rather using those resources better.”
Four years ago, Lightfoot was a political outsider and first-time candidate who went on to sweep all 50 wards in the runoff election. She made history as the city’s first Black woman and openly gay mayor.
But she faces stiff headwinds heading into Tuesday’s election, as polling shows a majority of voters disapprove of her tenure and feel the city is on the wrong track.
Many in Chicago’s City Council have echoed that disapproval, with some of her hand-picked committee chairs rejecting her reelection effort. Outgoing 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney and 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly threw their support behind Vallas, while 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell and a handful of progressive aldermen have endorsed Johnson, who is supported by the Chicago Teachers Union.
However eight Chicago aldermen, including the head of the council’s Black Caucus — 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin — have publicly endorsed Lightfoot.
It’s an endorsement that’s important to Lightfoot’s reelection strategy as she’s worked hard to court Black voters — highlighting her signature Invest South/West program that aims to attract private investment using public dollar incentives in 10 underserved areas of the city.
In the final weeks, Lightfoot and her surrogates have urged Black voters on the South and West sides to coalesce around her.
“Any vote coming out of the South Side for somebody not named Lightfoot is a vote for Chuy García or Paul Vallas,” Lightfoot told supporters earlier this month, naming the only white and Latino candidates in the race. “If you want them controlling your fate and your destiny, then stay home. Then don’t vote.” Lightfoot later said she misspoke.
With seven Black candidates, one white and one Latino challenger, the fight for support among Black residents, who make up roughly a third of the city, has pushed racial politics to the forefront this election.
Four years ago, Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s spots in the runoff assured that Chicago would elect its first Black woman as mayor.
Longtime Democratic political strategist Delmarie Cobb said the fight for voters’ support among a pool of progressive Black candidates this time around may have the unintended consequence of benefitting the more conservative, white candidate in the race.
“It’s not necessarily that there are too many Black candidates in the race,” Cobb said. “Yes, that’s an issue. But we also know that the racial part of this is that whites will galvanize around Paul Vallas … he’s gotten millions and millions of dollars to go up on the air and to advertise. And when you have multiple candidates in the race who are Black, the pool of money isn’t as deep.”
At a recent fundraiser for Chicago police, Vallas — who Lightfoot accused of using “dog whistle” language when he said his campaign was about “taking back our city” — brushed off the idea that his race is playing a role in the election.
“Sometimes the more you ask questions about race and the more you respond to questions about race, the more it becomes about race,” Vallas said. “At the end of the day I’m running an issue-oriented campaign. I’m here to unite the city.”
Where Vallas falls along ideological lines may be aiding his frontrunner status, compared to four years ago when he finished ninth in a crowded field of 14 candidates.
“There’s a wider lane on the conservative side than there is on the progressive side,” Mixon said.
While Lightfoot was condemned by her opponents for her comment insinuating that residents voting for anyone else would be throwing their vote to Vallas, the sentiment has been echoed by Johnson’s supporters.
Johnson kicked off the final week of electioneering at a roundtable event Feb. 20 with Black elected officials, including state Sen. Robert Peters who said Vallas is an “existential threat” to Chicago’s future.
“And the only one who is posed to beat him, the only one who can mobilize and move people is Brandon Johnson,” Peters said.
However the candidates fare Tuesday night, for any candidate to succeed in the potential April runoff, they need to expand beyond their co-ethnic base of support and pitch consensus building, Jaime Dominguez, a Northwestern University political science professor said.
Despite the display of racial politics in recent weeks, candidates have tried to convince voters they are capturing support from white, Black and Latino residents that each make up roughly a third of the city.
At the roundtable event with Black leaders last week, Johnson said he’s built a campaign that spans the city.
“We have built a multicultural, multi generational movement,” Johnson said. “Black, brown, white, Asian. There’s a couple of rich people that even want to see me elected.”
Wilson — whose base of support has historically come from the South and West sides — has earned the support of Polish and Filipino organizations and Romanian clergy this election.
On the campaign trail, García has aimed to emulate the Rainbow Coalition of support that helped propel Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor, to the fifth floor of City Hall.
“I only want to be mayor if I’m getting votes from all of you. If I’m getting votes from the African American community as well,” García told supporters earlier this month who gathered at Lago Banquets in the predominantly-Hispanic Belmont Cragin neighborhood. “I want a consensus, because I want our government and our administration to look like Chicago, to be like Chicago, to feel like Chicago.”
A recent poll released by the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University and a coalition of Black and Latino nonprofits found that over 70% of Black and Latino voters surveyed said they believed their communities would be better served if the two groups worked more closely together.
Polling indicates García has the most Latino support. But the community is not a monolith, said Sylvia Puente, the president and CEO of the Latino Policy Forum, noting some Latino elected officials, like U.S. Rep. Delia Ramirez, have chosen to endorse Johnson.
The tight election battle is no surprise to anyone, Lightfoot included.
She has frequently touted that she’s one of few incumbent big city mayors deciding to ask for another term after unwavering pandemic-area challenges. And upon announcing her reelection, she told a room of supporters at Brown Sugar Bakery on Chicago’s South Side that she anticipated the challenging campaign.
“I’m a Black woman in America,” Lightfoot said. “People are betting against us every single day. But that doesn’t mean we’re not ready for the fight.”