For the first time ever, Chicago will elect a black woman to serve as mayor.
Lori Lightfoot topped the 14-candidate race and won the most number of votes in the Feb. 26 municipal election. The former police board president will face off against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on April 2.
Morning Shift talks to author and history professor Elizabeth Todd-Breland about the historical significance of electing two black women to compete in Chicago’s runoff election.
Why did it take so long for Chicago to elect a black woman as mayor?
Elizabeth Todd-Breland: I think the way we got to this point is actually very interestingly different than either Jane Byrne or Harold Washington. So with both Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot, neither of them outright won the black vote in the city, so they’re putting together different sets of coalitions — despite the fact that this was an incredibly unprecedented election.
We’ve never had 14 candidates running in this wide open field, and so to make it to the runoff, only the second runoff in the city’s history, it almost feels like perhaps these had to be the conditions for something like this to emerge.
Where are Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot’s base of support?
Jenn White: We know Willie Wilson is the only candidate who outright won majority black wards. So talk about how these coalitions are being formed.
Todd-Breland: It seems that most of Lori Lightfoot’s electoral support came from the North Side, particularly progressive, liberal-leaning white wards although some multicultural support as well. And Toni Preckwinkle’s base of support came from in and around the area of her former aldermanic wards, so Hyde Park, South Shore, parts of Bronzeville, Kenwood.
Preckwinkle was always pretty much second in all of the Willie Wilson-dominated districts, so I think she did have overall more black support. But they are different electoral formations, and I think that’s part of the challenge that they’re facing as they move into this runoff.
On the historical significance of the upcoming runoff election
Todd-Breland: What I think is significant about these two black women coming at this time to be in this runoff is that their platforms have also been very forcefully shaped by a strong, grassroots organizing community and that those communities have been led by young black women in particular.
And so when thinking of that longer tradition, there are many black women who have been instrumental in a grassroots organizing tradition here in this city. I think of people like Nancy Jefferson on the West Side, who organized for decades around many of these same issues; a woman like Rosie Simpson on the South Side of Chicago, who came out of a union organizing background.
There’s this long, rich history of women, black women, leading grassroots organizing efforts here in this city, so I think that’s part of the legacy we’re seeing here too.
White: This is also coming at a time when Chicago is experiencing a bit of a reverse migration. We are losing black population specifically, so place it within that context.
Todd-Breland: I think there’s been a sense among African Americans in the city that the city doesn’t really care about them in many ways. We see that in terms of structural pushout but also this sort of tone and tenor. So the idea that a black mayor could be representing the city is, in a certain way, ironic.
I think also one of the lessons of Harold Washington’s time, as opposed to other black elected officials, is that a politics of representation doesn’t necessarily mean a politics of transformation — that just having racial representation isn’t enough. So I’m quite certain that whichever of these black women is mayor, the black community and other organizers around the city are still going to hold them accountable to these promises they’ve been making.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Stephanie Kim. Click "play" to hear the full conversation.
GUEST: Elizabeth Todd-Breland, assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois, Chicago; author of A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s
LEARN MORE: A Black Woman Will Soon Lead Chicago (New York Times Op-Ed 3/2/19)
Poll shows Lightfoot trouncing Preckwinkle; CTU dismisses it as ‘trash’ (Chicago Sun-Times 3/4/19)