Chicago, Ill.—The mayor is female and an accomplished lawyer. She is Black, and gay, with a wife and child. And she is a progressive who beat the establishment when the odds were against her. For Democrats and left-leaning local politicians, what’s not to love?
Plenty, it turns out. Lori Lightfoot, elected Chicago mayor in 2019 with 73 percent of the vote and carrying all of the city’s 50 wards, is struggling in her campaign for reelection.
A poll published in early February showed Lightfoot locked in a dead heat with two challengers: Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and former Chicago budget director and schools chief Paul Vallas. Asked whom they would vote for if the election were held tomorrow, 20 percent of likely voters said Garcia, 18 percent said Vallas—and only 17 percent said Lightfoot. The mayor won favorable marks from 22 percent of likely Chicago voters—and unfavorable marks from 54 percent. The city is on the wrong track, according to 71 percent of voters.
“Her coattail is not one you would want to ride on right now,” says Alderman Roderick Sawyer, who’s also running against her for mayor. “She’s doing poorly because she failed to deliver on promises she made as a candidate.”
Sawyer is the son of former mayor Eugene Sawyer, who succeeded Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, when he died in office. He represents the 6th Ward, on the South Side, which is 97 percent Black and includes neighborhoods scarred by disinvestment and gang violence.
“I was one of those who was enthusiastic about her being there, the first Black woman as mayor. I was willing to work with her to do what was necessary.” Then he proceeded to list all the ways she undercut his efforts to enact a public safety ordinance to make the police department more responsive to the community.
“We thought we had a partner. It turned out we did not,” Sawyer said in an interview. “She is a my-way-or-the-highway kind of person. She doesn’t want to hear contrary views.”
“Lightfoot’s often sharp and vindictive style has alienated many good people as her popularity numbers kept dropping,” wrote veteran political consultant Don Rose in November. Even though he was an early endorser and adviser to her campaign four years ago, Rose noted in an essay on his Facebook page that he has been “frequently chagrined as she broke key promises and abandoned or watered down numerous progressive measures, particularly in mental health, policing and TIF (tax-increment financing) reform. Promises of transparency were abandoned.” Rose is supporting Chuy Garcia this time.
“Angry, defensive, and combative,” Chicago magazine called her after watching her debate performance on January 19, grading her a D.
Election day is February 28; early voting has already commenced. If no candidate reaches 50 percent, a runoff of the top two candidates will be held on April 4. As Chicago elections are nominally non-partisan—and as the city is overwhelmingly Democratic—the usual Republican-Democratic war games do not factor in.
At the moment the leading three candidates parallel the three large racial blocs in the city: roughly a third Black, a third Latino, and a third white. In traditional Chicago politics, the racial alliances and tradeoffs have been determinative at election time. This time it might not matter as much. The Black vote has declined as residents have moved away; Lightfoot also has six Black challengers competing against her for those ballots.
“For my money, the real problem with Lori Lightfoot is that she doesn’t have a natural constituency to fall back on,” said Chris Mooney, an emeritus political scientist at the University of Illinois–Chicago. “She doesn’t have a base.”
The first Mayor Daley had an Irish base in his stronghold neighborhood of Bridgeport, Mooney recalled. The second Mayor Daley added the downtown business community. Rahm Emanuel’s base was white people on the North Side, plus the business interests. But Lightfoot didn’t come up from the South Side or West Side wards or any other part of Chicago’s Black community. Nor does she have particular support in the gay community or from the city’s progressive groups.
The question now is whether Lightfoot will make it to the runoff—or will Vallas and Garcia surge to the top two positions?
Vallas (white) and Garcia (Mexican) are the only non–African Americans challenging the mayor. The other six are Kam Buckner, a state representative; Ja’Mal Green, a community activist; Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, former teacher, and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union; Sophia King, an alderman from the South Side originally appointed by Rahm Emanuel; and Willie Wilson, a perennial candidate who made a fortune as a supplier to McDonald’s. Plus Sawyer.
Johnson has captured the hearts of the progressive activists. There is little likelihood, however, that the electorate will hand over management of the city to a candidate viewed as a creature of the teachers’ union.
Chicago is an unhappy place right now. This presents a headwind to any incumbent office holder; indeed, a dozen city council members have chosen to bow out. Granted, big-city mayors around the country are in a tough spot. Yet that doesn’t capture just how aggravated the crisis in Chicago has become. It feels like decades of fiscal mismanagement and civic rot have curdled to a stinking mess of intractability.
The Loop has not recovered from the pandemic and the mayhem of the George Floyd protests. Office towers sit half empty, and the street-level restaurants, shops, and branch banks that serviced the daytime influx are gone. Huge marquee corporate headquarters—Boeing, Citadel, Caterpillar—have fled for more hospitable climes. Ridership on the L trains and buses is down and antisocial behavior is up, leading middle-class residents to avoid taking public transit. The once-mighty Chicago Tribune has shrunk to an afterthought in the civic conversation, and the exodus of Black families to Texas, Georgia, and Florida continues apace.
Fear of crime hangs over the citizenry like a gray pall. The gun violence that was once believed confined to specific neighborhoods has now spread to the rest of the city. Violent carjackings and street robberies are everywhere. (Citadel, in particular, cited Chicago street crime as a reason for its departure for… Miami.)
A poll by NPR affiliate WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times ranked public safety as the number-one concern heading into the election, cited by 44 percent of respondents. The poll found that 63 percent of Chicagoans don’t feel safe—including 84 percent of African Americans, 56 percent of Latinos, and 49 percent of whites. Statistically, crime here has actually leveled off—and in 2022 might even be slightly down from recent years—but that does not match public perception. And in elections, perception trumps reality.
“We are in a place of very little hope,” says Jessica Gutierrez, who is running for alderman in the largely Hispanic 30th Ward on the Northwest Side. Jessica’s father (politics is a family business in Chicago) is former 13-term representative Luis Gutierrez, who before that was a floor leader for Harold Washington on the Chicago City Council. Papa Gutierrez was succeeded in Illinois’s Fourth District by Chuy Garcia.
Jessica is not supporting the incumbent mayor. “I don’t know that she has caught on to the hopelessness that people are feeling. She acts like there is no mistake that has ever been made in her tenure,” she said. “I’m gonna vote for Chuy. He’s the person who gives me the most hope.”
Garcia has high name recognition and lots of experience as an elected officeholder. In 2015 he pushed Rahm Emanuel into the city’s first-ever runoff to win a second term. Lightfoot has targeted him in ads tying him to disgraced crypto donor Samuel Bankman-Fried and indicted former Illinois speaker of the House Michael Madigan.
While Garcia will get strong support from the city’s Latino community, that voting bloc is not as large as it appears. Though the Latino community is 29 percent of the city’s population, they comprise only 20 percent of actual voters because their voting rate is significantly lower, says Dick Simpson, another UIC political scientist emeritus. To win, Garcia will have to assemble a larger coalition of white and Black voters.
Vallas, endorsed by the Tribune, has stressed a tough-on-crime message and support for uniformed services. His endorsement by the police union and its Trumpist president, John Catanzara, may pay off. He is known to have widespread support in the downtown business community—Rahm Emanuel’s former fan club—and has an ample war chest of their contributions.
“Paul Vallas has a serious chance,” Simpson said in an interview. “But it’s going be difficult to be in the runoff. He has conservative Republican money backing him, and the Fraternal Order of Police backing him. It’s fair to say, no matter whether Chuy or Lori was the other candidate, he is going to end up looking conservative and is vulnerable to political attacks.”
One line of attack is likely to be Vallas’s history of privatizing public schools and handing out public money to charters—in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. Once Johnson is knocked out of the contest, the teachers’ union could swivel en masse to oppose him.
If Vallas and Garcia together succeed in pushing Lightfoot out of the runoff, both candidates will have to court the Black vote to win. It was reported in early February that Vallas’s son, a police officer in San Antonio, was involved in the fatal shooting of a young Black man in March 2022. Given the animosity against the Chicago police force in the African American community, that incident alone could well drive votes away from Vallas—and toward a victory by Garcia.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Chuy Garcia as Puerto Rican. He is Mexican-American.