By Mark Guarino and Mark Berman
April 2 at 12:48 PM
CHICAGO — Voters in Chicago headed back to the polls Tuesday for a mayoral runoff election that will make history no matter who wins.
A packed campaign that initially featured more than a dozen contenders gave way to a final battle with just two: Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, and Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. No matter whom voters select, the winner will become the first black woman to lead the country’s third-largest city.
The next mayor will succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who announced last year that he would not seek a third term, and take office as Chicago continues to grapple with gun violence, alleged public corruption and an exodus of black residents.
Polls have shown Lightfoot with a commanding lead, including a WTTW-Crain’s Temkin-Harris Poll released last week showing that she held a 36-point advantage over Preckwinkle. The same survey, conducted two weeks before the election, found that nearly 3 in 10 voters said they were undecided.
The election in Chicago is, in many ways, a mirror of other campaigns that have unfolded on local and national levels — pitting the experience of Preckwinkle, a longtime alderman who has been president of the county board for nearly a decade, against Lightfoot, who is seeking her first elected office and campaigned on promises of change. If elected, Lightfoot would also become the city’s first openly gay mayor.
Many voters turning out Tuesday said they saw little separating the candidates.
“Either one I’d be fine with,” said Monique Farren, 36, a teacher who voted for Lightfoot in the Albany Park neighborhood. “I feel like they’re both on the same page.”
But the history of the day was not lost on another voter, Chris Bueno, who voted in the Ravenswood Manor area. “Overall, it’s really good we’ll have a black woman as mayor,” Bueno, 34, said. “It is historic.” He said he was “torn between the two, but in the end, Toni had the edge on progressive policies.”
In February, the two candidates emerged from a crowded scrum of 14 contenders, besting a group that included a former police superintendent, former state representatives and a man who was the son and brother of former mayors.
Lightfoot went on to secure endorsements from several of those defeated contenders and picked up support from labor unions, state lawmakers and the city’s two major daily newspapers. Preckwinkle’s major endorsement came from the Chicago Teachers Union, which had turned comments Lightfoot made about letting the police utilize empty public school buildings against her. Preckwinkle’s supporters used that suggestion to push the idea that Lightfoot cannot be trusted on police reform issues, a key topic for many residents.
Speaking to voters outside a subway stop in Logan Square not far from her home, Lightfoot said she was “grateful and very hopeful.” She also framed her possible election as historic for what it would mean in a city with such an entrenched political machine.
“The historic part of this election is if we win, we beat the machine,” Lightfoot said. “That’s the real historic possibility of today.”
The mayoral contest has played out amid lingering tensionsover issues of violent crime and inequality. The next mayor will also have to deal with an ongoing effort to reform the police force, which in recent years was the subject of a Justice Department investigation that concluded with a scathing report saying officers routinely violate the rights of residents, particularly blacks and Latinos.
That federal investigation began after the city released video footage in 2015 showing a white officer shooting and killing Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, the previous year. The video set off intense protests and public anger. The officer, Jason Van Dyke, stood trial last year and was convicted of second-degree murder.
For Emanuel, who ran for mayor after years spent working in the White House, the controversy over McDonald and the police department lingered throughout his second term. Last fall, just a day before Van Dyke’s trial began, he made the stunning declaration that he would not seek another term.
Policing issues were prominent in the campaign to follow him. Lightfoot had been president of the Chicago Police Board, which rules on discipline cases, and chaired a police task force that Emanuel assembled after the McDonald video was released. The task force’s report criticized both the police department and its oversight system.
But Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who endorsed Preckwinkle, lashed out at Lightfoot recently by saying, “If any young black male or female is killed by a police officer under a Lightfoot administration, then the blood would be on those voters’ hands who elected her.”
Lightfoot said Rush’s words were hateful rhetoric and asked Preckwinkle to denounce them. Preckwinkle declined to do so, saying that Rush, who has served in Congress for more than a quarter-century, is “a pillar in the civil rights movement in this city and is more than capable of speaking on his beliefs.”
The acrimonious campaigning closed as Chicago made national headlines because of prosecutors’ decision to drop charges against Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor who said he was the victim of a hate crime but was later accused by police of staging a hoax. That decision last week by the office of Kim Foxx, the Cook County state’s attorney, drew sharp criticism from Emanuel, who derided it as a “whitewash.” Lightfoot and Preckwinkle both said the public deserves more answers about what happened.
In a mark of good news for a city that has struggled with gun violence, the Chicago police said Monday that shootings and murders had dropped across the city during the first three months of the year. That continues a decline since 2016, when the bloodshed reached levels not seen in two decades.