Chicago just became the largest United States city to elect a black woman and openly gay person as mayor in a history-making vote.
Lori Lightfoot, a lawyer and the former president of the Chicago police board, defeated Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Tuesday to become the next mayor of the Windy City. She will succeed Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s two-term mayor and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama.
Lightfoot and Preckwinkle were the top two vote-getters in a February primary election of more than a dozen mayoral candidates, forcing Tuesday’s runoff. Polls showed Lightfoot, who has never held elected office, with a significant lead over Preckwinkle in the days leading up to voting. Both women claimed the progressive mantle.
“I feel very humbled and honored. I’m gonna do everything I can to earn it,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday. She said with her victory “people have hope for a new beginning.”
Lightfoot, 56, has held appointed positions related to police oversight and accountability in Chicago under Mayor Emanuel and former Mayor Richard Daley. She also previously served as assistant US attorney and, most recently, as a senior equity partner at Mayor Brown LLP. She announced her candidacy in May 2018, months before Preckwinkle, who waited until Emanuel said he would not seek another term.
Preckwinkle tried to cast Lightfoot as a political novice who lacked experience in electoral politics, but, as Bloomberg noted, many were attracted to her “clean slate” appeal. During the race, Lightfoot outpaced Preckwinkle with endorsements and gained the backing of the media, the business community, and candidates who did not make it to the runoff. Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union endorsed Preckwinkle. So did Chance the Rapper and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), among others.
Lightfoot’s primary proposals, according to the Chicago Tribune, include increasing access to affordable housing, creating an office of public safety to reduce crime and reform policing, and pushing through a real estate transfer tax to help combat homelessness. She also backs abolishing US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
That Lightfoot is a gay black woman leading the third-largest city in America is of huge significance, and she is aware of it.
“I hope my presence in this race serves as an important reminder of the progress we’ve made in equality and inclusion,” Lightfoot told the Advocate in February.
Lightfoot has some big challenges ahead
Lightfoot will have some important issues to tackle as Chicago’s next mayor.
The city’s police department and the black community have a fraught relationship, and its handling of the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old, is part of what pushed Emanuel out. The case gained national attention after video footage released more than a year after the shooting showed the police lied when they claimed that McDonald had lunged at the officer who shot and killed him.
The officer, Jason Van Dyke, was convicted of second-degree murder and subsequently sentenced to more than six years in prison. However, the police officers who filed reports backing his claims were acquitted.
The recent handling of the Jussie Smollett case — in which the actor alleged he was the victim of a hate crime, then was charged with a felony because authorities said he perpetrated a hoax, only for the charges later to be dropped — has put further scrutiny on Chicago’s police force and political apparatus.
The city is also facing a fraught financial future, as its contribution to four major pension funds will require another $1 billion by 2023. Lightfoot will need to draft a city budget that fills in a $252 million deficit by October. As the Tribune explained, Lightfoot has proposed introducing “progressive sources of revenue” and cutting the city government, but details are still lacking. She also hasn’t ruled out tax increases, but the full details of her plans are unclear.
The challenges ahead aside, Lightfoot’s victory is a historic moment to celebrate.