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Chicago's Lori Lightfoot Looks Like a One-Term Mayor

The real problem is that being a big-city mayor during the pandemic was a no-win proposition. Meanwhile, the race for a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat has already cost more than $10 million and special elections are likely to be nastier and more expensive than before.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (TNS)
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Lori Lightfoot Looks Like a One-Term Mayor: When Lightfoot first ran for mayor of Chicago, she came out of practically nowhere, polling in the single digits against a large field of better-known candidates. Back then, she tried something different for Chicago politics: not centering race. She made corruption and reform her prime topics and did not seek to carve out a piece of the city’s racial and ethnic puzzle for herself. In the end, she appealed to voters across the city – white, Black and Hispanic. She came out in front in the first round of voting and dominated the runoff, carrying all 50 wards and practically every precinct.

Well, four years is a long time in politics. Lightfoot is up for re-election on Tuesday and her campaign this time around looks a lot more like the traditional Chicago model. (The two top finishers on Tuesday will go to a runoff in April.) Lightfoot’s formerly broad appeal has evaporated, with her approval rating underwater, but she might not even make it to the next round because she can’t count on solid support from any racial or ethnic group, or any corner of the city.

Lightfoot, the city’s first Black woman mayor (and first openly gay mayor), has focused most of her attacks on Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, the other leading Black candidate. On Monday, she accused former schools and budget chief Paul Vallas, who is white, of “blowing the ultimate dog whistle” for his call to “take back our city.” Vallas appears to be a shoo-in to make the runoff, while Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García, the only Latino candidate, is threatening to keep Lightfoot out of the April runoff entirely.
Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas
Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas (TNS)
Lightfoot’s real problem is that being a big-city mayor during the pandemic has been basically a no-win proposition. “I think no sane person wants to try to govern through, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, an economic meltdown, a civic unrest following the murder of George Floyd and an increase in crime across the city,” the mayor told New York magazine.

The Loop, like other downtowns, is a lot less vibrant than it used to be, while homelessness remains a major concern. The dominant issue in Chicago, however, is crime. “Public safety is a human right,” Vallas says. “Confronting the city’s crime problem and ensuring our residents’ safety is my top priority.”

Lightfoot counters that murders and other violent crime rates came down last year. Robberies continued to climb, however. The number of murders last year, while lower than in 2021, remained higher than in New York, a city with three times the population. “Our crime rate is down, but it’s nothing to brag about,” says former Alderman Dick Simpson.

Simpson, who has endorsed Lightfoot, notes that she has an appreciable list of accomplishments. In December, she won approval from the Board of Aldermen for an extension of the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line, which had been on the city’s agenda for decades. Lightfoot curbed aldermanic privilege, which had given them effective veto power over many programs within their wards. Big projects are underway, including a downtown casino and Barack Obama’s presidential museum. Invest South/West is an ambitious community development program meant to spread more than $2 billion in public and private money into long-neglected parts of town. And Lightfoot has been responsible when it comes to the city’s perennial budget and pension problems.

But she hasn’t made a lot of friends along the way. Her first year was marked by a lengthy teachers’ strike. The teachers’ union is now backing Johnson, while the police union supports Vallas. Progressives have been disappointed by Lightfoot’s slow pace in implementing promises from her initial run, in part due to the pandemic and the economic recovery. Lightfoot also has a reputation for being confrontational – caught on tape cursing out an alderman and allegedly making obscene comments to government lawyers.

Lightfoot points out that her predecessors, Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, were not exactly known as warm and fuzzy types. There may well be a double standard at play when it comes to the media portrayal of a Black woman mayor. Lightfoot notes she could not have pulled off any major deals if she were incapable of collaborating.

Still, she’s in a bad position for an incumbent, having angered and disappointed many powerful players without managing to connect with much of her constituency. Perhaps no one else would have played the hand she was dealt much better, but certainly Lightfoot will now have to answer to voters for her city’s many problems.
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former state Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly. (Photos courtesy of the campaigns)
Setting Up a Showdown: The race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court has already cost in excess of $10 million. The reason it’s drawn so much money and attention is that it could tip the balance of power on the court from conservatives to liberals, which would have major implications for politics in a key swing state.

Wisconsin is home to some of the nation’s most notorious partisan gerrymanders, giving six out of eight congressional seats and near-supermajority control of the legislature to Republicans, in a state that President Biden carried in 2020 and was divided down the middle in 2022 in statewide elections. In 2016, a federal appellate court struck down the state Assembly map – the first time in three decades a federal court had blocked a map for partisan bias. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided that federal courts cannot rule on partisan gerrymanders. Wisconsin’s own supreme court blessed a map for this decade that was mostly unchanged from the last one.

Democrats are now hoping they can take over a conservative (though technically nonpartisan) seat, and with it the court’s majority. “The maps are rigged — bottom line,” Janet Protasiewicz, the liberal candidate who topped voting in Tuesday’s primary, said at a candidate forum last month. “Absolutely, positively rigged. They do not reflect the people in the state.”

During her victory speech, Protasiewicz also highlighted abortion, a key issue in a state with a pre-Civil War abortion ban still on the books. “I'll be running against someone who doesn't think women get to make their own reproductive rights,” she said. “I will guarantee you that my opponent, if elected, will uphold the 1849 near-total abortion ban. I can guarantee you that."

Protasiewicz took more votes than the two conservative candidates combined, which should bode well for her chances in the April election. But she fell short of a majority. Dan Kelly, a former justice on the court, has already benefited from $2 million in ad spending from a political action committee backed by wealthy donor Richard Uihlein. Kelly has knocked Protasiewicz for clearly signaling how she will rule on cases likely to come before the court. "If we do not resist this assault on our Constitution and our liberties, we will lose the rule of law, and will find ourselves saddled with the rule of Janet," Kelly said Tuesday.

Kelly’s conservative credentials are not in doubt. He defended the GOP gerrymander in court, said the U.S. Supreme Court was wrong to recognize a right to same-sex marriage and wrote the opinion that struck down a Madison ordinance barring guns on public transit. Some conservatives had their doubts about his electability, however. Having been appointed to the court, he lost his election bid in 2020 by a double-digit margin. On Tuesday, Kelly narrowly outpaced fellow conservative Jennifer Dorow.

With control of the court at stake, however, conservatives are certain to come home to Kelly in April. This election is bound to grow nastier and more expensive between now and then.

Especially Special Elections: In the court contest, Democrats dusted off a page from their 2022 playbook. A liberal group spent more than $800,000 on ads attacking Dorow, which were essentially designed to boost Kelly. Last year, Democrats meddled in a number of GOP primaries, promoting candidates they thought would be easier to beat in general election contests.

They tried the same thing in a special Wisconsin Senate election held on Tuesday. Democrats were really hoping to run against Janel Brandtjen, a member of the state Assembly who has been an especially ardent promoter of election conspiracy theories and had the backing of former President Donald Trump. Her nomination would have provided voters with a “clear choice” in the April election, said Melissa Agard, the Democratic leader in the state Senate.

But Brandtjen lost to fellow state Rep. Dan Knodl. That’s good news for Republicans, who will be favored to hold the seat – and with it, their supermajority in the chamber. The GOP’s near-miss in last year’s elections in failing to take a supermajority in the Assembly is the only reason Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ vetoes still matter.

Democrats did better elsewhere, however. Chuck Grassie won a race for the New Hampshire House, taking over a seat that had ended up tied in November. His victory pulls the GOP’s majority down to 201-198, with a vacancy that will be filled by a special election in May.

Democrats also held onto a seat in the Kentucky Senate on Tuesday. In both New Hampshire and Kentucky, as well as in a special congressional election in Virginia, Democrats ran considerably ahead of Biden’s local showings in 2020.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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