In Historic Race, Chicago Poised to Elect First African-American Woman as Mayor

by | February 27, 2019 AT 7:40 AM

By Bill Ruthhart

Chicago will elect its first African-American female mayor after former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle won enough votes Tuesday amid a record field of 14 candidates to move on to an April runoff election.

Unofficial results showed Lightfoot with 17.5 percent of the vote, Preckwinkle with 16 percent and Bill Daley with 14.8 percent with 95 percent of precincts counted. They were trailed by businessman Willie Wilson with 10 percent, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza with 9 percent, activist and policy consultant Amara Enyia with 8 percent, Southwest Side attorney Jerry Joyce with 7 percent and former CPS board President Gery Chico with 6 percent.

The remaining six candidates, former CPS CEO Paul Vallas, former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, state Rep. LaShawn Ford, former Ald. Bob Fioretti, tech entrepreneur Neal Sales-Griffin and attorney John Kozlar, each had collected less than 6 percent.

By late Tuesday night, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle declared they had made the runoff while Daley conceded defeat. Neither of the two winners spoke directly about the historic nature of two African-American women making the runoff, but Preckwinkle hinted at it.

"We may not yet be at the finish line, but we should acknowledge that history is being made," Preckwinkle told supporters in the raucous ballroom of a Hyde Park hotel. "It's clear we're at a defining moment in our city's history, but the challenges that our city faces are not simply ideological. It's not enough to say Chicago stands at a crossroads. We need to fight to change its course."

Lightfoot spoke first, before it was clear whether she'd face Daley or Preckwinkle in the runoff. She took the stage at a River North venue with her arms raised in the air.

"So what do you think of us now?" a smiling Lightfoot asked a raucous crowd at her campaign party. "This, my friends, is what change looks like!"

The 14 candidates vying for the fifth-floor office at City Hall marked the largest field to run for mayor in Chicago's 181-year history. The race to succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who made the surprise announcement after Labor Day that he would not seek a third term, comes at a pivotal time for Chicago and unfolded against the backdrop of an ongoing federal corruption investigation at City Hall.

If Lightfoot were to win the runoff, she'd become the city's first openly gay mayor. Both Lighftoot and Preckwinkle are strong advocates for criminal justice and police reform in an era when Chicago politics have been influenced by the fallout of the Laquan McDonald police shooting and the subsequent federal civil rights investigation into the Police Department.

But there was little talk of common ground or niceties Tuesday night.

Lightfoot positioned her campaign as the true progressive one against the entrenched Chicago political machine. Preckwinkle, chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, sold herself as the candidate with a track record in progressive politics who long had been taking on the city's powerful interests.

Preckwinkle, who stayed above the fray for the last six months, wasted no time in attacking Lightfoot, referencing her appointment as the president of the Police Board under Emanuel and as a deputy procurement officer and head of a police investigative agency under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

"While my opponent was taking multiple appointments in the Daley and Emanuel administrations, I fought the power elite who have been trying to hold this city back," Preckwinkle said, without mentioning Lightfoot by name.

Preckwinkle and Daley largely were expected to be in the mix for the top two, and the limited reliable polling that had emerged before Tuesday showed the two at the front of the race. The surprise of the night was Lightfoot.

Lighfoot thanked supporters for having the "courage to stand with our campaign against the machine," and positioned herself clearly as the reform candidate left in the race who had emerged from "a pack of establishment figures."

"People said that I had some good ideas but couldn't win," said Lightfoot, who grew up in Massilone, Ohio, and moved to Chicago to practice law after graduating from the University of Michigan. "It's true that not every day a little black girl in a low-income family from a segregated steel town makes the runoff to be the next mayor of the third-largest city in America!"

The mood at Daley's election night gathering was much more subdued.

"I'm here tonight with an outcome none of us wanted. ... I congratulate Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot on their victories," Daley said. "One of them will have the honor of being the next mayor of Chicago."

Daley supporters will chalk up his defeat to the candidacy of Joyce, who won four wards and cut into Daley's traditional support on the Northwest and Southwest sides.

In the city's 18 majority African-American wards, Wilson won 14, though Preckwinkle won the remainder and finished second in those she didn't win. Still, Lightfoot was able to significantly cut into her margins with her showings in those South and West Side wards.

In the six lakefront wards that have traditionally skewed more liberal, Lightfoot won four while Daley captured two. Though ostensibly an area of support for Preckwinkle, she finished second in three of those wards.

Daley captured nine wards, including his home base 11th Ward, while Joyce took four, including his base in the 19th Ward and the 13th Ward home of House Speaker Michael Madigan. Preckwinkle won five wards, all centered in her South Side base in Hyde Park.

Throughout the campaign, many of the candidates vowed to improve policing and drive down crime while pledging to provide relief from a yearslong succession of tax increases. But most also did not lay out comprehensive plans on how they'd deal with the city's pension woes and budget shortfall, instead pointing to hopes for a Chicago casino and a share of revenue from legalized marijuana as panaceas.

During the last six months, the mayoral race had been defined by a series of twists and turns.

The campaign began with a dozen people declaring they would challenge Emanuel, some with ties to the mayor. Eight of them would make the final ballot -- Lightfoot, McCarthy, Vallas, Wilson, Enyia, Joyce, Sales-Griffin and Kozlar.

That group's satisfaction with the mayor's departure from the race in September would be short-lived. The candidates had to recalibrate their largely anti-Emanuel campaigns while seeing their efforts to raise campaign cash and get their message out somewhat choked off by four heavyweight establishment candidates who soon would enter the contest. When he dropped out, Emanuel predicted none of the announced candidates would become the next mayor, saying it took more than a "one-trick pony" to run America's third largest city.

Soon, the other political thoroughbreds entered -- Preckwinkle, Daley, Chico and Mendoza. Those four establishment candidates combined to raise $19.1 million -- or more than double the other 10 candidates combined, which also included late entrants Ford and Fioretti.

While the financial advantages separated those four, so, too, did the federal corruption investigation at City Hall.

Chico, Daley, Preckwinkle and Mendoza each had long-standing ties to Ald. Edward Burke that became readily apparent soon after federal agents raided his City Hall and 14th Ward offices in late November, papered over the windows and hauled out boxes of records and computers. The candidates all quickly offered an array of ethics reforms, including creating term limits, banning outside income for aldermen and ending veto power aldermen hold over permits and projects in their ward.

By early January, federal authorities had charged Burke with attempted extortion, alleging he held up permits a restaurant magnate needed in his ward in exchange for property tax appeals business at his law firm and a $10,000 campaign contribution to another politician. The Tribune reported that the contribution had gone to Preckwinkle, which she said she returned.

A few weeks later, it became clear that the federal probe had not been limited to Burke, as it was revealed that longtime Ald. Danny Solis had worn a wire on colleagues for a couple of years while facing his own allegations of misconduct. Madigan also was recorded by the FBI seeking business at his law firm from a business owner who needed Solis' approval at City Hall.

While Solis and Madigan have not been charged with wrongdoing, the political damage for the establishment candidates was swift.

The episode conjured up similar federal probes that took down high-ranking members working in the administration of Daley's brother, Richard M. Daley, when he was mayor. The Daley family also had been political donors to Burke, with whom they'd cut deals at City Hall for decades.

Chico was left to "repudiate" his close friend and mentor Burke, who earlier had backed Chico by calling him the most qualified candidate to become mayor. Opponents also were quick to point out how Chico long had lobbied Burke and Solis on behalf of clients seeking deals at City Hall.

Mendoza, who was married at Burke's home, also denounced the man who helped get her started in politics on the Southwest Side. She gave $10,000 in Burke campaign donations to charity and did the same with an additional $142,000 tied to Solis.

But it was Preckwinkle who bore the brunt of the Burke blowback, tied directly to the scandal by the 50-year alderman's alleged shakedown of a campaign contribution for Preckwinkle.

She, too, donated $12,000 in Burke money to charity and vowed to return an additional $116,000 she received at a fundraiser at the alderman's Gage Park compound. Preckwinkle also was left to explain why she hired Burke's son, Ed Burke, Jr., to a six-figure job at the county while he faced sexual harassment allegations in his previous job with the Cook County sheriff.

Those scandals piled on top of other Preckwinkle controversies. She misled the public about when she knew about sexual harassment allegations against her chief of staff, whom she fired. She waited months before firing her security chief after evidence surfaced that a county SUV he drove had been used to illegally transport political materials. And just last week, she fired a senior campaign aide after he invoked Nazis to criticize Lightfoot in a social media post.

All of it led Preckwinkle to describe the campaign in the race's final days with a single word: "tough." But in the end, she survived all the controversy -- at least for now.

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