A historic election in Chicago cracks the machine

March 14, 2019

The old guard is on the way out, and a progressive future for the city is coming into focus.

Lori Lightfoot

Chicago’s population has decreased by about a quarter- million Black residents since 2000, with Latinos passing African Americans as the city’s second-largest demographic. So it was notable that on Chicago’s mayoral ballot February 26, six of the 14 candidates were Black. Two Black women, Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot, finished at the top and will face a runoff April 2.

A number of progressive challengers ran for City Council—many of them people of color—and took down incumbent aldermen or made it to runoffs.

The results say a lot about a growth in race and class consciousness and a hunger for change in Chicago after eight years under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, dubbed “Mayor 1%.” This election could be seen as a rejection of Chicago’s once all-powerful Democratic machine, a vast system of political patronage; of the Daley dynasty, with the loss of mayoral candidate Bill Daley (son of Mayor Richard J. Daley and brother of Mayor Richard M. Daley, who served a combined 43 years); of a Council in lockstep with the mayor; and of Emanuel’s autocratic, corporate style of governance.

Toni Preckwinkle

Bill Daley came in third despite his $8.65 million in campaign funds, almost double the next candidate’s. Many see Lightfoot and Preckwinkle as representing reform, social justice and more diverse leadership.

Emanuel was long criticized for focusing on Chicago’s wealthy neighborhoods and power players while ignoring or undermining poor and working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods. His record includes the closing of almost 50 public schools, the shuttering of public mental health clinics, the slashing of city jobs that were long a staple for Black communities and the layoffs of public school teachers, with Black and Latino teachers disproportionately given the ax. Emanuel’s problems were only exacerbated by the revelation that his administration covered up the police murder of Black teen Laquan McDonald, and Emanuel announced in fall 2018 that he would not seek re-election.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton

Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor appointed by Emanuel to oversee a police reform process after McDonald’s death, was an outspoken critic of Emanuel. She is seen by many, including residents of the largely white North Side, as an uncompromising good-government advocate and reformer, though many activists have concerns about her ties to law enforcement and say she should have been more proactive while heading Chicago’s police oversight body. If Lightfoot wins, she would be Chicago’s first openly gay mayor.

Jobs, along with police accountability and gun violence, emerged as key issues and flashpoints for anger over the segregation and inequality that have long festered in Chicago.

Congresswoman Robin Kelly

Nearly all the candidates took relatively progressive stances on criminal justice and policing, and nearly all called for the legalization of marijuana, an overhaul of the police force and a halt to Emanuel’s planned $95 million police training academy.

If Lightfoot wins the election April 2, she will be the mayor of Chicago. Preckwinkle will remain head of the County Board. Kim Foxx will be the Cook County state’s attorney. Dr. Janice Jackson will be CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Dorothy Brown will be the elected clerk of the Cook County courts, and Karen Yarbough will be the elected county clerk. Additionally, Robin Kelly is the U.S. Congresswoman for the South Side and suburban 2nd Districe, and Juliana Stratton is the lieutenant governor of Illinois. They are all African American women. Think how impossible that all would have seemed 40 years ago.