Progressive cage match!

Chicago will get its first African-American woman mayor as runoff pits Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot will face off in the Chicago mayoral runoff April 2. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot will face off in the Chicago mayoral runoff April 2. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — Chicago will have its first African-American woman mayor.

Former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle will face off in an April 2 runoff after they finished atop Tuesday’s mayoral election against a dozen other candidates.

With 96 percent of Chicago precincts reporting, Lightfoot had 17.5 percent of the vote, Preckwinkle 16 percent. With no candidate coming close to claiming more than 50 percent of the vote, they’ll head to the runoff.

Former U.S. Commerce Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, brother of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and son of Mayor Richard J. Daley, ran third with 14.8 percent.

“So what do you think of us now?” Lightfoot said in claiming victory. She had all the momentum — much of it driven by North Side liberals and progressives — in the closing days of the campaign.

Calling it “a defining moment,” Preckwinkle said, “History is being made.” But she was also the first to drop the gloves in the coming fight in remarks after Lightfoot had claimed victory.

With thousands of mail-in ballots still in play, Daley nonetheless conceded, calling it “an outcome none of us had wanted, but because all of us respect the democratic process we will accept it and we will move on.”

On Wednesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker applauded both mayoral finalists at a Black History Month event at the Thompson Center in Chicago, saying, “Yesterday, once again, history was made when two black women became the runoff candidates for mayor of the city of Chicago.”

Turnout, however, was light, as a big field of mayoral candidates evidently left Chicago voters less than enthusiastic about choosing a replacement for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

As of 1 p.m., less than 20 percent of registered voters had hit the polls, according to Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. That put the city on pace to threaten the record low turnout of 33 percent registered in 2007, for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s sixth and final term in office. What’s more, most of those votes were cast by residents 55 or older.

In the end, according to Allen, the city just avoided setting a new record, with a 34 percent turnout.

Rolls swelled for last year’s hotly contested midterm elections, when 61 percent of registered Chicagoans voted, but the huge field of candidates evidently left many voters flummoxed.

Preckwinkle, however, had the boots on the ground, with union backing led by the Chicago Teachers Union, while Lightfoot succeeded in galvanizing the support of the city’s liberals calling for change.

Both boasted legitimate progressive credentials, with Lightfoot running as a political outsider advocating reinvestment in forgotten neighborhoods, while Preckwinkle cited her achievements in criminal-justice reform and other initiatives at the Cook County Board.

“This my friends is what change looks like,” Lightfoot said in a triumphant speech to supporters. Urging her backers to “take this over the finish line to victory” April 2, she added, “It’s time to bring it home.” She trumpeted a win over “the crumbling machine of the past.”

Preckwinkle countered: “It’s been a long night and a hard-fought campaign. Our fight’s far from over, and there’s a lot more to do.” History aside, however, she immediately lashed at Lightfoot for what she labeled her “multiple appointments in the Daley and Emanuel administrations,” as Lightfoot served on a series of police oversight boards and commissions under the last two mayors. Preckwinkle, a former alderman who is also head of the Cook County Democratic Party, touted her own qualifications to assume what she called “the responsibility of running the city.”

So no sooner does one battle end than another begins.

To be sure, the 14 candidates were a lot to process for Chicago voters. As Block Club Chicago reporter Jamie Nesbitt Golden said during a One Illinois “In the Milkweeds” taping, it was like trying to keep tabs on the members of the Wu-Tang Clan.

But in addition to Lightfoot, Preckwinkle, and Daley, they were: former Chicago Public Schools head Gery Chico; West Side activist Amara Enyia; former maverick Alderman Bob Fioretti; state Rep. La Shawn Ford; former Cook County state’s attorney staffer Jerry Joyce; former Bridgeport aldermanic candidate John Kozlar; former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy; state Comptroller Susana Mendoza; Chicago tech entrepreneur Neal Sales-Griffin; former CPS head Paul Vallas; and former presidential candidate Willie Wilson.

Wilson was the only other candidate to top 10 percent, at 10.5, to finish forth. Others by percentage of the vote: Mendoza 9.1, Enyia 8, Joyce 7.4, Chico 6.3, Vallas 5.5, McCarthy 2.7, and Ford 1, followed by Fioretti, Kozlar, and Sales-Griffin.

And give all 14 credit. They were consistent and for the most part civil. There were no political deals that found someone dropping out at the 11th hour to throw his or her support to another contender. They were in it to win it and stood by their guns. If any were in the race just to play spoiler, they never betrayed it.

Voters, city officials, and above all candidates were all hoping to avoid what was being called a “nightmare scenario.” With 14 candidates dividing up a small turnout, the race figured to be tight, but as of this week there were still more than 30,000 mail-in ballots yet to be returned. They’re legal if postmarked by the end of the day Tuesday, and the election board has to wait for them to trickle in before issuing a final summary March 12. A close race and a large number of mail-in ballots still in play could have meant two weeks before the final candidates are formally set, and at that point also-rans within 5 percentage points of the top two could still file for a recount, extending the uncertainty.

But Daley ended all that with his concession Tuesday night.

Yet, with turnout so low, a small cadre of devoted supporters could — and did — pull off an upset and place a long shot in the final. Allen urged voters to the polls, saying, “Your vote will never count more than it does now in Chicago history.” That turned out to be the case for Lightfoot’s backers.

The confusion and apathy resulting from the 14-candidate field may well lead to calls for change. Reform for Illinois has already put forth a ranked-choice poll as proposed by the FairVote group, and it has a simulated ranked-choice ballot posted online for the Chicago election, with results apparently to follow after the election.

Critics can also fault that the battle-royal process didn’t necessarily enhance the political debate. Preckwinkle took it easy on Joyce and Vallas, who proved to be spoilers for Daley; Daley and Preckwinkle were easy on Chico, who proved to be a spoiler for Mendoza; and and all were easy on Wilson, although that didn’t stop Lightfoot and Preckwinkle from rising to the top.

The movement for change drove a few aldermen from office: Joe Moreno of the 1st Ward, Joe Moore of the 49th, and John Arena of the 45th, who faced opposition after backing affordable housing in his ward. Alderman Edward Burke of the 14th Ward, however, won and evaded a runoff with more than 50 percent of the vote, despite recently being hit with federal corruption charges.

Chicagoans re-elected Anna Valencia as city clerk, while State Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin and Alderman Ameya Pawar entered a runoff for treasurer. Pawar, of course, is founder and executive director of One Illinois.