Chicago election post mortem: In battle of progressives, reformer won

It was Lightfoot’s ‘reform vs. experience,’ says Dick Simpson, and ‘the voters weren’t buying it’ from Preckwinkle

Professors Dick Simpson, Constance Mixon, and Melissa Mouritsen performed a post mortem on Tuesday’s election as part of the Midwest Political Science Association Conference at Chicago’s Palmer House. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Professors Dick Simpson, Constance Mixon, and Melissa Mouritsen performed a post mortem on Tuesday’s election as part of the Midwest Political Science Association Conference at Chicago’s Palmer House. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — In a battle of political progressives in the Chicago mayoral race, the reformer won, according to a panel performing a post mortem on the election on Thursday.

The panel, part of the Midwest Political Science Association Conference at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, was led by Dick Simpson, a former reform-minded alderman who is now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was joined by Constance Mixon, a professor at Elmhurst College, and Melissa Mouritsen, a professor at the College of DuPage who concentrated on suburban races.

Mixon said that one friend of hers said the race between Chicago Police oversight expert Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was like “choosing between 7-Up and Sprite.” She agreed that “both candidates could lay claim to having progressive roots, but Lori Lightfoot came out as the reformer.”

“Toni Preckwinkle was essentially reform lite,” Simpson said, “but that isn’t how she ran the election.”

Simpson agreed with the popular pundit’s interpretation that the ongoing scandal surrounding Alderman Edward Burke — charged with federal corruption crimes in an investigation that also found Alderman Danny Solis wearing a wire — tilted the playing field in the race. As head of the Cook County Democratic Party, with longtime alliances with Burke and former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, Preckwinkle “was so tied in, there was no way for her to say, ‘I’m really a reformer,’” Simpson said.

So instead Preckwinkle tried to make the race about “reform versus experience,” he added, “and the voters weren’t buying it.”

“She had to live with the machine label,” Mixon said.

Simpson was early to endorse Lightfoot and worked on her campaign. On Thursday’s panel, he sometimes referred to decisions “we” made as part of her race. But he also offered some behind-the-scenes insights.

Simpson cited how Lightfoot announced her candidacy when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was still expected to run for a third term. He said it was quite deliberate on Lightfoot’s part to run on “a pretty straight reform agenda,” with “sort of a version of the hope and change that Obama ran on.”

Lightfoot benefited from the spotlight placed on Democratic Party politics and City Council corruption, Simpson said, but she was also positioned to take advantage of it.

“She was at the right place with the right message — and with the background that it could be believed,” Simpson said, drawing attention to Lightfoot’s involvement on various police-oversight boards and a task force assigned to overhaul that oversight system after the Laquan McDonald police shooting video was released.

Simpson and Mixon agreed that her performances in the debates also helped. Simpson said that there were more debates in this election than ever before in a Chicago mayoral race, and they extended back to October with the original field of 14 candidates and more, some of whom eventually failed to make the ballot.

“That helped Lori quite a bit,” Mixon said, speculating that it was Lightfoot’s preparation and legal training as a former federal prosecutor that enabled her to outshine others on the debate stages.

Simpson said it was also quite conscious on Lightfoot’s part that she tried not to engage in petty squabbles with other candidates in that first round of the election ending in February. She confronted attacks, but otherwise played fair, while Preckwinkle was hiring election lawyers to try to kick opponents like state Comptroller Susana Mendoza off the ballot on petition challenges.

That enabled Lightfoot to reel in endorsements from every other opponent left out of the runoff, Simpson said, except for Bill Daley, who endorsed no one after he was squeezed out finishing third in February, and, of course, Preckwinkle. She also earned the support of U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a major figure in the city’s progressive and Latino voting blocs, who pointedly had not been endorsed by Preckwinkle in his 2015 mayoral race against Emanuel.

“Toni has a fairly abrasive personality, schoolmarmish,” Simpson said.

That key difference in personality was on display in their “victory” speeches in February, Mixon said, after Lightfoot placed first and Preckwinkle second to send them into the runoff. Mixon added that Lightfoot gave a more “visionary” speech, while Preckwinkle “immediately went on the attack.” Throughout their five-week head-to-head campaign, Mixon added, “Toni Preckwinkle had more attack ads.” While Lightfoot counterattacked with negative ads as well, she also ran a winsome spot featuring her 11-year-old daughter. Preckwinkle, Mixon said, had a “kinder, gentler ad” of her own, but only ran it on Facebook, not on TV.

According to Mixon, the Preckwinkle campaign was flummoxed by Lightfoot and never really got a handle on how to attack her, having expected to run against Daley or Mendoza.

Meanwhile, Simpson pointed out, Lightfoot was refining her message in the runoff to “Lori for all of Chicago,” and “reform for all of Chicago,” which enabled her to grow from a leading 17.5 percent of the vote in the February election with 14 candidates to a landslide of 74 percent of the vote Tuesday against Preckwinkle. He added that Lightfoot used the word “together” 11 times in her victory speech Tuesday night.

Mixon added that Lightfoot won all 50 wards, and that Preckwinkle carried just 20 of 2,069 precincts.

Does that give Lightfoot a mandate to compel the change she ran on?

Mixon pointed to the 32 percent voter turnout, compared with the 41 percent who voted in the Emanuel-Garcia runoff in 2015, and said it gave Lightfoot “a broad mandate of the 30 percent who voted.”

Simpson wryly added, “You always claim a mandate when you’re about to govern.”