Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her bid for a second term on Tuesday after failing to land one of the top two spots in the city’s nonpartisan mayoral race.
Since none of the nine mayoral candidates won an outright majority in the first round of voting, the two highest vote-getters will compete for control of City Hall in an April 4 runoff election.
Paul Vallas, the centrist, ex-CEO of Chicago Public Schools and the field’s only white candidate, is now in a strong position to take the top job after finishing in first place on Tuesday.
Lightfoot’s defeat is a blow to supporters who celebrated her victory as the city’s first Black woman and openly gay person to serve as mayor.
The outcome also reflects the fierce challenges facing big-city mayors following the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, and a concurrent increase in gun violence and other forms of crime.
Lightfoot sought, unsuccessfully, to persuade voters that the city had begun turning the corner under her leadership and that her ouster would set back progress in lifting up underprivileged neighborhoods.
“What we have done through the greatest challenges that this city has probably faced since the Great Fire [of 1871] is we have continued our march towards equity and inclusion and justice,” she declared at a Feb. 9 press conference with Black clergy supporting her reelection. “And we will not turn back. We will not give up. We will forge forward.”
Lightfoot is the first incumbent Chicago mayor to lose an election since 1989, when Eugene Sawyer, who was appointed after the sudden death of then-Mayor Harold Washington in 1987, lost his bid for a full term. Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first female mayor, was the city’s most recent elected mayor to lose her race when she failed to win a second term in 1983.
With the support of the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago’s police union, Vallas presented the starkest alternative to Lightfoot’s leadership for voters concerned about crime and public safety.
He maintained that additional funding and a new mayor whom police officers trust could help “slow the exodus” of cops from the city and fill the Chicago Police Department’s 1,600-person backlog relative to its 2019 personnel levels.
“This election is about leadership, a crisis of leadership, because every single problem the city’s experiencing — from a degraded police department, deteriorating schools, or ever-increasing property taxes, fines and fees — is really a product of bad decisions from the fifth floor,” he said in a Feb. 9 candidate debate, referring to the floor of Chicago City Hall that the mayor occupies. “It didn’t begin with this mayor, but it certainly has gotten worse.”
Lightfoot also faced the public’s exhaustion with her penchant for personal squabbles that often dominated headlines. She was at odds with the city’s right-wing police union and also its progressive teachers union, a diverse array of City Council members, and even the owners of professional football’s Chicago Bears, who have threatened to leave the city.
Indeed, at times, Lightfoot seemed to be besieged by critics on her ideological left and ideological right without the relationships in the middle of the spectrum to anchor her.
“Where is her base anywhere in Chicago?” U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), one of Lightfoot’s challengers, asked HuffPost in a Feb. 9 interview. “It’s not in the Black community where you would think there would be a strong base. It’s not in the more progressive parts of Chicago today.”
Lightfoot’s reputation for acrimony, combined with the persistence of property crime in the city even after murders peaked in 2021, cost her the support of upper-middle-class white voters who had powered her first, reform-themed bid in 2019.
Linda Buckley, a retired businesswoman from River North, had supported Lightfoot in the first round of voting in 2019 but told HuffPost in mid-February that she was deciding between Vallas and García.
“I don’t think she works well with people,” Buckley said.
Lightfoot lamented the sexism and racism that she believes marked this kind of criticism of her governing style. And in the final weeks of her bid, she sought relentlessly to rally Black Chicagoans to her side, warning them of the consequences of losing one of their own at the helm.
Some residents heeded her call.
“She has been very clear of her intent to help build and help bring Black communities and those who are in need to the table, where her predecessors have boxed us out,” Rev. Cy Fields, pastor of a Baptist church on the West Side, said at the Feb. 9 press conference in support of Lightfoot’s reelection.
But her task was made harder by the presence of six other Black candidates on the ballot, including Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. Johnson, a former Chicago Teachers Union organizer backed by his former employer, joined other progressives in accusing Lightfoot of failing to deliver on promised changes to the city’s policing, mental health and public school systems.
“We’ve had mayors who have … capitulated over and over again to the ultra-rich, to billionaires, and to massive corporations,” Johnson told HuffPost in a mid-February interview. “And look how much despair it has caused!”
Lightfoot did offer other Chicago liberals a road map for defeating Vallas in the runoff. In advertisements and on the stump, Lightfoot dubbed Vallas, a self-described “life-long Democrat,” a “Republican” whose efforts to appeal to conservative white voters’ fears of crime were the “ultimate dog-whistle.”
Vallas has some ammunition with which to push back on those claims. He told HuffPost that he only ever considered running for a county office as a Republican in 2009 so he would not have to contend with the grip of the Chicago machine.
But Vallas’ ties to right-wing groups like the Fraternal Order of Police have already proven to be a headache for him. In late February, he denounced the union’s decision to host Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for a speech to its members.
Vallas’ history as a champion of charter schools and foe of teachers unions is, on its own, likely enough to unite much of progressive Chicago against him.
“Vallas is bad for Chicago,” said Stephanie Gadlin, a former Chicago Teachers Union official who supported García.
Electing him, Gadlin added, “Would be the equivalent of hiring Count Dracula to run the blood bank.”