Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot faces eight challengers in the city’s elections on Tuesday, a tough re-election campaign for an incumbent who made history as the first Black woman and first openly gay person to serve in the role.
A former United States prosecutor who had never before run for political office, Lightfoot was something of a surprise winner four years ago, claiming an overwhelming victory in a runoff.
Her four years in office have included issues with high crime rates and ongoing friction with the city’s teachers union, and should she lose her bid to return to city hall, Lightfoot would become the first Chicago mayor in decades to run for re-election and fail.
With nine candidates in the race, it is unlikely that anyone will exceed the 50 percent threshold needed to win the officially nonpartisan election outright. That means the winner is likely to be decided in an April 4 runoff between the top two vote-getters.
Crime has become a major focal point in the election.
For years, Republicans have sought to win over voters by depicting Democratic-led cities as lawless centres of violence that need tough-on-crime policies. In Chicago, some of the Democrats running for mayor are deploying the same strategy as they debate how to make the city safer.
Most observers peg the race as a four-person contest among Lightfoot, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, US Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson.
Vallas, the only white candidate in the race, is positioning himself as a moderate, with backing from the Chicago police union. He has said “crime is out of control” and the city needs hundreds more officers patrolling its streets.
Another mayoral hopeful, Willie Wilson, has said that if suspects flee a crime scene, officers should be able to “hunt them down like a rabbit”.
Jaime Domínguez, a political science professor at Northwestern University, said it’s the first time in 20 years that he’s seen public safety be “front and centre” in a Chicago mayoral election.
The difference, he said, is that crime is no longer largely isolated to some predominantly Black and Latino neighbourhoods. As more crime is occurring in other parts of the highly segregated city, including in the downtown and other areas frequented by tourists, public safety is also top of mind for white voters.
“Historically, it was primarily a pocketed matter. It was still pernicious and candidates spoke to it, but it didn’t really affect areas where you see crime occurring now,” Dominguez said. “That has been blown up. It’s just, it’s everywhere.”
Chicago has a higher per-capita homicide rate than New York City or Los Angeles, but it’s lower than that of other Midwestern cities, such as St Louis and Detroit. Still, the number of homicides in Chicago hit a 25-year high in 2021 with 797, according to the Chicago Police Department.
That number decreased last year but is still higher than when Lightfoot took office in 2019. Other crimes, such as carjackings and robberies, have increased in recent years.
In a recent political ad, Lightfoot accused mayoral candidate Johnson of wanting to defund the police, using video of him speaking on a local radio programme in 2020. During the interview, Johnson said reducing the amount of money spent on policing isn’t a slogan but “an actual real political goal”.
His statements came after the protests calling to defund the police erupted across the US over the killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd in May 2020. Johnson also sponsored a non-binding resolution, passed by the county board, that said money should be redirected from policing and incarceration and into social services.
Lightfoot said Johnson, who avoids the word “defund” when speaking on the campaign trail about policing, isn’t being candid with voters.
Garcia, the only Hispanic candidate, is focusing hard on Latino neighbourhoods and Hispanic TV and radio.
Rising crime rates have affected local races across the US.
In San Francisco, progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin was ousted in a recall election last year that was fueled by frustration over public safety. In Los Angeles, two Democrats running for mayor debated how to deal with rising crime rates and an out-of-control homelessness crisis. In New York City, voters elected Eric Adams as mayor, elevating a former city police captain who pledged to fix the department and invest more in crime prevention. And in Philadelphia, candidates running for mayor this year are debating how to curb gun violence.
How Chicago votes
Chicago holds non-partisan jungle-style primaries that are open to all voters, who can register on election day. A candidate must win more than 50 percent of ballots cast to win outright. If no candidate does, the top two advance to a runoff election on April 4.
As of January 1, 2023, there were 1.6 million registered voters in Chicago. As of Sunday, 207,940 voters had cast advance ballots.
In the 2022 primary election, 49 percent of Chicago voters cast their ballots before election day. Mail-in ballots can arrive as late as March 14 and be counted so long as they are postmarked by election day.
Election officials have said the number of mail ballots is up sharply from the last mayor’s race, in 2019, which could delay results.