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Seismic shifts in politics sometimes aren’t appreciated in real time. The urgent often overtakes the important; deadlines to avoid government shutdowns, for instance, crowd out significant but quiet shifts in public sentiment on topics like abortion, marriage, and immigration. As a result, headlines can sometimes catch audiences by surprise, giving them a jolt and sparking the all-too-common question from the Trump Era: Did that just happen?
Well, one of those spasms manifested Tuesday night on the shores of Lake Michigan, as Chicago voters for the first time since 1989 denied an incumbent mayor re-election. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a 60-year-old former federal prosecutor who became the first Black woman and the first openly gay person to lead America’s third-biggest city, failed to advance to an April 4 runoff after carrying each of the city’s 50 wards just four years ago. While Lightfoot entered Election Day as something of an underdog, the extent of her loss was striking. In a city known for its political leaders’ longevity and the machine’s ability to defend its own cogs, the hiccup showed that Lightfoot had misread this fraught moment, failing to grasp that even the weary voters of deep-blue Chicago will put up with persistent upticks in crime for so long, and that the realities of a pandemic and racial justice protests have clashed with the city’s self-image.
The result: Lightfoot closed out Tuesday in a distant third place. Paul Vallas, a former public schools chief, and Brandon Johnson, a county board commissioner, will vie to replace her.
Even Lightfoot’s biggest defenders will concede her lone term has not been without unique challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic threw mayors of cities great and small for loops. Teachers’ unions rightly had questions about their personal safety, as well as the wisdom and limits of virtual classrooms. The upheaval that rocked small towns and metropolises alike about policing practices and racial justice opened very necessary conversations in Chicago. Meanwhile, a vaccine mandate for those policing the city cleaved her from the support of her city’s public safety teams. And a crime wave that never seemed to go to low tide prompted Lightfoot’s administration to test a tactic usually reserved for fantasy novels or comic book-based movies: she literally raised the bridges to quarantine parts of the city from its neighbors. Homicide rates were like those of the 1990s, but the politics were not.
On top of that, Lightfoot’s tough negotiating style—the one that gave her credibility as a corruption-busting outsider—left her with fewer allies than she realized. Several of her nominal pals on City Council ended up endorsing her opponents, and prompted the city’s polar opposite police unions and teacher unions alike to separately decide it was time to test what Chicago looks like in a post-Lightfoot era. (The police union backed Vallas, and the teachers got behind Johnson) The isolated Lightfoot seemed more in danger by the day, with conservative media personalities using her as a reliable punching bag.
Perhaps Lightfoot’s bigger power is that of reminder. It has long been taken as an article of faith that Chicago is a Democratic stronghold, the place where John F. Kennedy is alleged to have stuffed ballot boxes to win the White House in 1960. Once in office, mayors there are expected to be set for long and steady tenures: Richard J. Daley was in office for 21 years; his son, Richard M. Daley, served for 22 years. Even Rahm Emanuel, whom no one will accuse of being deferential, powered through a 2015 re-election primary against a progressive darling without too much of a headache. Crime, however, became too much a drag on Lightfoot, and she had too few friends to help her power through.
Lightfoot will, of course, be fine. The days of Daley-style political dynasties in Chicago are probably more mythology than strategy these days, but Lightfoot’s legacy is one that will be debated in poli sci seminars, leadership retreats, and post-mortem reports for years. Her wins will be muted by her Tuesday-night loss, but there will always be a well-funded think tank or fundraising machine that can use Lightfoot’s biography and sharp elbows.
Still, in 2023, with so much of the last four years still as unsettled canon in future history books, Lightfoot may serve as a hint that—just maybe—we haven’t yet fully appreciated the historic moment we just lived through. Retrospection and reflection are valuable, but almost always find their way to the list of things to be handled tomorrow. As politicians in Washington and elsewhere consider their own fates, they’d do well to consider the warnings incumbent with Lightfoot: what had long been assumed to be a safe run turned perilous and then temporary in short order. Engaging in fights—and winning, in some cases—with powerful unions is seldom a winning strategy for Democratic leaders, but it proved riskier than expected. And crime, and how it is perceived, may have far more power than strategists have come to respect. The public noticed, and it acted.
The original version of this story misstated which unions supported Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson in the Chicago mayoral election. The Chicago Teachers Union supported Johnson, not Vallas, and the Chicago police union supported Vallas, not Johnson.
Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story misstated which unions supported Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson in the Chicago mayoral election. The Chicago Teachers Union supported Johnson, not Vallas, and the Chicago police union supported Vallas, not Johnson.
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