Chicago elects black, gay woman as mayor in historic vote | News | DW | 03.04.2019
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Chicago elects black, gay woman as mayor in historic vote

Chicago has elected an African-American woman as its mayor for the first time. Lori Lightfoot, who is charged with tackling one of the US' worst city gun crime problems, is also Chicago’s first gay mayor.

Chicago on Tuesday became the largest city in the United States to elect a black openly-gay woman as its mayor, in a historic election that saw crime and economic inequality feature as central issues.

Lori Lightfoot won the electoral runoff against fellow Democrat Toni Preckwinkle, with the city's high levels of gun violence foremost in many voters' minds.

Lightfoot beat Preckwinkle, who is the chief executive of Cook County, in which Chicago is located, by a margin of 74 to 26 percent with most ballots counted, sweeping all 50 city wards in the race.

Preckwinkle, who is also African-American, promoted herself as the more experienced steady hand, Lightfoot cast herself as more of an outsider and reformer.

Though the mayor-elect has never held elected office, she is a former federal prosecutor who has served in several appointed roles, including heading a panel that examined the city's policing problems.

"We were up against powerful interests," Lightfoot said in a victory speech. "Today, you did more than make history, you created a movement for change," she told cheering supporters.

Watch video 06:45

Chicago's lost generation

Stiff competition

The mayoral race was an exceptionally diverse one, including several women and people of color. The candidates included Nigerian-American community organizer Amara Enyia, Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, former heads of the police department and board of education, as well as aldermen and two former White House chiefs of staff.

Lightfoot's landslide victory came as a surprise to many familiar with Chicago's long track record of insider politics. Lightfoot reportedly entered the race because she believed that the current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who previously served as a congressman from Illinois, as well as White House chief of staff for former President Barack Obama, was not doing enough to address blight and depopulation in Chicago's underdeveloped neighborhoods. 

She had nearly no name recognition when she entered the race and was one of an eventual 14 candidates in the election. Among the other candidates who failed to make it to the runoff vote was political scion Bill Daley, also a former Obama chief of staff — as well as the son of Richard M. Daley and brother of Richard J. Daley, each of whom served as Chicago mayor for over two decades. Lightfoot, on the contrary, spoke out in favor of mayoral term limits.

Read more: 8 facts about gun control in the US

Race only one indicator

Prior to the runoff, the race was no shoo-in for Lightfoot, however. Racial tensions in America's third-largest city have long meant that voters there tended to support candidates who look like them — but in this race, the diverse field of candidates combined with broad voter distrust for establishment candidates made the election complex.

There was considerable buzz surrounding Enyia's campaign; she attracted funding and high-profile endorsements from Chicago natives Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, as well as many local leaders in black communities. However, a series of financial missteps, including underreporting her own income, made her appear to some voters as an untrustworthy manager of city funds. 

Preckwinkle's long-term experience at the helm of Windy City politics made her an early favorite. But a controversial local tax on soda she strongly supported backfired in a big way, garnering criticism that she was out of touch with the working poor — in a city infamous for its urban "food deserts" in impoverished black neighborhoods and ill will from voters, in particular people of color. The soda tax was repealed after public outrage, but it did lasting damage to Preckwinkle's image, as did her ties to a former alderman accused of extortion.

Though Preckwinkle charged that Lightfoot was not progressive enough, noting she made millions as a lawyer representing corporate clients, voters eventually seemed to consider Lightfoot as the more anti-establishment of the two given Preckwinkle's nearly 30 years as city councilperson and Cook County board president. Lightfoot's campaign promises included cleaning up city government and reducing economic inequality — messages that apparently resonated with Chicagoans regardless of race or gender.

Read more: Baltimore buys back more than 1,800 weapons, including rocket launcher

Key issues: Racial tensions and violence, demographics

Among the most pressing issues for Lightfoot is a level of gun violence that claims more lives than most other major American cities.

Lightfoot ran on a platform including detailed proposals for curbing violence, overhauling the city's police force, encouraging affordable housing, reforming the city council and expanding city hall transparency. She will also face a spiraling budget deficit fueled by escalating pensions — which Preckwinkle had attempted to address with the soda tax that fell flat.

Since 1837, Chicago — the third largest city in the US with some 2.7 million people — has chosen only one other black mayor and one other female mayor, although Lightfoot is the first openly gay municipal chief executive.

rc,kl/jil (AFP, Reuters, AP, Chicago Tribune)

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