The historic election here Tuesday that will lead to the nation’s third-largest city electing a black woman as mayor for the first time in its 182-year history has been shaped by name-calling, campaign surrogates raising questions about racial authenticity and a barrage of negative campaign advertisements.
Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle have spent the final days of the campaign crisscrossing Chicago in hopes of turning out support before Tuesday’s election. The two advanced to the runoff race after becoming the top finishers in February’s first-round of voting in which 14 candidates competed.
But the significant milestone – Chicago will become the largest U.S. city to be led by a black female mayor – has been overshadowed by the two candidates trading vicious barbs throughout the campaign.
Concerned about the divisiveness of the race, prominent civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton on Saturday nudged Lightfoot and Preckwinkle to sign a pledge to hold a “unity” press conference on Wednesday, the day after the election.
“The race was competitive and often divisive,” Jackson said. “The race ends Tuesday. The healing must begin Wednesday morning.”
The election comes as African-American women are blazing trails in U.S. politics.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, both Democrats, became the first black women elected to Congress in those two states in November’s midterm elections.
Meanwhile, Sen. Kamala Harris of California is vying to win the Democratic presidential nomination and become the first black woman elected to the White House. Another rising star in the Democratic Party, former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, is also considering a run for the White House. Abrams was narrowly defeated in November in her bid to become Georgia’s governor.
In Chicago, the battle between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle has been downright nasty, even as the latest polling shows that Lightfoot is on her way to winning by a wide margin. Lightfoot leads Preckwinkle by a whopping margin of 53% to 17%, according to the results of a WTTW/Crain’s Temkin/Harris poll released last week.
In the lead-up to the first round of voting, Lightfoot compared Preckwinkle – and three other candidates with personal and political ties to a powerful city council member who had been charged in January with attempted extortion – to vermin for trying to distance themselves from the tarnished politician.
“It’s like cockroaches – there’s a light that’s shined on them,” Lightfoot said at an event where she signed an ethics pledge and took her shot at Preckwinkle and the other candidates. “They scramble.”
At their first one-on-one debate, Lightfoot called Preckwinkle “sad and pathetic” and accused her of lying that she had received the endorsements of two city council members who are backers of President Donald Trump. (Lightfoot had actually received an endorsement of the firefighters union, which the aldermen are members of.)
Lightfoot, who is a lesbian and would be the city’s first openly LGBTQ mayor, questioned whether Preckwinkle “was blowing some kind of dog whistle” to conservative voters after the county board president brought up her sexual orientation at a debate. (Should Lightfoot win, Chicago will become the largest city to be led by an LGBTQ person.)
She also expressed outrage with Preckwinkle’s campaign after one of her campaign advisers posted a photo of Nazis at the Nuremberg, Germany, trials on social media to argue against supporting Lightfoot. Preckwinkle fired the aide and apologized to Lightfoot.
One of Preckwinkle’s surrogates, Rep. Bobby Rush, suggested that Chicagoans should be suspicious of Lightfoot, who previously served on two police oversight boards. He added voters would have blood on their hands if they voted for her.
The issue of police brutality has been central to the campaign. The outgoing mayor, Rahm Emanuel, saw his standing plummet in the city’s African-American community following the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald, a black teen who was shot 16 times by a white police officer. Emanuel declined to seek a third term.
The city, which finalized a plan known as a consent decree that dictates dozens of court-monitored changes in the police department, has spent more than $700 million on settlement and legal fees since 2010 to resolve allegations of police misconduct.
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Rush, a former leader of the Black Panther Party who initially backed former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley for mayor, said in a fiery speech at a campaign rally for Preckwinkle that Lightfoot has had a part in the city’s difficult history of police relations in black and brown communities.
Rush did not mention that Lightfoot was an early advocate of the consent decree and headed a police task force that concluded the department was plagued by racism and needed sweeping changes in order to win trust in minority communities.
“This election is really about what type of police force we’re going to have in the city of Chicago, and everyone who votes for Lori, the blood of the next young black man or black woman who is killed by the police is on your hands,” Rush said. “If you’re against police brutality and murder, you ought to be for Toni Preckwinkle. She’s the only one who is going to have the police under her control.”
Lightfoot blasted Preckwinkle for Rush’s “rhetoric of division”; Preckwinkle declined to disavow the comments.
Another Preckwinkle surrogate, Chance the Rapper, noted at the same rally where Rush made his divisive remarks that Lightfoot hails from the North Side, a predominantly white area of the city. Preckwinkle lives on the city’s South Side, which along with the city’s West Side is predominantly African-American.
“Her opponent was not elected by the South Side. Her opponent was not elected by the West Side,” Chance said of Lightfoot. “Her opponent was elected by the North Side, and there’s two of us and one of them, and we need to come out in droves and elect our next mayor of Chicago, President Toni Preckwinkle.”
In the final days of the campaign, Preckwinkle has honed in on Lightfoot’s time as a corporate lawyer, noting that her work in the private sector has included defending companies facing accusations of age and race discrimination.
Both candidates cast themselves as progressives who will center their agendas on improving life and safety for residents in the city’s 77 neighborhoods.
Preckwinkle also sought to shine the spotlight on the city’s response to a 2004 fire in which four children were killed. The incident happened during Lightfoot’s time as chief of staff at the Office of Emergency Management and Communication, which handles emergency dispatch calls.
A Preckwinkle campaign advertisement notes that Lightfoot’s agency failed to preserve some 911 recordings related to the call. The advertisement began airing last week on the eve of the final televised of the campaign.
As the two sat down for a forum, which was hosted by Chicago CBS affiliate, they shook hands but didn’t appear to make eye contact.
At one point during the debate, Preckwinkle asked Lightfoot what she most regretted about her professional career. Lightfoot responded pointedly about having to explain to her elementary-school-age daughter about why adults lie and act like bullies.
Preckwinkle punched back.
“This is a person who is complaining now about the tenor of the campaign when in the first debate (she) called me a liar,” she said.
Lightfoot said Sunday that she was committed – win or lose– to burying the hatchet with Preckwinkle following Election Day.
What does she want to hear on Wednesday morning?
“Congratulations, mayor,” Lightfoot said. “If I lose, I’m going to congratulate her and continue to fight for the things that are important.”