CHICAGO (NewsNation) — On Tuesday, Chicagoans will decide whether to reelect Mayor Lori Lightfoot or choose a new leader of the Windy City, which has historically served as a bellwether for national politics.
“Chicago was always the epitome of American politics,” said Dick Simpson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Chicago and a former city alderman. “It both reflects the broader American politics and often is leading the way either in a good or a bad direction.”
Simpson, who has been involved in Chicago politics for more than 50 years, thinks the city is at a major political turning point — one that will either embrace “progressive pragmatism” or move in a more conservative direction. He has endorsed the current mayor for a second term.
Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, was elected in 2019 as a reform-minded outsider whose victory signaled a shift away from the “Chicago machine” that had come to define the city throughout much of the 20th century.
During her time in office, Chicago has remained a place where national conversations around education and crime continue to play out.
Both issues have been at the center of the current election.
Lightfoot’s opponents have criticized her public safety record, often citing Chicago’s homicide rate, which far exceeds that of other places like New York City and Los Angeles.
Like many American cities, Chicago saw murders skyrocket in 2020. By the end of the year, almost 800 people had been killed, up from about 500 the year before. That number fell to around 700 in 2022, a fact Lightfoot points to as a sign things are moving in the right direction.
Nationally, homicides spiked by nearly 30% in 2020 and increased again in 2021. The violence has occurred at the same time many cities have struggled to recruit and retain police officers. For that reason, national debates around public safety are likely to continue heading into 2024.
Lightfoot has consistently found herself trading barbs with national politicians eager to draw attention to the city’s violent crime. Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blamed the issue on leaders who put “woke ideology ahead of public safety,” as reported by NewsNation’s Chicago affiliate WGN.
The mayor called DeSantis a “bigoted, racist demagogue” in an interview ahead of his recent visit to the area.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who finished ninth in the 2019 Chicago mayoral race, has emerged as one of Lightfoot’s top opponents and has made public safety the centerpiece of his campaign. He’s vowed to hire more cops and has the endorsement of the police union.
Lightfoot has criticized Vallas’ relationship with the police and branded him as a Republican in disguise, even accusing him of being fast on the heels of DeSantis.
The mayor has stood by her public safety record and accused the other candidates of being short on concrete solutions.
As crime came into focus during the pandemic, so did education policy. Lightfoot clashed with the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) over remote learning and COVID-19 safety protocols, accusing the union of abandoning students at the nation’s third largest school district.
Now, the CTU is backing one of their own to lead city hall, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson.
“This is really shaping up to be a battle for the soul of Chicago Public Schools,” said Mailee Smith, the senior director of labor policy at the Illinois Policy Institute — a libertarian think tank.
Johnson, a former teacher and CTU organizer, has received nearly $1 million from the union for his mayoral bid. That relationship has Smith concerned.
“This is an election that can demonstrate to Chicagoans, other Illinoisans and people in other big cities what a teachers union can do with their money,” she said.
Regardless of who ultimately wins, Chicago’s next leader will have to chart the post-coronavirus path forward for public schools. From March 2020 to June 2021, the average student in Chicago lost 21 weeks of learning and 20 weeks in math, according to researchers at Georgetown University.
In order to win re-election, Lightfoot will have to overcome eight other candidates in a crowded race that’s almost certainly headed to a runoff. If no candidate exceeds the 50% threshold needed to win Tuesday’s election outright then the top two vote-getters will face off in April.
In 2019, Lightfoot won around 18% of the vote in the first round before cruising to a runoff victory against Toni Preckwinkle. But recent polls suggest she may be in trouble.
A Feb. 14 poll from Northwestern University showed the mayor in third place behind Vallas and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García. Earlier polls also found Garcia and Vallas with a slight lead over the incumbent.
Garcia, a progressive candidate and former Cook County Commissioner, finished second in the 2015 Chicago mayoral race.