Lightfoot Is First Chicago Mayor to Lose Reelection in 40 Years

·6 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her reelection bid on Tuesday after failing to overcome voter dissatisfaction with rising crime, several high-profile corporate departures and the city’s slow economic recovery from the pandemic.

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Instead, Brandon Johnson, 46, a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, will face Paul Vallas, the 69-year-old former head of Chicago Public Schools, in an April 4 runoff, according to the Associated Press. Lightfoot, 60, is the first Chicago mayor to lose reelection since 1983.

Vallas garnered almost 34% of the vote and Johnson had 20% with about 94% of precincts reporting, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. The mayor had about 17%, finishing third.

Lightfoot, the first Black female leader of America’s third-largest city, is missing out on a runoff after a tough campaign that saw her come in third in several polls. She struggled to keep crime under control, with the city’s woes only made worse by the departure of Citadel and Boeing Co.

Chicago’s nonpartisan mayoral election requires a winner to garner at least 50% of the vote. If no candidate meets that threshold, the two highest vote-getters advance to a runoff.

“It’s a combination of the pandemic and the crime, and the civil unrest,” said Anthony Fowler, a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. “There has been a sense among Chicagoans that she just hasn’t done a very good job even though she’s been in office during a very difficult time.”

Chicago is faced with rising violence that’s sparked outrage among residents and business leaders. Billionaire Ken Griffin cited violence as a reasons for moving his Citadel hedge fund to Florida, while McDonald’s Corp. Chief Executive Officer Chris Kempczinski told the Economic Club of Chicago last year that it had become harder to attract talent to the Windy City.

Crime Incidents

Crime incidents jumped 41% last year and 33% since 2019, the year Lightfoot took office. At the same time, the number of officers fell 12% in the period — as the pandemic sparked a wave of retirements — and the police budget ballooned to a record $1.9 billion for 2023.

Solving that conundrum — while keeping spending in check and simultaneously addressing concerns around police brutality against Black residents — will likely be a key hurdle for the final winner of the race.

The last Chicago mayor to lose a reelection bid was Jane Byrne, who ran when the city still had a partisan system and lost her Democratic primary nomination to Harold Washington in 1983. Washington went on to become the city’s first Black mayor.

“We were fierce competitors in these last few months, but I will be rooting and praying for our next mayor to deliver for the people of the city for years to come,” Lightfoot said Tuesday night, adding she had called Johnson and Vallas to congratulate them.

Just like many other US mayors, Lightfoot had to battle a global pandemic in her first term, a wave of protests against the police force following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and rising crime. As a result, many mayors saw their popularity slide, with several deciding to step down.

Chicago has been slow to recover from the pandemic, with a slow return of workers to downtown putting pressure on local businesses and the economy. A University of California study that analyzed cellphone data in 62 North American cities put Chicago’s activity at just 50%, behind places including New York City, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Houston and Boston.

Business Community

Vallas gained support from the business community and the police by pledging to fight crime. The only White candidate raised more than $6 million for his campaign and benefited from a crowded field with seven Black candidates, including Lightfoot and Johnson.

“My pledge to you is that I’m running for mayor to be the mayor of all Chicago,” Vallas told cheering supporters. “When people tell me that this used to be the city that works and it doesn’t work anymore, I’ll tell you, this city has never really been the city that works for everyone, but it will be when I am mayor.”

He has pledged to boost police ranks, overhaul a scheduling system that’s prompted burnout and give officers local beats to better connect with communities. He has also earned the support of many business leaders, with Citadel Chief Operating Officer Gerald Beeson recently inviting him to speak at a private function at the fund’s building, according to a person familiar with the event.

The former schools chief gained a runoff spot even after he was criticized after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican with presidential aspirations, gave a speech for the Fraternal Order of the Police, a union that endorsed him.

Johnson, endorsed by the influential Chicago Teachers Union, had been rising in the polls in the run-up to the elections. His fast gain in popularity prompted Lightfoot to step up attacks on him in recent weeks, even urging Black residents in the city’s South Side to vote for her, or to stay home. The mayor sought to distance herself from the comments later, recording a video asking Chicagoans to head to the polls.

She also accused Johnson of making the city unsafe by planning to defund the police, something he denied. Responding to her attacks, he pledged to focus on mental health and expand youth jobs and said crime was paralyzing the city and it was time “to get smart, not just tough.”

Lightfoot, a former prosecutor who had never run for public office, came into power in 2019, offering herself as a stark opposition to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She beat many more experienced candidates then, including Vallas himself and Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board president.

But many of the qualities that brought her to power made it hard for her to succeed. She was seen as abrasive, didn’t have contacts within city government and “alienated many of her allies on the city council,” said John Mark Hansen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

“In some sense, her outsider status, while it was an aid in getting elected, I think it has been a hindrance to her actually performing as mayor,” he said.

--With assistance from Kim Chipman, Shruti Date Singh, Bill Allison, Mark Schoifet and Elizabeth Campbell.

(Updates to include vote tallies and quotes from candidates.)

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