Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot will ask voters to send her back to City Hall for a second term as head of the nation’s third-largest city, she made official Tuesday.
In a video announcing her bid for reelection, Lightfoot sought to transform the criticism that she’s too combative into a strength by vowing to keep fighting for Chicago residents as she seeks a second term. By embracing her image as a political pugilist, Lightfoot is betting that Chicago voters will see her as a righteous fighter rather than someone who throws unnecessary haymakers.
“When we fight for change, confront a global pandemic, work to keep kids in school, take on guns and gangs, systemic inequality and political corruption only to have powerful forces try and stop progress for Chicago — of course I take it personally, for our city,” Lightfoot said. “Change doesn’t happen without a fight. It’s hard. It takes time. And, I’ll be the first to admit I’m just not the most patient person. I’m only human, and I guess sometimes it shows. But just because some may not always like my delivery doesn’t mean we’re not delivering.”
Lightfoot’s announcement she will seek reelection in the February 2023 mayoral race comes as no surprise. Despite wishful thinking by some Lightfoot critics that she would bow out of the race, the first-term mayor has long been setting up to defend her record and seek four more years in office.
The mayor currently faces five challengers, all of whom have raised questions about high crime and criticized her leadership as being unnecessarily divisive. So far, her opponents include South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer, son of a former mayor; former Chicago Public School CEO Paul Vallas; Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner; Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez; and businessman Willie Wilson.
During more than three years in office, Lightfoot has faced spikes in crime, has not run as transparent an administration as promised and engaged in constant fights with unions representing teachers and police — all while struggling to forge good relationships with politicians or leaders in the city’s business community.
Her polling has struggled in recent months, particularly with white and Latino voters, but the hard-charging mayor can’t be dismissed.
Lightfoot has quietly built a strong relationship with several key labor leaders, who hail her progressive record on union issues such as the fair workweek ordinance and a $15 minimum wage. Incumbency in any form also has power. As mayor, Lightfoot has earmarked roughly $3 billion in federal funds for city projects and she’s launched a series of programs aimed at reversing one of the biggest criticisms of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure — disinvestment in Chicago’s neighborhoods, especially on its South and West sides.
Lightfoot also can argue she deserves more time to finish the job after having faced the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and some of the city’s most significant civil unrest since the 1960s.
Whoever becomes Chicago mayor in 2023 will take responsibility for a city with deep financial challenges, endemic gun violence and a troubling history of segregation that continues to exist and contribute to crime and inequity.
The next mayor will also navigate major changes in Chicago Public Schools, which will transition to an independent elected school board over the coming years. Lightfoot campaigned in favor of an elected school board but unsuccessfully tried to block a state law creating a 21-member body to oversee Chicago schools.
As a candidate in 2019, Lightfoot said she would be different than Emanuel and vowed not to lead with her “middle finger.” But as mayor, Lightfoot has taken an approach to governance that led Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, a longtime ally who has said she won’t support the mayor’s reelection, to summarize her time in office this way: “I have never met anybody who has managed to piss off every single person they come in contact with — police, fire, teachers, aldermen, businesses, manufacturing.”
Lightfoot has, at various points: accused Uber of “paying off Black ministers” to oppose ride-share taxes, without providing any evidence; told aldermen “don’t come to me for s—-” if they didn’t support her budget; and confronted a teachers union activist by jabbing her finger in the woman’s face as her personal aide tried unsuccessfully to drag her away.
The popular consensus that Lightfoot alienates broad constituencies is a stark flip from the position she found herself in the April 2019 runoff election, when she carried all 50 wards in a landslide victory against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is also head of the Cook County Democratic Party.
But Lightfoot’s standing with voters is more complex and always has been.
In the first round of the mayoral campaign in 2019, Lightfoot emerged from a historic 14-candidate field with roughly 18% of the vote. While that was enough for her to take first place and move her to the final round versus Preckwinkle, it still shows that 4 out of 5 voters in that first round chose someone else. In that initial February 2019 election, Lightfoot rode broad support from lakefront voters on the North Side who are often liberal. This time, the mayor is expected to be strongest with African American voters — but that could be complicated by the field including strong Black alternatives.
Wilson, in particular, could be a challenge to Lightfoot’s fortunes as he won most of the Black wards in 2019 and helped boost her campaign on the South and West sides with his endorsement during the runoff.
Buckner released a statement Tuesday calling Lightfoot “utterly ill-equipped to lead Chicago” and saying she lacks “any strategic vision for making Chicagoans safer.”
“Carjackings and violence are at record highs, economic disinvestment is drying up our neighborhoods, our schools are under-resourced, our Police Department is overextended and understaffed. Instead of a public safety plan, she’s raised bridges, put up barricades and demanded curfews,” Buckner said.
Lightfoot’s reelection announcement also faced criticism from the Chicago Teachers Union, which ripped her for balancing the city’s budget in part by asking the school district to cover pension payments traditionally paid for by City Hall.
“The mayor is launching her reelection bid by balancing the city budget on the backs of children who need more instead of less,” the union, which is expected to endorse another candidate, said in a statement. “The voters of Chicago need to understand that this budget is unacceptable and another example of failed leadership.”
A small number of mostly Black aldermen attended Lightfoot’s campaign fundraiser downtown, reflecting the political challenges Lightfoot faces with white voters and Latino voters.
“She has the seat,” West Side Ald. Emma Mitts said when asked why she was supporting Lightfoot. “I’ve always stuck with the incumbent.”
Burnett said the mayor deserves a second term, even though she has experienced “growing pains” in her first few years.
“I supported Mayor Daley. I supported Rahm Emanuel. I’m going to support the sister and give her another opportunity to show what she can do,” Burnett said.