CHICAGO – Lori Lightfoot made history as the first Black woman and first openly gay person to serve as Chicago mayor, sailing to victory four years ago as an outsider who vowed to rid City Hall of corruption and deliver a safer, more equitable city.
But her bid for a second term is very much in question amid concerns about continuing high crime in the nation's third-largest city and accusations that she is overly hostile and sometimes flat-out mean — criticism she has dismissed as sexist and racist smears against a tough leader who is passionate about Chicago.
Ahead of a crowded Feb. 28 election, Lightfoot has been forced to go on the defensive in a heated race that has turned into both a personality contest and a policy debate.
“We have started to change Chicago around for the better,” Lightfoot said during a recent debate. “I want to finish the job that we have started."
With nine candidates in the race, it is unlikely that anyone will exceed the 50% threshold needed to win the officially nonpartisan election outright. That means the winner is likely to be decided in an April 4 runoff between the top two vote-getters.
Were she to lose, Lightfoot would be the first Chicago mayor in decades to run for reelection and fail. And unlike her predecessors, Lightfoot doesn't enjoy a fundraising advantage over her top rivals.
The election will be an early test this year of how crime factors into mayoral races in big-city Democratic strongholds. Other major cities electing mayors this year, including Philadelphia, are also grappling with how to balance progressive ideals with residents' day-to-day concerns about keeping their families safe.
Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who had never before run for political office, emerged from a crowded field in 2019 to defeat far better known candidates with support from voters weary of political corruption and coverups.
She says her administration has made concrete progress on critical issues, from putting money into neighborhoods that have seen decades of disinvestment to taking illegal guns off the streets. But she notes that the last four years haven't been easy, with a global pandemic and protests over police violence that she said represented “some of the toughest times that we’ve ever faced" in Chicago.
Lightfoot's handling of crises has sometimes drawn praise, such as when she ordered lockdowns early in the coronavirus pandemic and an image of the stern-faced mayor became a popular meme. But at other times, Lightfoot’s actions have been questioned.
After the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police prompted protests and civil unrest, including smashing of storefront windows and fires, Lightfoot ordered the city to raise drawbridges over the Chicago River in an attempt to block protesters from entering the downtown area. Some in the city saw it as elitist, a way of protecting upscale parts of the highly segregated city at the expense of neighborhoods with struggling business districts that also suffered serious damage.
But Lightfoot has taken the most heat for increased crime, with homicides hitting a 25-year high in 2021 with roughly 800. Lightfoot says she has a plan that is working, noting that homicides decreased last year. But they are still higher than when she took office, and concerns have grown about other violent crime in the city, including carjackings.
“We’ve made progress year-over-year,” Lightfoot said. “But I recognize that people in the city don’t feel safe."
Lightfoot’s most formidable opponent may be two-term U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a former member of the Chicago City Council, state Senate and county board who lost a runoff eight years ago against then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Lightfoot has run TV ads accusing Garcia of corruption, noting his House campaign took money from Sam Bankman-Fried, the former CEO of cryptocurrency exchange FTX accused of massive financial fraud. Garcia said he didn’t know Bankman-Fried, and his campaign returned direct contributions.
Garcia touts his record of working with communities across the city and playing well with others in a way that he says Lightfoot does not.
“She is combative, unnecessarily. She is over the top," Garcia said.
Elected as a reform-minded outsider who would rid the city of pay-to-play politics, Lightfoot was criticized when a campaign staffer sent out an email to public school teachers seeking students to volunteer for the campaign in exchange for class credit. Lightfoot apologized, calling it a mistake. Inspectors general are reviewing for possible policy violations.
Some of Lightfoot’s biggest battles have been with the Chicago Teachers Union, which backed her opponent in Lightfoot's first run for mayor. The two sides butted heads during an 11-day teachers strike in 2019 and bickered over returning to in-school instruction during the pandemic.
This year, the teachers union has endorsed Lightfoot rival Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and former Chicago teacher and union organizer. Johnson, who has criticized Lightfoot for running as a progressive and then breaking campaign promises, wants to shift money away from the police department and toward better mental health care and other services for long-neglected neighborhoods like the one where he lives on the city’s West Side.
Lightfoot has also clashed with the Chicago police union, the Fraternal Order of Police. At a City Council meeting, Lightfoot was caught on a microphone referring to a union leader as “this FOP clown.”
The police union has endorsed mayoral candidate Paul Vallas, a former city budget director and schools leader who served as an adviser to the police union during negotiations with City Hall. He's repeatedly called for more police officers, saying, “Crime is out of control.”
Lightfoot has criticized Vallas as a Republican in disguise, noting he has received campaign contributions from GOP donors. Her campaign blasted him for being too cozy with the police union, calling its leader a “notorious bigot” and supporter of former President Donald Trump.
Lightfoot has increased her support in some areas of the city. Former Rep. Bobby Rush, a major critic during her first campaign turned prominent booster this year, joined Reps. Danny Davis and Robin Kelly — whose districts include predominantly Black neighborhoods — in praising her commitment to investing in the areas. Lightfoot maintained that commitment, Rush said, even “under the toughest of circumstances.”
The mayor points to a record of achievements that include pushing through a $15 minimum wage that labor unions had sought for years and approval of a long-sought casino that’s expected to bring millions in revenue and thousands of jobs. She also has budgeted over $3 million to protect access to abortion, including for people who travel to Chicago from states where the procedure is illegal.
In addition to Garcia, Vallas and Johnson, the other candidates running are wealthy businessman Willie Wilson, Chicago City Council members Sophia King and Roderick Sawyer, activist Ja'Mal Green and state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner.
This story has been corrected by deleting the reference to Atlanta as among the major cities electing a mayor in 2023 and to state that the Chicago Teachers Union backed Lightfoot's opponent in 2019.