Chicago Voters Give Lori Lightfoot the Boot
In 2019, the first Black woman and out lesbian to serve as mayor of Chicago could sell herself as a progressive. Yesterday, she couldn't. What changed?
Today I jump in on an election that, as I argue, tells us something about how the meaning of progressivism is changing. This is a free post available to all, so please:
In the past few years, we have seen one political first after another boosting men and women of color to high-profile political roles. There was the first Black Vice President, and the first Black woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Then there was the first Native American to be appointed Secretary of the Interior, a federal department that is the primary connection between the United States government and Native American tribal nations. A few months ago, Marylanders elected the state’s first Black governor, and just yesterday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives elected its first Black woman speaker.
In 2019, Democrat Lori Lightfoot was part of that club, the first Black woman and first openly gay person to be elected Mayor of Chicago. But Chicagoans soured on her almost immediately, and things got worse from there. Yesterday, Lightfoot was trounced in her re-election bid, the city’s only one-term mayor since Democrat Jane Byrne was unseated in 1983. Garnering only 17% of the vote in a nine-candidate field, Lightfoot came in third, behind progressive Cook County Commissioner and former Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson (20%) and Chicago Schools chief Paul Vallas (34%), endorsed by the Chicago Republican Party and the local police union and, not surprisingly, running a Republican-style tough on crime campaign.
Under Chicago’s system, the two top vote-getters, Johnson and Vallas (who says he wants to “take the handcuffs off” the Chicago police, LOL), will proceed to a runoff on April 4. It doesn’t take an experienced political consultant to know that this short campaign will be about where Chicago spends its tax dollars in the next three years: education or cops.
But I don’t think hysteria about crime drove the voting in Chicago.
Indeed, Brandon Johnson almost surely got some or all of the vital three points that boosted him over Lightfoot from his Teachers Union endorsement, a group that Lightfoot managed to alienate within a few months of being sworn in as mayor. In October 2019, Chicago endured a brutal, 11-day teachers’ strike: although Lightfoot offered a 16% raise over five years, which she called “historic,” the union was as focused on structural change, working conditions, and the support that students needed to be able to learn. At the time,
Teachers said the strike was based on a “social justice” agenda and aimed to increase resources, including nurses and social workers for students, and reduce class sizes, which teachers say currently exceed 30 or 40 students in some schools. Union leaders said the strike forced the city to negotiate on issues they initially deemed out of bounds, including support for homeless students.
If everyone in the 25,000-member Teachers Union walked away from the incumbent mayor, and the police union endorsed Vallas, Lightfoot had very little chance of winning re-election in what is one of the most robustly unionized cities in the United States. And only about a third of Chicago’s eligible voters cast a ballot, which may be what the city’s politicians intend by holding such an important election in late winter in one of the coldest cities in the United States. Democratic Congressman Jesús (Chuy) García, who has been repositioning himself as a centrist and pulled down 17% of the vote, also did his part in bleeding votes from Lightfoot.
There is also undoubtedly some truth in claims that the mayor’s race, gender, and sexuality were a liability as voters assessed her first-term leadership and tried to figure out what she stood for—if anything. Lightfoot, who once astutely declared systemic racism a public health crisis, is currently being mocked in right-wing media for asserting that she has been mistreated and misunderstood because of her race and gender. Responding to assertions that she has been rigid and thin-skinned when clashing with Chicago’s entrenched interests, Lightfoot said to one reporter: “the notion that somehow I’m tougher or meaner than [former mayors] Rich Daley or Rahm Emanuel is laughable.” Good point, right? And at a pre-election event, she told the audience: “The same forces that didn’t want Harold Washington to succeed, they’re still here.”
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I believe Lightfoot on both counts: worse people, people who have been white men, have been reelected on worse records. First, it is a truism in politics that women have a harder time being liked than men; a second one is that many nasty men are reelected because voters often perceive that nasty=effective. Emmanuel, however, was both nasty and ineffective, which is why he dropped out of the 2019 race and cleared the way for Lightfoot, who prevailed in a field of relatively weak candidates.
Yet, I suspect there was something else afoot in Lightfoot’s fall from grace. Although it is not unheard of for progressives to run against progressives, they tend not to unless there is blood in the water. Lightfoot’s missteps and governing style might have been fatal on their own. Still, progressives I spoke to in Chicago never believed she was one of them. So it is worth asking how Lightfoot’s actions as mayor and the events of 2020 and beyond affected the claim of someone with a corporate and policing background to that political identity.
“Progressive” meant many things in 2019, describing anyone from the liberal centrist Barack Obama to the socialist Bernie Sanders. By 2023, that is no longer true. After the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the Democratic Party’s left seized the progressive mantle, attaching a range of reforms to it, one of which was to reject policing as a solution to social problems. Lightfoot’s policing credentials—her experience as a federal prosecutor, corporate lawyer, chief administrator of the Chicago Police Department Office of Professional Standards, and president of the Chicago Police Board—suddenly became a liability as this new breed of progressives identified the police as part of the crime problem, especially in communities of color.
There is also a lesson here about what it means to elect an outsider and someone with no experience as an elected official in a city as machine-driven and union dependent as Chicago. Lightfoot took office with few traditional allies but robust popular support. As Peter Slevin of the New Yorker wrote before yesterday’s election, “Pugilistic dismissals, especially of the old guard, earned Lightfoot cheers from her progressive followers.”
But the pugilism wore thin as Lightfoot battled with the Teachers’ Union, publicly confronted opponents in her party, and alienated everyone during a dispute over removing two Christopher Columbus statues (one in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood!) while leaving a third up on the site of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition. At that point, Slevin wrote,“ Even allies became fed up.” Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza, who had endorsed Lightfoot in 2019 and worked with her to pass a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, told one local reporter: “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.”
Moving forward, expect Paul Vallas to lean heavily into crime. A Chicago Sun-Times poll from early February showed that this was far and away the most pressing concern for Chicago voters: 44% said it was their top issue, “distantly followed by criminal justice reform at 13% and the economy and jobs at 12%.” Traditionally progressive issues such as those emphasized by the Chicago Teachers Union were in the low single digits.
But remember, Lightfoot was the progressive anti-crime candidate, and Brandon Johnson beat her: people don’t always vote how they poll on the issues. Vallas may have tapped out the constituency in Chicago that is moved by crime panic, and 32% is not enough to win a runoff, even if every Garcia voter comes over to Vallas, which they won’t. My prediction? Garcia and Lightfoot voters will coalesce around Johnson to block the Republican-lite Vallas, who has also publicly said that he opposes abortion, has ranted about “critical race theory,” is anti-teacher, and, in his own words, admits to being “more of a Republican than a Democrat.”
It’s hard to believe that line will sell in Chicagoland.
At The Status Kuo, Substacker, lawyer, and Broadway impresario Jay Kuo does a great job breaking down Rupert Murdoch’s deposition in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation case against Fox News. Best mic drop? Murdoch gave Jared Kushner a sneak preview of Joe Biden’s campaign ads. There’s no law against it, but Fox’s lawyers are trying to make the case that their client’s platform was a “neutral” conveyer of election conspiracy theories and thus cannot be held liable for defamation. This was not a neutral thing to do. “Murdoch is left trying to argue that some of the Fox News hosts endorsed the lies but that Fox News itself somehow did not. This is a weak argument,” Kuo explains. “For starters, what is Fox News if not its very public hosts who drive its ratings and dollars? The company is plainly responsible for the actions of its key spokespersons and agents. Further, there is plenty of evidence that these anchors were only doing what corporate told them to do, which was to win back viewers by keeping the lies going.” (February 28, 2022)
According to The Hill’s Alexandra Bolton, Mitch McConnell and other GOP senators, who have consistently worked to sow doubt about Donald Trump’s 2024 chances, are freaking out about Dear Leader’s strong poll numbers. How strong? The latest Fox News survey has the People’s Orange Crush leading Ron DeSantis by 15 points. Is the notion that Trump couldn’t win from the same think tank that predicted a red wave in 2022? Maybe. “One Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the GOP presidential primary pointed out that Trump has maintained a solid lead among white working-class conservative voters who don’t have college degrees,” Bolton writes. (February 28, 2023)
The New Yorker’s Claire Malone dropped in on liberal watchdog Media Matters to check in with Kat Abughazaleh, whose job is—wait for it—to watch Tucker Carlson. And while Carlson is undoubtedly a good predictor of where MAGA is going next, he may be less influential than everyone thinks. “To Abughazaleh, the often-ludicrous quality of Carlson’s show is exactly what makes it so dangerous,” Malone writes. “At the same time, perhaps because she follows him so closely, Abughazaleh is skeptical of the conventional wisdom that Carlson is one of the most powerful people in the United States. She and the other Media Matters researchers all seemed convinced that it was more the 8 p.m. Fox time slot that bestowed power.” (February 25, 2023)
Missing in this analysis of 2019, however, is the fact that she did have a strong rival in the runoff, Cook County Board of Commissioners Toni Preckwinkle, who is also Black. Lightfoot pulled 17.5% & Preckwinkle 16% in the first round. It was Preckwinkle who ran as a progressive; Lightfoot called herself a reformer. Amplifying perceptions that Preckwinkle was part of the Chicago Machine helped Lightfoot win that round by a landslide. LL then reneged on her promise to release the Laquan MacDonald footage immediately.