A Time for Choosing in Chicago

I was fortunate enough to be home for spring break to vote in the 2023 Chicago mayoral election. The embattled incumbent, Lori Lightfoot, finished in third place behind Paul Vallas, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO, and activist Brandon Johnson, who is a progressive former public school teacher. Lightfoot carried a mere 16.8 percent of the vote to become the first defeated incumbent or one-term Chicago mayor in 40 years. Since no candidate garnered a majority of the vote, the top two candidates, Vallas and Johnson, will face each other in an April 4 runoff election.

Mayor Lightfoot’s fall from grace has been spectacular to behold. A University of Michigan graduate, she ran for mayor in 2019 on the basis of being a non-political outsider who would provide accountability and transparency to a famously corrupt city. Lightfoot ran on a profoundly progressive platform, emphasizing that she would be the first openly lesbian black woman to serve as mayor of a major American city. Nonetheless, Lightfoot’s promises of accountability  and perceived status as a non-machine candidate appealed to a diverse city-wide coalition. As a junior at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago’s Near West Side, I volunteered for Lightfoot’s 2019 campaign. I certainly did not agree with her on everything, but I, like many others, was optimistic about her candidacy. At a mayoral forum that took place at my high school, I distinctly remember Lightfoot pledging to chart a different course from the glad-handers and union bosses standing beside her.

Lightfoot resoundingly defeated Chicago Teachers’ Union favorite Toni Preckwinkle in the 2019 runoff election with more than 73 percent of the vote, winning every ward in the city. My home ward, Chicago’s 19th, consistently yields the highest voter turnout in the city, due in part to being the traditional home of firefighters, police officers, teachers, and other city employees. Lightfoot won 84 percent of my crucial ward in the 2019 runoff. After her inauguration, she partially made good on her promises. She did indeed make an enemy out of the CTU, but she also alienated every other possible interest group, including aldermen, firefighters, Italian-Americans, police officers, and the general electorate.

Lightfoot has been notoriously pugnacious, picking personal, nasty fights and insulting just about everyone, including her own staff. Perhaps most infamously, Lightfoot boasted of possessing “the biggest dick in Chicago.” Lightfoot’s personality woes may have been overlooked by the public were it not for the draconian Covid-19 lockdowns (which she flouted) and violent riots in 2020. It was truly disheartening to see the beautiful city I had known all my life in such a state. Walking through an empty downtown, with the few people out and about hiding behind masks, and seeing the boarded-up businesses and carnage of the anarchy permanently colored my perception of Chicago.

With all that baggage, it was no surprise to see Lightfoot fail to reach the runoff this year. Vallas, the most “conservative” candidate, is running a law and order campaign based on more and better-funded policing. Johnson is running to the left of Lightfoot. He has advocated for defunding the police and the implementation of a city income tax, among other ideas. Lightfoot may be on her way out, but the worst may be yet to come if Johnson is elected. Businesses, families, and individuals, including perhaps myself one day, will surely flee if Chicago goes the Johnson route. As a lifelong Chicagoan, I hope that the electorate chooses the candidate more likely to make the city liveable again.

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About Chris Coffey

Chris Coffey is editor in chief emeritus of the Michigan Review.