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How Lori Lightfoot Finished First

The political outsider pulled ahead with a Chicago-style ground game (and a healthy distance from the Machine).

Lightfoot addresses supporters at her election night party Tuesday.   Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune

The first time I interviewed Lori Lightfoot, I thought she was a fringe candidate.

It was last September, while I was writing a story for Politico about Garry McCarthy’s campaign. (At the time, McCarthy looked like a contender; he ended up with 2 percent of the vote.) I went to see Lightfoot because I knew that as chair of the Police Reform Task Force, she was no fan of McCarthy’s tenure as police superintendent.

I met Lightfoot in a West Loop campaign office that seemed to be uninhabited by anyone but the candidate and her press secretary. Here’s what I wrote:

Candidate Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor and police board member who chaired Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force, gives McCarthy no credit for reducing Chicago’s murder rate, and similarly describes his broader tactics as a “militarized” approach that “terrorized” minority communities. Under McCarthy, the police department got more aggressive in using “stop and frisk,” though the practice was reduced drastically after the ACLU reached a settlement agreement with the police requiring documentation of all police stops, including the citizen’s race. “If you were black anywhere in the city, no matter your gender, no matter your age, his directive was, ‘Stop you,’” Lightfoot charges. “Do we really want a city where we put black and brown citizens under house arrest, where we don’t engage in constitutional policing?”

Nothing about Lightfoot suggested she could be mayor of Chicago. She was too left-wing. She was too extreme. She was LGBTQ+. She was a reformer, a “goo goo” in the lexicon of Chicago politics. She had never held political office. She didn’t have any money. I had never heard of her. She wasn’t Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president and Democratic Party chairman who looked like the dominant figure in the campaign.

Every one of those doubts is a reason Lightfoot finished on top of the field Tuesday, earning 17.5 percent of the vote to Preckwinkle’s 16 and Bill Daley’s 14.8, and why she’s now, for my money, the favorite to win the runoff on April 2.

I found that out last weekend, when I followed Lightfoot to two campaign stops, and saw that she is now leading a movement.

The first, at Vincent in Andersonville, was focused on mobilizing gay voters. The second, at Cards Against Humanity’s headquarters in Bucktown, featured endorsements from three progressive politicians: Ald. Scott Waguespack, former Cook County Clerk David Orr, and U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly. They all portrayed her as an antidote to Machine politics. Lightfoot quoted Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, calling herself “unbought and unbossed.”

At the same time, Lightfoot was running a quintessential Chicago-style ground game, dispatching dozens of volunteers with armloads of campaign literature. It wasn’t a ward heeler operation, either: Lightfoot’s followers believed in her message of reform. No other candidate was so inspiring.

When I asked Lightfoot what she had to say to people who liked her but were thinking of casting a strategic vote for Toni Preckwinkle — who many thought had a better chance to beat the well-funded and well-polling  Daley — she told me I had it backwards: she was the candidate who could win a runoff.

“They should vote for someone who can actually win,” Lightfoot said. “Toni Preckwinkle, if she limps into the runoff, is going to get beaten badly by me or anybody else. She’s not a true progressive, because she’s associated with Joe Berrios, with [indicted alderman] Ed Burke, with Tony Rezko. People want change. If they vote for the same old same old, which is what the ‘Burke Four’ [Preckwinkle, Daley, Illinois comptroller Susana Mendoza, and former Chicago Public Schools Chief Gery Chico] represent, they won’t get it.”

Lightfoot finished first because nothing about her made corruption-weary voters think of a Chicago mayor. She isn’t from a famous political family, like Daley. She isn’t the boss of a political machine, like Preckwinkle. Her career wasn’t nurtured by a powerful patron, as Mendoza’s was by Ed Burke. Lightfoot was the only top-tier candidate who had no relationship with Burke, which was a huge factor in her showing.

Chicago’s runoff, which will result in the first black woman in the mayor’s office, is already historic. It’s also shaping up to be a pretty nasty race. Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have very little respect for each other. Early in the campaign, Lightfoot accused Preckwinkle of taking credit for forcing the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video in a TV ad.

“By using the Laquan McDonald video as a shiny object to distract from her role in the Ed Burke extortion scheme,” Lightfoot’s campaign wrote, “Toni Preckwinkle proves she is not ready to lead.”

Preckwinkle fired back by calling Lightfoot a “corporate lawyer” whose “friends created Change Chicago, a dark money PAC, shrouded as a nonprofit, designed solely to contribute to her campaign.

“Lightfoot has received $40,000 from Change Chicago,” Preckwinkle continued, “making her the only mayoral candidate who has received dark money.”

Preckwinkle piled on in her victory speech Tuesday night, skewering Lightfoot for taking appointments from both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Which is to say: After six more weeks of what’s already felt like a long race, we may feel less inspired, and more relieved to finally have a winner.

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