CHICAGO (CN) – Polls show former prosecutor Lori Lightfoot handily winning the Chicago mayoral race Tuesday, likely to outmaneuver veteran politician Toni Preckwinkle to become the city’s first black female mayor and its first openly gay leader.
According to the results of last week’s WTTW/Crain’s Tempkin/Harris poll, Lightfoot leads Preckwinkle by a very large margin of 53% to 17%. The city was guaranteed to elect its first black woman mayor after Lightfoot and Preckwinkle advanced to the runoff election.
Although that gap is likely to narrow – 29% of voters are still undecided, the poll found – the results show that Lightfoot is riding a wave of voter interest after her surprising showing in the general election, when she won the most votes of any other candidate after securing the Chicago Sun-Times’ endorsement.
She didn’t win more than 50% of the vote, though, leading to Tuesday’s runoff between the top two candidates.
Lightfoot has run her campaign portraying herself as an outsider who can “bring in the light” into Chicago’s notoriously corruption political system. She formerly worked as a prosecutor and as president of the Chicago Police Board, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her chair of the Police Accountability Task Force formed in the wake of the controversy over the murder of Laquan McDonald by a police officer.
Preckwinkle, on the other hand, is about as establishment as a candidate can get. With nearly 30 years experience in Chicago politics, she currently serves as Cook County board president and chair of the Cook County Democratic Party.
The winner will replace current outgoing Mayor Emanuel, who surprised the city by deciding not to run for a third term.
The poll shows that Lightfoot has particularly strong support among white Chicagoans, who are more likely to vote than black or Hispanic residents.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the city is roughly evenly divided by race – one-third white, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic – but majority-white wards account for 44% of the vote.
Preckwinkle has more support among black voters, and secured the endorsement of prominent black politicians such as U.S. Representative Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, as well as Chance the Rapper.
At a recent rally, Rush urged anyone against police brutality to vote for Preckwinkle, saying, “This election is really about what type of police force we’re going to have in the city of Chicago, and everyone who votes for Lori, the blood of the next young black man or black woman who is killed by the police is on your hands.”
Despite Lightfoot’s personal experience with racism as a black woman, many black voters distrust her because of her background working with the police department and her failure, as president of the police board, to discipline the officer who fatally shot Rekia Boyd, an unarmed black woman killed in an off-duty confrontation in a park.
But Willie Wilson, a millionaire black businessman who won 13 of the city’s 18 majority-black wards in the general election, endorsed Lightfoot. Preckwinkle lost the support of many of these voters because she supported a highly unpopular soda tax that was swiftly repealed.
In addition, Lightfoot won the endorsement of U.S. Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who forced Emanuel into a mayoral runoff in 2015. His endorsement is likely to sway Hispanic voters who predominantly supported Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza in the general election. Mendoza has also endorsed Lightfoot.
Whomever voters choose will face major challenges. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s decades of poor fiscal management left the city with serious budget shortfalls. Mayor Emanuel has helped set the city back on track by raising taxes and promoting business interests, but his solutions have also forced people out of the city, hurt minority neighborhoods which disproportionately suffered when he closed 50 schools, and earned him the nickname “Mayor 1%.”
The new mayor will play a crucial role in implementing new police reforms mandated by the Chicago Police Department’s settlement with the state of Illinois over its disproportionate use of excessive force against black and Latino residents, while at the same time wrestling with the city’s high murder rate that has earned it the nickname “Chi-Raq.”
Chicago is also the most segregated major city in America, and many poor residents feel that they’ve been abandoned by City Hall – it’s a common joke that one can tell the predominant race of a neighborhood by the state of the roads.
It is a sign of change that both runoff candidates are women of color, but the new mayor will inherit these age-old racial divisions, which Emanuel’s school closures and McDonald’s killing only further entrenched.
On Tuesday, voters will get the chance to decide who they believe is best fit to lead the city at this critical juncture.