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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Incumbent concedes Chicago mayoral election

Tuesday marked the end of a tumultuous campaign for one of America's most powerful mayoral offices.

CHICAGO (CN) — With more than two-thirds of the results counted in Chicago's mayoral election Tuesday night, Mayor Lori Lightfoot conceded the race.

"We didn’t win the election today, but I stand here with my head held high and my heart full of gratitude," Lightfoot said in her concession speech.

Lightfoot conceded around 8:45 p.m. with about 87% of the vote in. At that time, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas was in first place with 36% of the vote, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson was in second place with 20% and Lightfoot was in third place with 16% of the vote.

The four clear frontrunners in the race heading into Tuesday's Election Day were all Democrats: Lightfoot, Vallas, Johnson and Illinois Congressman Jesus "Chuy" García. García also conceded the race after 9 p.m.

As no candidate received at least 50% of the vote, the race will now proceed to a run-off between the top two contenders — Vallas and Johnson — on April 4.

Earlier this month, several experts told Courthouse News that the most likely outcome from Tuesday's election would be a run-off between Lightfoot and either Vallas or García. But in the weeks since, Lightfoot's chances narrowed.

According to a Victory Research poll released Monday night, Lightfoot trailed behind Vallas, a free-market ideologue and a law-and-order conservative, and Johnson, one of the race's most left-leaning candidates.

Losing reelection is a blow for Lightfoot, who won her seat in 2019 by running as a progressive reformer, and who became the city's first openly gay Black mayor. She is the first Chicago mayor in over 40 years who has not won re-election after their first term.

"[Lightfoot]'s lost so much progressive support," said University of Illinois – Chicago Political Science Department Head Evan McKenzie prior to the release of the vote results. "I really don't know what's going to happen."

Lightfoot led the fundraising game in the race despite her loss. From the start of 2022, her campaign raised over $5.1 million, mostly from trade unions, Democratic PACs and private business investors, including the families who own the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Vallas, the only white candidate, raised about $4.6 million, including numerous contributions from Republicans and over $1 million from executives with the Chicago-based equity investment firm Madison Dearborn Partners. Johnson's $2.7 million mostly came from labor unions, as did García's $2.3 million. García's campaign also received a personal $2,900 donation from FTX founder and accused crypto fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried, though the congressman said earlier this month that he would return that money to FTX investors.

McKenzie didn't discount Lightfoot, saying she may see a late surge in votes from Black voters, particularly women, on the South Side. That support didn't materialize as her Black support was challenged by Johnson, a public school teacher with the Chicago Teachers Union. Johnson, also Black, secured the endorsement of many of the city's unions and its increasingly-powerful political contingent of young socialists.

"I have really hesitated to believe that [Johnson can make the run-off], but now Lightfoot is so concerned that she's attacking him," McKenzie said, referencing Lightfoot's recent direct attacks on Johnson in televised debates and public comments. "It's funny — Vallas has attacked Lightfoot over crime and now she's attacking Johnson over defunding the police."

The triangle of attacks — Johnson has also hit Vallas over his endorsement from the city's Fraternal Order of Police — highlights the main focus of the race: crime and policing. Though homicides and shootings have decreased in Chicago since an uptick in 2020, economic crimes such as burglary and car theft are on the rise. At the same time, police brutality and the sheer size of the Chicago Police Department's budget have been long-running sources of controversy. The budget in 2023 is around $1.94 billion, not including more than $1 billion spent on police pensions and benefits.

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Most candidates vowed to maintain or even increase police spending if elected. Vallas has also said he would bolster police recruitment, while Lightfoot previously swore she would "never support" cutting the police budget.

"I am running for mayor to bring to the city the type of leadership the city needs," Vallas said at his victory party on Tuesday night.

Johnson, by contrast, said in 2020 that defunding the police department was a "political goal" and argued that the only way to address economic crime is to target economic inequality. Johnson mostly dodged the question of cutting the police budget while on the campaign trail, but in a progressive candidate forum last September, he said "absolutely yes," when asked if he would commit to not raising the budget any further.

Aside from the issue of policing, McKenzie wondered if the relative similarity between Johnson's and García's politics might split the progressive vote, leading to the Vallas–Lightfoot run-off he and his retired colleague, former Chicago city councilor and UIC political science professor Dick Simpson, predicted earlier this month. García does not lean as far to the left as Johnson, but he had solid support among the city's Latino voters on the South and West Sides. García is also a decades-old fixture in Democratic Chicago politics; he was a political ally of Chicago's first Black mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s, and unsuccessfully ran for mayor against then-incumbent Rahm Emanuel in 2015.

"I think the progressive vote will be split between García and Brandon," McKenzie said. "There's no question Vallas is going to come in first."

Simpson predicted that if Vallas made it to the run-off, as he has, he will get support from many of the white conservative communities of the city, "but he won't have much support anywhere else."

Vallas, like Lightfoot, has also been at the center of a number of recent controversies. These include the revelation earlier this month that his son Gus Vallas was one of three San Antonio cops who fatally shot a fleeing Black man in March 2022, as well as it coming to light last week that his Twitter profile "liked" openly racist content on social media.

Vallas blamed the Twitter likes on hackers who allegedly hijacked his account, but he has had more difficulty separating himself from the conservatism of the Fraternal Order of Police. On Presidents' Day, numerous off-duty Chicago police officers traveled to the suburb of Elmhurst to attend a speech given by GOP Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The speech sparked local protests and tainted Vallas' endorsement from the group to the point that he issued a statement condemning Fraternal Order of Police leadership for promoting the speech.

Still, Simpson said, Vallas' ties to the right may prove a millstone around his neck should he make it to the run-off.

"It's hard to have that consistent a story around you. Whoever his opponent will be will drive that home," Simpson said. "Plus his money is all from Republican businessmen."

Johnson leaned into Vallas' Republican reputation before the dust even cleared late Tuesday night. He accused Vallas of having sympathies to the January 6th rioters, and of privatizing New Orleans' public school system during his time as a school administrator there after Hurricane Katrina. He also took his own victory lap by referencing legendary hip hop artist Biggie Smalls.

"A few months ago, they didn't even know who I was," Johnson said. "Well, now you know."

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