CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot faces eight challengers in a fierce mayoral election and risks being ousted from City Hall after one term. Here’s why the election, at a time of widespread unease in the nation’s cities, reflects issues that are resonating around the country.
The race is a referendum on crime and policing.
On the campaign trail and in debates, the election in Chicago has been driven by one issue above all others: crime.
Under Ms. Lightfoot, who was elected in 2019, homicide rates soared to generational highs, an increase that was most deeply felt in pockets of the South and West Sides that have historically been plagued by gun violence. And residents throughout the city say they are unsettled by a spike in robberies, muggings, carjackings and other property crimes, and they have placed the blame on Ms. Lightfoot.
She is facing her most serious competition from a tough-on-crime candidate, Paul Vallas, a former public schools executive who began attacking her record on public safety early in the campaign.
The same political dynamic has played out in mayoral races in New York City and Los Angeles, with varying results: Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, a former police captain, won office in 2021 amid widespread concerns about crime. But last fall, Los Angeles voters chose Karen Bass, a veteran Democratic congresswoman, over Rick Caruso, a billionaire mall developer who spent close to $100 million on a campaign that focused directly on concerns over crime and disorder.
Ms. Lightfoot has crisscrossed Chicago telling voters that crime is down in the city and that her focus on the issue is yielding results: Homicides dropped in 2022 after rising in the two previous years. For many voters, it may be coming too late.
The next Chicago mayor could reshape downtown.
“Make no little plans,” Chicagoans like to say, quoting the city planner and architect Daniel Burnham, whose vision transformed Chicago’s lakefront and skyline.
Cities around the county are struggling to redefine and revitalize their downtowns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. And whoever wins the mayoral election in Chicago will have the opportunity to make very big plans for the city’s downtown, including its most prominent neighborhood, the Loop. The area was battered during the pandemic and has yet to fully recover.
Ms. Lightfoot has already made proposals that could nudge the Loop away from its identity as a center for office workers, and toward becoming a more residential neighborhood and hub of cultural life. (The Chicago Loop Alliance, a business advocacy group, says the area is already well on its way: There are now more people living in the Loop than before the pandemic, reflecting growth of about 9 percent since 2020.)
One plan introduced under the Lightfoot administration addresses the high vacancy rates for commercial space in the Loop, calling for older office buildings on LaSalle Street in the heart of Chicago’s business district to be turned into apartments and condominiums, including affordable housing. If the plan is successful, it may become a model for other big cities that find themselves with excess commercial real estate as remote workers continue to balk at returning downtown.
Big-city politics are in flux.
Mayoral elections in Chicago are officially nonpartisan, but none of the nine candidates on the ballot on Tuesday is a Republican. (In the 2020 presidential election, 83 percent of Chicago voters voted Democratic.) Assuming none wins an outright majority on Tuesday, the top two finishers in the race will advance to a runoff on April 4. Who those candidates turn out to be may offer a glimpse into the direction of urban politics in post-pandemic America.
Ms. Lightfoot has been attacked from both the right and the left, and her challengers fit in familiar niches on the national Democratic spectrum. Mr. Vallas has attracted support from more conservative voters, especially in heavily white wards on the Northwest and Southwest Sides, where many police officers, firefighters and other city workers live. He has also gained support from Democrats who voted for Ms. Lightfoot in 2019 but are now fed up over crime and are willing to vote for a more conservative candidate.
The mayor also faces serious challenges from the liberal wing of the party, especially from Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner endorsed by the liberal Chicago Teachers Union. Mr. Johnson has gained momentum in the last several weeks, polls suggest, as progressive voters who are unwilling to give Ms. Lightfoot another chance have searched for an alternative. But at a time when public safety is the No. 1 issue for many voters, Mr. Johnson’s previous support for reducing police funding — a stance he later backtracked from — may complicate his mayoral bid.