Lori Lightfoot is Chicago’s first black woman mayor. She is the city’s first openly gay mayor. But it is her identity as a relative political novice that may have the most impact in coming months.
Chicago politics defy simple categorization. Judged by its exports, it is a center of black political power. From Chicago came Oscar DePriest, the first black member of Congress after Reconstruction; Carol Moseley Braun, the first black female senator; Jesse Jackson, the first black candidate to mount a meaningful challenge for a major party presidential nomination; and Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States.
Assessed by its City Hall, the story is different. Before this election, Chicago had only elected one black mayor — Harold Washington in the 1980s. Washington’s bitter-fought and racially polarized election was nearly two decades after Cleveland elected Carl Stokes. Unlike Detroit, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and New Orleans, the city ceased choosing black candidates after electing its first. Until last week.
Lightfoot, much like Harold Washington, campaigned as a political outsider and reformer. She promised to take on the persistent corruption in Chicago and Illinois politics, and these positions became particularly persuasive after corruption scandals that ripped through the city’s machine organization late last year. Last week’s election was an historic first — but it was also a historic margin of victory, big enough to impress any ward boss. And Lightfoot won in every part of an often-divided city.
But in a moment like this, it’s important to think clearly about how candidate identity and past experiences, campaign promises made, and connections to grass-roots organizations shape progressive governance. Here are three points to consider about Lightfoot’s historic election.
Will Lightfoot’s administration enact “progressive” policies? That’s not clear.
Lightfoot shares many policy positions with Toni Preckwinkle, her opponent in the final voting round; they shared a base in the first round. But on the biggest local issues of the day — education policy, police-community relations, how to address housing affordability and gentrification — her campaign positions could be enacted through a range of different policy approaches. Because she arrives with few established connections to political organizations in the city, and this election was her first foray into coalition-building, it isn’t clear where she’ll seek out policy advice.
Another reason to be wary can be found in the campaign contributions data. Before the first round in February, Preckwinkle had collected millions in contributions, most prominently from labor unions. Lightfoot had much less cash, but a bigger individual donor base. In the weeks between the elections, large campaign contributors who in the first round had given to the most business-friendly candidates (such as William Daley, brother and son of former mayors) migrated into the Lightfoot camp. That suggests that these contributors strongly preferred Lightfoot to Preckwinkle — although perhaps they just expected her to win and wanted to be in the good graces of the new administration.
It’s hard to measure ideology at the local level, to be sure of what “progressive” really means, but one way political scientists try to do it is with patterns of overlapping contributions like these. To the extent that this logic holds, voters and activists concerned about pay-to-play scandals should not breathe easy after an election that was still pretty expensive.
On the other hand, Lightfoot’s early opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel signaled a credible willingness to break with the machine politics of the city, much as Washington had three decades before. She was able to garner early support from Chicago’s so-called “goo-goo” (“good government”) communities.
How will she govern, and what is the governing agenda?
Lightfoot will enter City Hall with arguably the most progressive Chicago city council in history. The same disruptive political forces that swept her into office also swept out several of the council’s longest-serving members. In a nominally nonpartisan and overwhelmingly Democratic city, the occasional opposition in city council is known locally as the progressive caucus, a diverse group from all over the city that has grown slowly but steadily over the past few election cycles to include 10 of the 50 aldermen. It appears that about nine new members will join that group — almost a half-dozen endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America — and the council may actually become a place where issues are debated and deliberated rather than quietly resolved by machine leaders.
How will Lightfoot and Preckwinkle work together? Preckwinkle is still head of Chicago’s Democratic Party. She’s still Cook County board president. She wields tremendous governing power. These two local leaders could strengthen the bonds that connect Chicago to its broader metropolitan region, known as “Chicagoland,” which is the real unit at which social and economic life occur in the 21st century. About a quarter of Chicagoland residents live in Chicago, and another quarter in suburban Cook County.
Many of the challenges that most directly affect day-to-day lives and drive inequitable outcomes — the criminal justice system, housing affordability, educational inequities and even transportation infrastructure — are powerfully shaped by local policies that cross municipal lines. Coordination throughout the metro region could improve many people’s lives.
Lightfoot is part of a world wave of outsiders beating insiders
Lightfoot’s is the latest in a string of surprise election wins by political disruptors of established institutions, organizations, and norms — think Trump, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Emmanuel Macron and Slovakia’s newly elected president, Zuzana Čaputová. In a city famous for its machine-insider mantras — “Don’t Make No Waves,” “We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent” — it’s hard to remember a time that Chicago had a mayor who didn’t rise through electoral machine politics. Preckwinkle paid her dues inside the machine for years, probably better than anyone before her — not unlike Hillary Clinton nationally, playing by the rules as did that generation of second wave feminists who integrated the workplaces in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
By the 90s, things began shifting. Lightfoot jumped over the rules and established norms to victory. This is the real story, because it’s one about disruptive power triumphing over establishment power.
Thomas Ogorzalek (@TKOPolitics) is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Urban Studies at Northwestern University, co-Director of the Chicago Democracy Project, and author of “The Cities on the Hill: How Urban Institutions Transformed National Politics” (Oxford University Press, 2018)
Dorian T. Warren (@dorianwarren) is President of Community Change, co-chair of the Economic Security Project and co-author of The Hidden Rules of Race: Barriers to an Inclusive Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2017).