CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her bid for a second term here Tuesday, failing to amass enough support to advance to a runoff election after a difficult tenure as the leader of a city overwhelmed by gun violence.
Lightfoot is the first incumbent in 40 years to be ousted after just one term. She spoke to her supporters shortly before 9 p.m., after calling Vallas and Johnson to concede.
“We know in life, in the end, you don’t always win the battle. But you never regret taking on the powerful, and bringing in the light,” she told the crowd gathered at her election night party at a union hall in downtown.
With nearly all the votes counted, Vallas led the pack with 34 percent of the vote, followed by Johnson with 20 percent and Lightfoot trailing with 16 percent, according to the Associated Press. U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.) was running fourth.
Vallas, who secured the endorsement of the police union, attained a strong base of support, but did not receive the 50 percent needed to win outright.
Johnson, 46, a former teacher, won the support — along with nearly $1 million in donations — from the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, a group that has been at odds with Lightfoot since going on an 11-day strike in 2019 and another work stoppage in 2022 over covid safety policies.
At Lightfoot’s election night party, retired congressman Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) said he was disappointed that Lightfoot was not the consensus candidate for Black voters. She was one of seven Black candidates in a nine-person race.
“It’s always better in this kind of race for people to be united,” Rush said. “Having a single Black candidate would have made a difference. But, this is America, this is a democracy, and anyone can run if they want.”
Rush accused Vallas of not engaging with Black voters, particularly on how to address crime without overpolicing Black neighborhoods. The issue will likely be one of the main criticisms Vallas, who is White, will face as he goes head-to-head with Johnson, who is Black.
Moments after Lightfoot conceded, Jennifer Jobst, 68 and Thomas Pusateri, 60, were nearby as the mayor hugged family and supporters.
“It’s so sad,” Jobst said. “She really was doing a lot. ... But I would have liked to see her do it for four more years.”
When Lightfoot won her first race in 2019, she capitalized on corruption scandals besetting Chicago Democratic politics and positioned herself as an outsider who could shake up the city.
“She was able to elevate herself by being different,” veteran Chicago political strategist Delmarie Cobb said. “Now she’s part of the establishment, but she also ran on being a change agent and then didn’t live up to a lot of issues that progressives were really counting on.”
Turnout was “sluggish” in the morning hours, indicating many voters had cast ballots during early voting or with vote-by-mail, Max Bever, a spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, told reporters Tuesday.
Johnson, who ran as the more liberal choice, had a last-minute surge, according to Cobb. She said both Johnson and Vallas ran “disciplined” campaigns and stayed on message while Lightfoot floundered.
Several political strategists expect many Lightfoot and Garcia supporters to rally around Johnson heading to the runoff.
Lightfoot, 60, a former prosecutor, faced a runoff in 2019, ultimately securing 73 percent of the vote and winning every ward in the city, making history as Chicago’s first mayor to be a Black woman or openly gay. In the years since, Lightfoot has struggled with low approval ratings as she’s navigated deadly violence on the streets and ushered the city through the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout on city businesses.
“One of these things has to be true: that things are really going in the right direction in your city or you have to be incredibly likable. And she has a problem with both,” said Ken Snyder, co-founder of Snyder Pickerill Media Group, a Chicago-based Democratic firm.
Larry Williamson, a Lightfoot supporter from North Lawndale on the West Side of Chicago, said in a recent interview that he felt it was misguided for voters to blame Lightfoot for the spike in crime as she has had to face the fallout from the pandemic and came into office after decades of lack of investment in certain communities. He credits her with having supported investment in infrastructure in his neighborhood, which had been ignored.
“She’s been in office less than four years and she’s supposed to clean up all the mess that’s been going on since Daley and Rahm’s tenures?” Williamson said, referring to former mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel. “I hear people that have moved here in the past three to five years saying, ‘I can’t vote for her because of all the crime.’ Well, the reason there’s all this crime is about much more than Lori.”
Williamson, however, said he was prepared to support Johnson if Lightfoot lost — and would be actively pushing for voters to come out against Vallas.
But others disagree. At a polling place in Wicker Park, an area that has rapidly gentrified over the past two decades and is now home to many affluent white-collar professionals, Pilar Lizasoain, 35, was voting in a mayoral election for the first time since moving to the city four years ago. She said she’s been frustrated by crime in her neighborhood, noting that she’s witnessed two carjackings that took place in broad daylight.
“We need a new mayor who supports the police,” said Lizasoain, who voted for Vallas.
With shootings up in many Chicago neighborhoods, Vallas has capitalized on voters’ feeling that Lightfoot’s tenure has not made them safer. Vallas, 69, who was the only White person in the race, is backed by the Fraternal Order of Police. He has appealed to voters with a message largely centered on public safety and a plan to deploy hundreds more officers on Chicago’s streets.
“It’s hard for Lori to say, ‘Don’t believe your lying eyes or how you feel walking down the street at night. I’ve made you safer,’” Snyder said.
Others were more sympathetic to Lightfoot, but still unconvinced she deserved a second term. As Antar Jackson, 40, was walking to his West Side polling place he was still deliberating who would get his vote.
Jackson, who survived last year’s Fourth of July shooting in suburban Highland Park, said he was particularly interested in public safety and concerned about issues that are affecting both city police — like the high suicide rate among officers — and residents, who see officers sent to handle mental health crises or domestic issues for which they aren’t trained or equipped.
He didn’t back Lightfoot in 2019 and has remained unimpressed with her poor relationships with the city’s public school teachers and police, but he conceded that she’s faced difficult challenges because her tenure overlapped with the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest.
Jackson said he would be voting “his conscience” this round, likely selecting one of the candidates not expected to reach the runoff.
The mayor’s race is officially nonpartisan, but all nine candidates are Democrats. Lightfoot positioned herself as the centrist candidate, accusing Vallas of secretly being a Republican and Johnson of wanting to defund the police. Johnson, like many on the left, has discussed reallocating public safety dollars to social programs such as mental health.
Vallas sought support among more moderate to Republican-leaning voters in the Northwest and Southwest sides of Chicago to give him the edge over his competitors. While he has proclaimed himself a lifelong Democrat, he also has received campaign contributions from conservative donors. Vallas, who led the city’s school system from 1995 to 2001, also ran for mayor in 2019, but failed to make the runoff.
García, 66, who is a veteran of Chicago Democratic politics and was first elected to Congress in 2018, also ran for Chicago mayor in 2015, and marshaled support from the far left to force Emmanuel, the incumbent, into runoff.
The other five candidates, who are all Black, were local businessman Willie Wilson, state Rep. Kam Buckner, civil rights activist Ja’Mal Green and City Council members Sophia King and Roderick Sawyer.
Runoffs had not been the norm in Chicago mayoral races. The city began using that model in 1999, but Daley won with a large majority of the vote that year and in his two reelections in 2003 and 2007. Emanuel won outright in 2011, but his reelection in 2015 and Lightfoot’s first race in 2019 both went to runoffs.
The last time a first-term mayor lost a reelection bid was in 1983, when Jane Byrne, the first female mayor of Chicago, was defeated in the Democratic primary by Harold Washington, who went on to become the city’s first Black mayor.
Itkowitz and Rodriguez reported from Washington.