Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson will meet in a runoff to be the next mayor of Chicago after voters denied the incumbent, Lori Lightfoot, a second term, a rebuke to a leader who made history as head of the third-largest US city.
Vallas, a former schools chief executive backed by the police union, and Johnson, a Cook county commissioner endorsed by the teachers union, advanced to the 4 April runoff after none of nine candidates was able to secure more than 50% of the vote.
Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first openly gay person to lead Chicago, won her first term in 2019 after promising to end decades of corruption and backroom dealing. But opponents blamed her for an increase in crime that occurred in cities across the US during the pandemic and criticized her as being a divisive leader.
She is the first elected Chicago mayor to lose a re-election bid since 1983, when Jane Byrne, the city’s first female mayor, lost her Democratic primary.
Speaking to supporters on Tuesday, Lightfoot called being Chicago’s mayor “the honor of a lifetime”.
“Regardless of tonight’s outcome, we fought the right fights and we put this city on a better path,” Lightfoot said, telling mayors around the US not to fear being bold.
At his victory party, Vallas noted that Lightfoot called to congratulate him and asked the crowd to give her a round of applause. He said that, if elected, “we will have a safe Chicago. We will make Chicago the safest city in America.”
Johnson noted the improbability he would make the runoff.
“A few months ago they said they didn’t know who I was. Well, if you didn’t know, now you know,” Johnson said, thanking unions and giving a special shout-out to his wife, telling the crowd: “Chicago, a Black woman will still be in charge.”
Lightfoot’s loss is unusual for mayors in large US cities. But it’s also a sign of the turmoil following the Covid-19 pandemic, with its economic fallout and rises in violent crime in many places.
Public safety has been an issue in other elections, including the recall of a San Francisco district attorney. The pandemic also may shape elections for mayor, such as Philadelphia and Houston, where incumbents cannot run again.
In Chicago, crime resonated with voters. Rita DiPietro, who lives downtown, said she supported Lightfoot in 2019 but voted for Vallas on Tuesday.
“The candidates all talk about what they’d like to do,” she said. “This guy actually has a plan. He knows how he’s going to do it.”
Lindsey Hegarty, a 30-year-old paralegal from the North Side, said she backed Johnson because “he seemed like the most progressive candidate on issues like policing, mental health” and public transit.
Race was also a factor. Vallas was the only white candidate. Lightfoot, Johnson and five other candidates are Black, though Lightfoot argued she was the only Black candidate who could win. The US congressman Jesús “Chuy” García was the only Latino.
Lightfoot accused Vallas of using “the ultimate dog whistle” by talking about “taking back our city”, and of cozying up to the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, whom she calls a racist. A recent Chicago Tribune story found Vallas’s Twitter account liked racist tweets and tweets that mocked Lightfoot’s appearance and referred to her as masculine.
Vallas denied his comments were related to race and said his union endorsement was from officers. He also said he was not responsible for the liked tweets, which he called “abhorrent”.
Lightfoot touted her record of investing in neighborhoods and supporting workers, such as by increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. She noted unprecedented challenges such as the pandemic and protests over policing.
Asked if she was treated unfairly because of her race and gender, Lightfoot said: “I’m a Black woman in America. Of course.”
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