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Lori Lightfoot accuses conservative super PAC of darkening her skin tone in an ad boosting Illinois GOP governor candidate

One Democrat called the ad “racialized carnage porn.” The PAC called Lightfoot’s allegation “insane.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Left, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in the original video. Right, Lightfoot as depicted in the super PAC ad.Lori Lightfoot via YouTube ; People Who Play by the Rules PAC

CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot is calling out a conservative super PAC over a new attack ad aimed at Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, accusing the group of using “racist tropes” to create a scary image of Black Chicago and altering her skin to appear darker in the ad. 

The ad opens with Lightfoot, who is Black, saying, “This will be the summer of joy in Chicago.” It then cuts to sounds of gunshots, screams and scenes of shadowy figures in the streets shooting. The words “Chicago violence is coming to the suburbs” appear on the screen. The clip of Lightfoot, a fellow Democrat, is from a speech she gave to the City Club of Chicago in April. Her skin color appears noticeably darker in the ad compared to the original video

“News flash. I’m Black and I’m proud. Everyone knows it. No need to use cheap tricks to darken my skin and try to scare voters with false narratives about Chicago,” Lightfoot said in a statement to NBC News.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at the Lollapalooza Music Festival in Chicago on July 28.Rob Grabowski / Invision/AP file

The ad was run by the People Who Play By the Rules super PAC, which is fronted by longtime Illinois conservative operative Dan Proft and largely funded by billionaire GOP financier Richard Uihlein. The PAC supports Pritzker’s Republican opponent, Darren Bailey, for governor in this fall’s election. Uihlein, who did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment, has given the PAC at least $26 million so far this year. The ad is filled with scenes of live shooting, sometimes prompting a warning on YouTube before it can be viewed. Three unaffiliated political ad makers — two who work mainly with Democrats, one who works with Republicans — who reviewed the ad after being contacted by NBC News said the mayor’s skin appeared noticeably darker than in the original video. 

Two of the ad makers and a longtime Democratic strategist who has conducted research on race said the ad overall used overtly racial imagery to depict the city in a sinister light. The ad takes aim at Pritzker over a bill he signed eliminating cash bail. The law, which has drawn criticism from some state’s attorneys, goes into effect next year, does away with cash bail in the state but allows judges to keep suspects behind bars based on risk and danger to the community. 

Proft vehemently denied Lightfoot’s charge. 

“That is insane — and par for the course from inveterate race hustlers like Lightfoot and Pritzker trying to misdirect attention away from the fact that she has turned the city over to repeat, violent predators and he aims to do the same statewide with his elimination of cash bail,” Proft said in an email. “Their contention is completely untrue and patently absurd. We did nothing to her pigmentation just as we did nothing to pigmentation of our pasty blowhard of a governor. The video of Lightfoot was pulled from the web from her City Club speech.” 

Cornell Belcher, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist and pollster who worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, said the skin darkening question is the “least racialized issue” with the spot.

Belcher, an NBC News political analyst who has researched the politics of race and wrote the book “A Black Man in a White House: Barack Obama and the Triggering of America’s Racial-Aversion Crisis,criticized the ad as “racialized carnage porn,” citing “the concentrated images of violence over a soundtrack driving a narrative that these people are going to come to your town and get you if the governor has his way.”  

Hollywood-based Republican ad maker Fred Davis noted that Lightfoot’s skin appeared noticeably darker but said that he doubted there was any ill intent and that he has battled untrue allegations of color manipulation in the past.

“That was a very dramatic darkening, but I bet you it was nothing but color correction,” Davis said of the Lightfoot images. “Anybody that’s a professional in our business — that’s the last thing you would do is make somebody’s skin darker. That’s just a no-no. I don’t even know who did it. It’s just not true, unless they’re just the sleaziest people on the block. I bet they’re not.”  

John Rowley, a Tennessee-based Democratic ad maker who reviewed the ad, said he didn’t buy that it was a color correction error. He said the ad either makes “strategic, calculated and racial appeals, or to be generous, is culturally clueless.” 

“Any political content producer and consultant with a shred of judgment wouldn’t darken or black a mayor’s skin dramatically like this spot does,” Rowley said. “Even if an editor or colorist darkened an image for effect, five to 10 other people should have noticed and stopped it well before airing.” 

He added that all of the distinguishable people portrayed as violent in the spot “appear Black, and that’s also unacceptable and further evidence they are making a racist and age-old appeal.” 

Another Democratic ad maker, Martha McKenna, said the depiction of Lightfoot “makes it seem like she’s in the shadows” and has caused her features to lose definition.

“You almost don’t have anything below a chin,” she said. “I definitely see where they have tried to put a shadow over her or darken it in a way that it does look different than the original photographs because she has a neck in the original photographs.”

Last week, Bailey called Chicago a “hellhole.” Contacted by NBC News, the Bailey campaign said in a statement it had no communication or control over the PAC. The statement did not address the question about the ad’s racial portrayals. It did take aim at Lightfoot and Pritzker.

“Pritzker and Lightfoot have control over the skyrocketing crime in Chicago, and they should be more concerned with the people killed and set on fire in the city,” Bailey spokesman Joe DeBose said. “Darren Bailey’s focus is making Illinois safe and affordable for everyone.” 

A Pritzker campaign spokeswoman condemned “Bailey’s dangerous dog whistles.”

Lightfoot said it was up to Bailey to stop “dog-whistle tactics” if he wanted to represent the whole state.

“He cannot be the governor of this great state by using racist tropes against Black Chicago,” she said. “Real leadership addresses the root causes of violence and proposes solutions that bring people together.”