CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot is the first to admit her bid for re-election will be far from smooth.
“There’s nine people on the ballot,” Lightfoot said in an interview. “It’s impossible not to have a runoff.”
What’s appearing increasingly possible, however, is that Lightfoot will fail to make it even that far.
If a candidate fails to win a majority in Chicago’s municipal election, the top two vote-getters face off against each other in a second round of voting in April.
But with less than two weeks to the Feb. 28 election, Lightfoot — a firecracker Democrat who quickly brandished a national hate-hate relationship with conservatives — faces credible threats from at least three opponents in the nine-person race. Her unfavorable ratings have soared with Chicagoans fed up with gun violence. In recent polling, she has failed to break into the top two.
All that adds up to the stunning prospect that a sitting big-city mayor could be eliminated from re-election contention in the first round of voting.
"It's looking harder and harder for her," one of her competitors, Rep. Jesús "Chuy" Garcia, D-Ill., said in an interview. "It's a hell of a front to be fighting on, from her vantage point."
A recent poll has Lightfoot in a statistical dead heat with Paul Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who has won the backing of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, and Garcia, who has high name identification and who, in 2015, forced then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff. Garcia lost but went on to get elected to Congress.
“I love people thinking of me as the underdog,” Lightfoot said. “I’ve been an underdog my whole life. And I’ve always proven people wrong, so I’m OK in that lane.”
Now Lightfoot is taking the battle to yet another candidate showing signs of surging: Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner who has the endorsement of the politically powerful Chicago Teachers Union, which has long been at odds with Lightfoot.
At a candidate forum last week, Lightfoot focused her attacks on Johnson, who has not led in polling in the way Garcia and Vallas have. It appeared to be an acknowledgment that she was battling with a surging candidate who ultimately could crowd her out from advancing to the next round.
“I take it as a sign of desperation,” Johnson said of Lightfoot’s attacks. Johnson’s support from the Chicago Teachers Union brings with it a strong, on-the-ground organization that can go door to door on his behalf. “She certainly recognizes that our movement is gaining steam, and more and more people are responding to our message.”
Lightfoot, the first Black woman and the first openly gay person to be mayor of Chicago, has had a tenure marked by tumult. She has clashed with the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on strike under her watch, and engaged in testy exchanges with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and City Council members.
In 2021, a media organization sued Lightfoot after she announced she would grant interviews to mark her halfway point in office only with journalists of color. (At the time, she said she was trying to draw attention to a Chicago news corps that was overwhelmingly white and male.)
More recently, her campaign faced an investigation after it tried to recruit public school students to volunteer for her re-election effort in exchange for school credit.
She has been credited, including recently in a Chicago Tribune editorial, for grappling with the Covid pandemic "far better than most mayors." The editorial also applauded her for improving Chicago’s financial condition. "Lightfoot has placed equity front and center of her agenda," the editorial said, "and has worked tirelessly to improve the economic prospects of long-struggling neighborhoods."
Lightfoot notes that she has been counted out before. In her first run for mayor, she had such little support that at times she didn't qualify for the debate stage. Garcia and Vallas have had their own stumbles of late. Garcia faced questions over donations from FTX's Sam Bankman-Fried, and Vallas' support from Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police has dogged him, particularly amid news that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was scheduled to speak before the union Monday.
Gun violence dominates the race
This time, given all that Lightfoot faces, it’s the inescapable issue of crime that permeates the Chicago mayor’s race and endangers her re-election chances.
Nationally, the Second City is instantaneously evoked after mass shootings, inserted into ideological clashes over gun laws that play out on cable news. City officials for years have pushed back against the notion that gun laws do little to stop crime. They say that despite local restrictions, guns gush over the border from states like Indiana, even from as far away as Mississippi, illegally landing in the hands of young people in and out of gangs. Despite federal and local law enforcement’s work to step up penalties and bring more aggressive cases, Chicago remains one of the most dangerous big cities in America — even though violence eased somewhat last year compared with 2021.
Locally, the pain and anger over repeated crime are palpable. At one of Lightfoot’s own recent events, the conversations breaking out in the preceding hour told tale after tale of neighborhood crimes — an armed robbery, a break-in, a theft — and included reports of shootings closer to their homes, the “safe neighborhoods, on the North Side
“I know for many of you, you’re feeling a touch of violence, maybe for the very first time in your lives in Chicago,” Lightfoot told the crowd, hoping to tamp down the questions she was sure to get about neighborhood safety.
Lightfoot turned her talk to the flow of weapons into the city, including her fight to take out-of-state gun shops to court.
“We warned them, we gave them the data, and they kept doing it. So this old litigator?” she said, alluding to her past as a federal prosecutor. “We strapped it on, and we sued these f---ers — pardon my language.”
That line roused the group of about 50 people on a Saturday afternoon in late January. But Lightfoot’s signature tough talk did little to allay their fears.
“I feel worse,” said a North Side Chicagoan who listened to the her remarks and didn’t want his name used. “I still don’t think she gets it.”
Chicagoan Greg O’Neil, who helped host the event at Moe's Cantina in the Wrigleyville neighborhood on the North Side and hadn’t decided on a mayoral pick, said the No. 1 concern he has heard is of a recent spike in neighborhood crime, along with an overall feeling of unease among friends and neighbors. Some of those with him shared the concerns.
“When you’re paying $20,000 in property taxes and there’s an armed robbery at 1 o’clock in the afternoon in your neighborhood, people feel that 20 grand isn’t getting your money’s worth,” one said.
“It’s moving into the affluent areas. We’ve become a target,” another said.
“People who are streetwise, from my point of view, are absolutely petrified. And they are moving,” yet another said.
A recent poll found 63% of Chicagoans didn’t feel safe.
One of them is Eddie Pulliam, who traveled from the South Side to listen to Lightfoot that afternoon and spoke about the deterioration of his neighborhood over time.
“I just wish that she would make more of an emphasis to see what’s happening in well-established neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago,” Pulliam said. “I’m very upset with the crime in the city of Chicago. The thing that frustrates me is now crime started happening on the North Side, and now it’s a big deal.”
In an interview, Lightfoot said Chicago’s persistent crime is different from that of other cities. The generational poverty in parts of Chicago combines with fractured gangs, she said, and all of that is aggravated by the steady flow of illegal weapons.
“The biggest issue and the existential threat for us in the city is a proliferation of illegal guns,” she said. She then hit Vallas, her opponent, saying he is oversimplifying the problem to suggest that hiring more police officers will fix the issue.
Vallas, a previous city budget director, built his campaigns on the crime issue, like many of Lightfoot’s opponents.
'Pressure packed job'
Garcia has held on to a polling lead, and Vallas, too has gained momentum in the closing weeks, including winning the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune, which said Lightfoot was “reluctant to see this moment as time for any kind of leadership reboot.”
After an event for seniors near the South Side last week, Vallas said his plan to attack crime includes investing in the city's South and West Sides — where some of the worst crime traditionally occurs — and adding occupational training. But he believes a shortage of officers in some of the most dangerous precincts is the most pressing concern.
"There's absolutely no substitution for providing the police department with the resources and the support they need so that they can protect communities, and what you see is the significant degrading of the police department," he said in an interview.
In a lighter moment, Vallas recalled backing Lightfoot in her first bid for mayor and watching her transformation.
“It’s an extraordinarily pressure-packed job,” Vallas said. “It will take its toll on anyone. I can tell, I can hear the stress in her voice. So I keep telling people, let’s run positive. Let’s talk about issues and try not to talk about anyone else.”