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Lori Lightfoot becomes the first Chicago mayor in 40 years to lose re-election

The embattled Democrat, who has been dogged by persistent crime in the city, failed to get enough votes to advance to an April runoff election.
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CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her bid for re-election Tuesday, ending her historic run as the city’s first Black woman and first openly gay person to serve in the position.

Lightfoot, a Democrat, failed to get enough votes in the nine-person race to move on to an April 4 runoff election, according to projections by The Associated Press.

Paul Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago schools, will face Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union.

Ideologically, the choice between Vallas and Johnson is stark. Vallas ran as a moderate law-and-order candidate, while Johnson ran on an unabashedly progressive agenda.

But Chicagoans sent a message that they wanted change, rejecting both an incumbent mayor and a sitting congressman. Lightfoot is the first incumbent elected Chicago mayor to lose re-election since 1983, when Jane Byrne, the city's first female mayor, lost her primary.

Lightfoot conceded defeat Tuesday night at her party in downtown Chicago, saying, "Obviously we didn't win the election today, but I stand here with my head held high."

Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson celebrates with supporters on Tuesday night. Paul Beaty / AP

Lightfoot has been dogged by persistent crime, which has been a top concern among Chicagoans. Crime spiked during her term, though she has repeatedly touted that it dropped year-over-year in 2022.

Vallas was widely expected to emerge from the first round of voting, having built his campaign around a tough-on-crime theme and garnering support in the vote-rich northern and northwestern sides of the city. He also got the backing of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police.

"We will have a safe Chicago. We will make Chicago the safest city in America," he said Tuesday night.

It's a bitter end to a tumultuous tenure for Lightfoot, who quickly developed an image as a national lightning rod for conservatives and repeatedly clashed with institutional interests, from the Chicago Teachers Union to the media to the police rank and file. She was at times lauded for her handling of the pandemic but saw violent riots in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Lightfoot faced long odds and was in danger of an early re-election knockout. Having lost the support she once held along Chicago’s lakeshore neighborhoods and with major labor unions working against her, she was among seven Black candidates competing for votes among the city’s Black population. She faced stiff competition, particularly from Johnson, who had the backing and organizational benefits of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, as well as Willie Wilson, a Black entrepreneur who had been polling ahead of Johnson.

Image: Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas speaks during a press conference at his campaign headquarters on Feb. 3, 2023 in Chicago.
Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas at a news conference in Chicago on Feb. 3.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

Lightfoot's unfavorable ratings have soared with Chicagoans fed up with gun violence, as well as carjackings and robberies. And despite being the sitting mayor, she routinely failed to lead in recent polling, falling behind Vallas and Democratic Rep. Jesús "Chuy" Garcia. Later in the election, she took specific aim at Johnson, which many saw as a sign that her internal numbers showed him as a growing threat.

On the issue of crime, under Lightfoot, Chicago in 2021 recorded the most killings in a quarter-century, 797, and more than 3,500 shootings — which was 1,400 more than were recorded in 2019, when Lightfoot first took office. Lightfoot has made a point of noting that violence had eased by the end of last year.

But that hasn't eased anxieties among Chicagoans. A recent poll said 63% of Chicagoans said they didn't feel safe.