Candidates for Chicago mayor crisscrossed the city Tuesday in the final day of a municipal election that saw Mayor Lori Lightfoot argue she deserves a second term while eight opponents offered themselves as a better alternative after nearly four tumultuous years marked by a pandemic, spikes in crime citywide and divisive leadership.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García led the challenges to Lightfoot, who in 2019 shocked the city’s political establishment when she became the first African American woman to be elected mayor of the nation’s third-largest city.
Others running against Lightfoot included state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner, community activist Ja’Mal Green, Ald. Sophia King, 4th, Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th and businessman Willie Wilson.
With nine candidates running, including seven Black candidates, Tuesday’s election was not expected to be the last to determine who will be mayor for the next four years. Candidates were vying to be one of the top two finishers and qualify for the runoff election in five weeks on April 4.
[ 2023 Chicago live election results ]
Election Day brought surprisingly pleasant weather for late February but voters in the morning and early afternoon Tuesday didn’t storm to the polls.
Max Bever, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, said turnout early on Election Day was “sluggish” but also noted that might be in part because early voting was historically high.
Before Election Day dawned, more than 244,000 voters had either cast ballots at early voting sites or voted by mail, city election officials said. The previous high for voter turnout was in 2011 when 42% of registered voters elected Rahm Emanuel mayor.
As of about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, about 99,000 mail-in ballots remained outstanding, Bever said. He noted that, based on prior return rates, ultimately between roughly 60,000 to 80,000 of those ballots would likely be returned.
[ Election Day in Chicago: Everything you need to know about Tuesday’s vote for mayor, City Council and police district council ]
From the start of the campaign, the race has been a referendum on the previous four years under Lightfoot.
Elected to public office for the first time, Lightfoot, 60, oversaw the city through the COVID-19 pandemic, several work stoppages and other labor strife within the school district, as well as a surge in violence that has yet to fully abate and civil unrest in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.
Lightfoot did not run as transparent an administration as promised and engaged in constant feuds with unions representing teachers and police — all while struggling to forge good relationships with members of the City Council, other politicians and leaders in the city’s business community.
Her clashes with members of the City Council weren’t shocking. In her inauguration speech, Lightfoot blasted aldermen sitting behind her for a history of corruption. Though Chicago residents might have agreed with her calls for reform, her inability to reach major compromises with aldermen also created an impression she couldn’t accomplish the hard work of being mayor.
Council members who had supported her peeled off. Her council floor leader resigned and, as the mayoral election season dawned, some of her allies said they wouldn’t support her for reelection and then backed some of her opponents.
As concerns about safety rose amid the pandemic, she countered during the campaign that crime went down by more than 10% in 2022 compared with 2021, though it remained higher than when she first took office. Lightfoot, who in addition to being the city’s first African American female mayor is also openly gay, often argued she was held to a double standard for her behavior compared to white male politicians, including all of her predecessors who occupied the fifth floor offices at City Hall.
[ Crime takes center stage at forum as Mayor Lori Lightfoot interrupts opponents and moderator to defend record ]
In the first round of the 2019 mayoral race, Lightfoot emerged from a historic 14-candidate field with roughly 18% of the vote. That included sizable support from white lakefront residents on the North Side who backed her over more established politicians.
This time, Lightfoot sought to transform her base and unite the Black community behind her candidacy, making a series of comments in recent weeks urging Black residents to coalesce around her campaign or risk losing City Hall. She also stood with a group of ministers who criticized other Black candidates for being in the race and potentially dividing up community support on the South and West sides.
Lightfoot found strong opposition early on in the campaign from Vallas, the 69-year-old who ran for mayor against Lightfoot and 12 others four years ago and was trounced as he garnered little financial support and ran a disjointed campaign. This time around, Vallas raised cash, ran a more disciplined political operation and focused his criticism of Lightfoot heavily on her leadership style and inability to assure city residents about crime.
The only white candidate in the race in a city that is still significantly segregated, Vallas also embraced more conservative political positions than he had in previous runs for public office. In addition to running for mayor in 2019, Vallas unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2002 and lieutenant governor in 2014, losses that had given Vallas the air of a perennial candidate.
As the 2023 election season got underway, many in the city’s white business community, as well as in the North Side and downtown political establishments, actively searched for a candidate but never coalesced behind anyone individually. Some attempted to recruit former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley and Lakeview Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, but all four and others declined to run.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn, who was Vallas’ running mate in 2014, also flirted with running but decided against it, instead throwing his support behind García.
As that happened behind the scenes, Republican donors and business interests began pouring millions of dollars into Vallas’ campaign, giving him resources he lacked four years ago. Vallas also brought in veteran Democratic campaign consultant Joe Trippi, and his campaign chief, Brian Towne , worked to keep the famously loquacious candidate on message.
Still, Vallas faced major questions about his associations with conservatives, including the firebrand Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara and right-wing former state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who ran a failed bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2018.
[ Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas insists he’s a lifelong Democrat. But he’s backed by conservative donors and the FOP. ]
Vallas repeatedly countered that he is a “lifelong Democrat,” even though he dabbled with the prospect of running for office as a Republican in 2009, which he said was solely an effort to take on what he described as the Democrat Todd Stroger’s political machine.
Vallas also came under fire last summer for attending an event for Awake Illinois, a suburban group that has taken extreme positions and called Gov. J.B. Pritzker a “groomer.” He later said his attendance was a mistake, but the organization in the midst of the mayoral race published a clip from a March 2021 rally of him saying its president, Shannon Adcock, should maybe run for governor.
Most recently, Vallas had to navigate an endorsement from the FOP, which represents most Chicago rank-and-file police officers and is helmed by Catanzara, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump. At first, Vallas sidestepped questions on the union’s conservative leanings, but he had to be more forceful and say the FOP “disappointed” him when it agreed to promote a speech by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom Vallas described as a “right-wing extremist.”
Standing on the other end of the political spectrum was Johnson, the 46-year-old county commissioner from the West Side, former CPS teacher and current organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union. Embraced and backed with nearly $1 million in political cash from the influential union, Johnson ran as one of the most progressive candidates in the race.
[ Chicago Teachers Union’s big spending on Brandon Johnson for mayor draws criticism over union influence and pushback among some members ]
Johnson entered the mayor’s race with low name recognition among voters but he went all in on campaign spending early to generate support.
The strategy certainly worked in building support and momentum for Johnson, who continually surged throughout the campaign. That momentum was reflected in internal polling from Lightfoot’s campaign and in February the mayor began focusing her attacks, especially in front of crowds of mostly Black voters, on Johnson.
At one point she referred to him obliquely as one of a group of “false prophets” in the race who might have tried to convince voters he was a man of the people but who ultimately wanted “to tax you out of the city.”
As his profile rose, allies in the teachers unions put financial skin in the game to keep his momentum going. The CTU even borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars against teachers dues to make sure he had resources.
On crime, while Vallas and many of the other candidates vowed to increase police hiring and stanch retirements, Johnson decried the city’s reliance on policing as a “failed” strategy and instead promised a new citywide effort that would shift focus toward community investments in housing, mental health and more. Lightfoot pounced on that too, accusing him of wanting to defund police, a position he had previously said he supports.
Johnson’s political rise also was aided by the yearslong effort by the teachers union and adjacent forces to build political power for progressives in Chicago. Their sizable force helped push García into a runoff against Emanuel in 2015 and their support got Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle into the runoff in her 2019 before she lost to Lightfoot.
While Johnson came into the race with low name recognition, the opposite was true for García, the Southwest Sider who made a name for himself in his bid versus Emanuel. After the loss, he parlayed his newfound success and reputation as a progressive folk hero into becoming congressman of the 4th Congressional District, replacing retiring U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez.
[ Chicago’s Latino voters could be key in the mayor race. Will they back ‘Uncle’ Chuy García or a rival? ]
The only Latino candidate in the mayoral race, García, 66, was a late entrant, frustrating many of the progressive political unions that supported him in 2015 but felt he was too slow to signal his intentions and make a final decision. Two powerful labor unions, Service Employees International Union Healthcare and SEIU 73, decided to join the teachers union in backing Johnson, sapping García’s campaign of some of the energy he had against Emanuel.
Still, in the early days of the 2023 campaign, García received a $1 million pledge from the operating engineers and a slew of endorsements, fostering the sense he would be a front-runner.
But after his eventual entry into the race, García ran an underwhelming and often bland campaign. He did not release much by way of policy proposals. When asked about difficult issues at debates, he frequently pivoted to talking about collaboration and promised to call meetings to discuss the topics.
Most critically, García made a strategic decision to hold onto the money he raised in the first quarter and waited to launch television ads while Vallas and Johnson took to the air with commercials introducing themselves and their policy positions to voters. Lightfoot, meanwhile, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaign ads insinuating García was a crook for his ties to indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his since-returned campaign contributions from disgraced crypto mogul Sam Bankman-Fried.
García countered in debates that he had a long history fighting the old-time Democratic machine alongside Mayor Harold Washington and defended his connections to Madigan as a political necessity. On Bankman-Fried, García repeatedly said he didn’t know him or why the now-federally indicted entrepreneur made those donations. Without a rigorous televised defense, however, García’s campaign stagnated.
But in the final two weeks weeks, García cashed in his chips to run a string of television ads and launched a blitz of campaign events along the lakefront and in Latino strongholds on the Southwest and Northwest sides.
Wilson, in his third run for mayor, ran a far more professional operation than he had in years past.
[ Willie Wilson is promising another $1 million in free gas but his giveaways raise campaign questions ]
Most well-known for handing out as much as $1 million a day to help citizens pay for gas, groceries or property taxes, Wilson was certain to draw a significant amount of support, especially among older Black voters. In the 2015 and 2019 elections, the 74-year-old Wilson won about 10% of the vote in majority Black wards, giving him a solid base of support.
This time, Wilson spent extensively on Polish radio and television advertisements aimed at expanding his appeal to white neighborhoods and spreading his anti-tax message. He hurt himself, however, with remarks saying that police should hunt down fleeing suspects “like rabbits,” a comment that drew criticism from rivals such as Lightfoot accusing him of condoning extrajudicial killings.
Sawyer, 59, whose father was mayor after Washington died, came out the gates with an abrupt and awkward announcement when he told a reporter he would get into the race while he was at the barber shop. A well-respected member of the council, Sawyer’s declaration surprised allies who had been trying to help him line up key supporters for another entry.
Throughout the campaign, Lightfoot repeatedly made an issue of gender. After Sawyer got into the race, she said, “Another day, another man who thinks he can do this job better than me.”
That changed when King, 57, entered the race. A friend of the Obama family, King’s campaign announcement raised concerns within Lightfoot’s camp that she could catch fire if she raised enough money. King’s ward stretches from downtown to Hyde Park, a swath of lakefront voters with big influence on city politics.
As a candidate, King often sought the middle of the road, but she didn’t raise enough cash to spread her message and sometimes blamed the media for her lack of support.
Buckner, 37, similarly entered the race with high hopes.
As a legislator, Buckner was involved in some of Springfield’s key legislation in recent years, including the controversial SAFE-T Act’s set of criminal justice reforms and Chicago’s elected school board, the latter of which was opposed by Lightfoot. Residents who saw him at debates were often impressed by his policy proposals. But he, too, had difficulty building financial resources to break through and drew enmity from other progressives who wanted him to back out and help coalesce their bloc behind Johnson.
Rounding out the field was 27-year-old activist Green, who often launched blistering attacks on lifelong politicians while saying his personal experiences getting kicked out of schools and protesting police brutality helped him relate better to the city’s people. Green pushed a series of ambitious proposals, like a city bank, but struggled to raise money or generate traction.
Other politicians in the race generally ignored Green at forums but sometimes teased his youth. “I don’t respond to kids,” Wilson said once, when asked to respond to the activist’s criticism.
At the North Branch Works Mayoral Forum, Green said he was “probably the most troubled kid on the stage,” and Buckner drew laughs by joking, “Still.”
In the closing hours of the election, Green’s campaign bus got stuck for hours in the circular drive outside the Truman College polling site.
For a fleeting moment, Chicagoans on social media dropped their bickering and reveled in the string of failed attempts to yank the vehicle out of the mud — some gleefully interpreting the scene as a metaphor for his campaign — until, early Tuesday morning, the bus was at last unstuck.