Chicago’s mayoral candidates have spent the past six months appealing to residents’ hopes and dreams, slinging mud at their opponents, begging campaign donors for cash, shaking hands, kissing babies and denying that they would ever put ketchup on a hot dog.
Now, Chicagoans get their say, heading to the polls Tuesday to make their picks for mayor, aldermen in all 50 wards and for police district council candidates who will provide civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department.
With the large number of credible mayoral candidates, it’s a virtual certainty that none will get more than half the vote, meaning a runoff is highly likely. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is fighting for her political life, with eight candidates looking to unseat her. Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García have led the challenges to Lightfoot, who four years ago shocked the city’s political establishment when she became the first Black woman to be elected mayor of the nation’s third-largest city.
Others running against Lightfoot include businessman Willie Wilson, state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner, 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King, 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer and community activist Ja’Mal Green.
Although Lightfoot has faced an uphill battle for reelection, she told reporters Sunday she feels like her campaign is peaking at the right time.
“Four years ago, not unlike this time, nobody gave me a chance, but four years ago my hope was that we would have run a campaign that would raise important issues and force all the candidates to reckon with,” Lightfoot said. “Obviously four years ago, we were in a different place because of the scandal surrounding (indicted Ald.) Ed Burke and the people who were associated with him, but not unlike four years ago, we feel this momentum everywhere we go.”
After becoming mayor in 2019 — the first elected office she ever held — Lightfoot led the city through the COVID-19 pandemic, a two-week teachers strike and other work stoppages in CPS, civil unrest in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police and a surge in violence that has yet to fully abate.
Lightfoot has 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.
But she has countered that she is making strides in improving public safety and has put the city’s long-neglected South and West sides squarely in focus as her administration works to spur investment in Black and brown communities.
In the waning hours before Election Day, Lightfoot traversed a subdued stretch of Broadway in Uptown to encourage business owners and patrons to vote. She greeted corner store cashiers, customers at a pizza shop and a beauty supply shop’s wig specialist.
At the last stop, the mayor put on an ebullient front as she and retiring Ald. James Cappleman browsed shelves of sparkly tiaras and wigs of all shades. She pondered out loud if any of the items would be a good gift for her daughter, Vivian.
Just minutes earlier, Lightfoot had addressed a gaggle of reporters, using oft-repeated phrases like Vallas is funded by “Trump world on steroids” and Johnson is “bad for Chicago.”
The embattled incumbent brushed off a question about the possibility of a blowout loss for her Tuesday evening.
“I’m going to be in the runoff,” Lightfoot said, “so I’m not thinking about what doesn’t happen.”
For one of his last stops, Johnson opted to lean into his progressive bona fides and was due to hold an early evening news conference with Chicago-bred rapper Vic Mensa and the activist Aleta Clark, also known as “Englewood Barbie,” under a viaduct near Pilsen. Clark, an advocate for homeless people, was there for a “sleepout” to show solidarity with residents living in tents and to call for more resources alongside Johnson.
García continued to work the Latino and northern lakefront wards that he is counting on to get into the runoff. He was scheduled to greet voters just after dawn Tuesday at the Belmont Red Line stop and during school dismissal at St. Richard School in Archer Heights.
Wilson’s campaign stops Monday reflected his evolving base, as he has shifted more to the right politically and also hopes to attract votes from majority-white wards where city workers concentrate. He did an interview with the conservative cable news show Newsmax, visited library and CTA branches on the Far Northwest Side and made sure to stop by a Black church on the West Side.
King made appearances at a CTA platform downtown and a burger joint in Little Italy Monday, while Sawyer spoke with diners at the Bronzeville soul food restaurant Pearl’s Place and also hit up train stations along the South Side.
Green traveled south from the CTA’s Roosevelt station to cafes in Bronzeville before also hitting up the student center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is vying for youth votes, as well as Truman College in Uptown.
Buckner stopped at the Anti-Cruelty Society animal shelter to make his case to both two-legged and four-legged Chicagoans and also passed through small businesses in Bronzeville and beyond as well as transit stops, where he has curried favor with a small but passionate faction of CTA and bicycle fans.
Vallas’ Monday campaign schedule was not provided; he was due to cast his ballot and then greet voters Tuesday morning.
Early turnout has exceeded both the 2019 and 2015 races, suggesting high interest in this year’s municipal election. More than 211,000 mail-in or in-person ballots had been cast as of Sunday, representing more than 13% of the total electorate. Nearly 60% of those who cast ballots were age 55 or older, while Chicagoans aged 18 to 24 account for only about 2% of early voters.
Turnout for the final day of voting Tuesday could get a boost from a forecast calling for a mild high of 45 degrees, party sunny skies and light breezes. There is a chance for rain Tuesday night.
Although the 2023 field is not as crowded as 2019, when 14 people ran, it remains one of the largest in city history. This year’s race is largely wide open, with four major candidates vying for the top two spots.
The possibility of a runoff did not exist until state lawmakers passed legislation in 1995 switching Chicago to nonpartisan elections. It took 20 years before Chicago had its first runoff, when in 2015 Mayor Rahm Emanuel was held under 50% in the February election and forced to the second round by Garcia, at the time a little-known Cook County commissioner.
Emanuel soundly defeated Garcia in April, collecting 56% of the vote.
After Emanuel announced he wouldn’t seek a third term, the 2019 field ballooned with big-name contenders including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and Bill Daley, the son and brother of former mayors. Lightfoot emerged from the crowded 2019 field after focusing on reform in the wake of federal corruption charges against Burke, the longest serving alderman on the council, who is not seeking reelection.
Chicago Tribune’s Jake Sheridan contributed.