Chicago voters ousted Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday, rejecting her bid for a second term and sending two very different challengers to the April 4 runoff.
“It’s the honor of lifetime to be mayor,” Lightfoot told supporters early in the night, after it became clear that former city schools chief Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson had pushed her into third place, and out of contention.
That set up a race between a white candidate endorsed by the city’s right-leaning police union — which welcomed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to a rally last week — and a black candidate supported by the left-leaning Chicago Teachers Union. And it made Lightfoot, the city’s first openly gay mayor, the first to lose re-election in 40 years.
Lightfoot was an underdog from the moment she decided to seek re-election. She’d won in 2019 as a change candidate, criticizing then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel over his approach to policing. In office, she quickly clashed with the CTU, with the city council, and the press — and then came the COVID pandemic, with Lightfoot becoming the face of stay-at-home orders, closed schools, mass protests, and rising crime.
The mayor’s political weakness pulled eight challengers into the race, most of them pledging to fight crime by hiring and training more police officers. Lightfoot’s campaign worked to get her into the runoff with a beatable candidate, running attack ads that portrayed Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who’d led in some early polls, as a corrupt machine candidate. And both Lightfoot and Garcia attacked Vallas as a crypto-Republican in a city Joe Biden carried by 66 points.
Those tactics pulled down Garcia, who’d entered the race late and limped into fourth place on Tuesday. They didn’t rescue Lightfoot, as progressive voters deserted Garcia for Johnson in large enough numbers to push him ahead of the mayor.
Johnson and Vallas both come out of Chicago’s troubled public school system — Johnson as a teacher, Vallas as former schools CEO. But they have wildly divergent politics. After George Floyd’s murder, Johnson called on Cook County to “redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services.” Vallas ran on hiring more police, saying they’d been “demoralized and handcuffed” when the city needed them to fight crime.
On Tuesday night, Vallas tried to pre-empt Johnson’s attacks, calling himself “a lifelong Democrat.” Johnson was undeterred, reminding his supporters that Vallas called himself “more of a Republican” in a 2009 interview, adding that he “ran the teachers pension fund into the ground.” The five-week runoff will pit business interests who’ve largely supported Vallas against labor and progressive groups who back Johnson, and his crusade to end “the tale of two cities” with new taxes and services.