On April 2, Chicagoans will go the polls and, for the first time, elect a Black woman to be the 47th person to hold the office of mayor of Chicago.
Whomever winsCook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle or attorney Lori Lightfootwould be the third Black mayor in the city's history, and the second woman to occupy the post. If Lightfoot were to win, she'd be the city's first openly lesbian mayor as well.
When Mayor Jane Byrne was in the throes of her election in 1979, People Magazine referred to her having the looks of a "harried suburban housewife." When Mayor Harold Washington was in office, 29 City Council members banded together to stall his agenda. Now, decades on, we don't yet know who will be mayor come Maybut we know the next mayor, without question, will be a Black woman.
Lightfoot being part of the LGBT community has most loudly become an issue twice during the runoffthe first time when Preckwinkle seemingly complimented her on how she navigated that part of her identity, the second being when homophobic and racist fliers were distributed at or near South Side churches, presumably to stoke supposed homophobic impulses among the parishioners.
Nevertheless, in an election as fiery as this, only two such incidents is noteworthy. Lightfoot even received endorsements from some such as Bishop Larry Trotter, who had opposed the LGBT community on marriage equality some years back. When officials such as Judge Tom Chiola, Ald. Tom Tunney and state Reps. Larry McKeon and Greg Harris entered their offices, it was big news. With Lightfoot, one noteworthy aspect of her being a lesbian is that, for many Chicagoans, it's not very noteworthy.
This has been a long and difficult election season. Lightfoot, for her part, announced her candidacy early on when it was presumed that she'd be challenging an incumbent Rahm Emanuel. But Emanuel unexpectedly said last fall that he was stepping down, opening the floodgates for numerous politicians, businesspeople and other residents to throw their hats in the ring.
Turnout for the Feb. 26 election was depressingly low, with just about 30 percent of eligible voters showing up to the polls. It's nevertheless difficult to blame the Chicagoans who didn't turn out; with well over a dozen candidates, many voters simply didn't have time or inclination to learn everyone's specific viewpoints and qualifications and, rightly or wrongly, quite likely preferred to wait it out until a runoff.
Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have pulled no punches in their criticism of one another; nobody can accuse either woman of simply phoning this election in. Both candidates are profiled in this week's issue of Windy City Times, and neither misses a chance for a barb against her opponent. Each has also been taken to task for her past workPreckwinkle has had to repudiate and defend connections to the Chicago Machine she's had to make in her long career as a city and county politician, as well as problematic hiring decisions. Several community members have wanted to hold Lightfoot accountable for her work adjudicating police corruption and violence, maintaining that she both was not diligent enough and brusquely engaged with victims and their families.
We hope that Chicagoans won't sit out the April 2 pollsthat they will at least look at the coverage of these candidates to make their most educated choice.
The first question that voters should consider: Does the candidate seem capable of doing the work of governing? All too many politicians get caught up in the ego-fueling world of campaigning, and are not cut out for the administrative drudgery that comes with executive officecoordinating staff, multitasking complex problems, listening to constituent concerns, working the phones fundraising, proposing budgets, and so on. The second question: Does the candidate understand the wheels of power and how those are greased? We've seen two notable examples in recent yearsPresident Donald Trump and former Gov. Bruce Raunerof a candidate coming into office without comprehending the power the legislative branch is capable of wielding, expecting to coast on the force of their personality. This city election is happening just as the figurative tectonic plates beneath the Chicago City Council are shifting, and many constituents are especially weary of the Chicago Machine. Chicago's next mayor will need to navigate rough terrain to get things done.
Make no mistake: Once the mayor takes office in May, her real work begins. She will have to wrestle with dozens of stultifying ( and usually overlapping ) issues, among them wealth disparities; violence, public safety and policing problems; structural racism; school issues; crumbling infrastructure; widespread homelessness and housing instability; informationally-siloed city agencies; and underfunded pensions, to name just a few. She can expect only so much support from Springfield, perpetually locked in its own political and fiscal dysfunction, and no solid support whatsoever from the federal government led by Trump, who has taken several opportunities to mock this city.
The LGBT community has every right to have the mayor's ear from time-to-time as well. The city has excellent protections for our community in place fortunately, but having the teeth to enforce and publicize those protectionsthrough community liaisons and adjudicating bodies, for exampletakes money and willpower. Even then, those solutions often address very specific incidents and perpetrators of hiring, housing and public accommodations discrimination.
The next mayor must be able to address structural and systemic anti-LGBT discrimination in institutions such as police and service providers. Members of the community are impacted by the same problems as other residents in any urban environment, but their sexual orientation or gender identity often means they cannot find the proper means of support. An LGBT person experiencing homelessness or housing instability can be made to feel uncomfortable at shelters or agencies. A bullied LGBT public-schools student might find no recourse if they have the wrong principal. Community members might not know for days that a transgender friend or family member has fallen victim to violence, since the police report will likely indicate the gender they were assigned at birth. Our community will have a big punch-list for this next mayor.
Windy City Times does not endorse candidates. We do focus coverage on LGBT politicians by virtue of our newspaper's mission, but this is no better year to emphasize our impartiality and wish the best to whichever candidateone a member of our community, the other a stalwart allywins. We'll likely be a thorn in your side sometimes in the years ahead but, come April 2, may the best woman win.
Matt Simonette is managing editor of Windy City Times.