FOR THOSE seeking something to cheer in electoral politics, Chicago’s mayoral race is worth a look. After Rahm Emanuel, the incumbent, said last September he would not seek a third term, a horde of candidates jumped at the chance to succeed him. Eventually 14 rivals were listed on a long ballot paper on February 26th. Voters narrowly awarded first place to Lori Lightfoot (pictured, left), a former prosecutor and political outsider who had entered the contest early. When she stepped up, in May 2018, she was planning to take on Mr Emanuel, who had much more money, experience and connections. By Election Day, voters preferred her apparent integrity to the opportunism of many of her rivals.
Ms Lightfoot also put forward an admirable programme. She vows to tackle deep and persistent inequalities in the city, especially those between poorer, more violent and African American-dominated districts and the wealthier, whiter neighbourhoods. She has a proven record of standing up to police brutality, after various official stints scrutinising cases of killings by Chicago’s officers. And though she was relatively little known before, she has an impressive record of campaigning against corruption, which continues to blight city hall.
She is not mayor yet. In a crowded field, no candidate scooped up the more than half of the vote needed to win outright. Instead Ms Lightfoot enters a runoff on April 2nd against Toni Preckwinkle (pictured, right), a more established figure from the Democratic machine, who took second place. Ms Preckwinkle’s performance was also notable. She got through despite her association with Edward Burke, a politician recently charged by the FBI for trying to extort payments from executives of a fast-food restaurant. Mr Burke, who denies all wrong-doing, is a pin-striped relic of dubious city politics who has sat on Chicago’s council since 1969. He hosted a fund-raiser for Ms Preckwinkle’s campaign, though she later returned the cash. Mr Burke was re-elected as an alderman, or city councilor, this week.
It is too early to guess who will triumph in April. Ms Preckwinkle knows the political landscape intimately and has some big backers, including teachers’ unions. She was an alderman for five terms and is president of the board of Cook County, a huge territory which includes Chicago. From the south side of the city, she is a progressive who campaigns for more affordable housing. By contrast, Ms Lightfoot has never been elected to anything. She will instead campaign as a disruptive force. Given the one-party nature of Chicago’s politics, voters might relish a chance to shake up the Democratic establishment. The Sun Times, a Chicago newspaper, endorsed Ms Lightfoot with unusual passion this month, seeing a “palpable wave of moral disgust” that could push her into office. An early backer of Ms Lightfoot, Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, says she “has momentum and a vision of a new Chicago”.
Whoever wins, this will be a historic election. Chicago has had an African American mayor, Harold Washington, and a woman mayor, Jane Byrne, both in the 1980s. The winner in 2019 will become the first African-American woman to run the city. If Ms Lightfoot were to triumph, she would also be the first openly lesbian mayor to run one of America’s big three cities.
The election also brought some other surprises. Dynastic politics didn’t get much of a look-in. Bill Daley, the son and brother of two long-serving mayors of Chicago, and a national politician with ties to Barack Obama and Al Gore, came third. He had received some big donations from business. Nor did Latino voters prove influential. Susana Mendoza, who was close to Mr Emanuel, was seen by some analysts as a potential victor. Yet she flopped after a feeble campaign. And young voters were a no-show. By one estimate more than half of all the votes were cast by people aged 50 years or older, while the youngest stayed home. Does that suggest young Americans are not fired up about politics? Not necessarily. It might be easier to get them to the polling stations come the warmer spring days of April.