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Chicago Makes Herstory: First African-American Woman and Gay Chicago Mayor Wins in Landslide

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Chicago voters made history Tuesday when Lori Lightfoot won a landslide victory as both the city’s first African-American woman mayor and openly gay mayor. This comes after a February runoff election that pitted her against Toni Preckwinkle, a former alderperson who is president of the Cook County Board. While Preckwinkle had been viewed as a highly formidable candidate, Lightfoot is a political outsider who has never held elected office. We are joined by Barbara Ransby, professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Her article for The Nation is headlined “The Rising Black Left Movement Behind Chicago’s Historic Elections.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we turn now to Chicago, where voters made history Tuesday by electing Lori Lightfoot as both the city’s first African-American woman mayor and openly gay mayor. Lightfoot’s victory comes after a February runoff that pitted her against Toni Preckwinkle, a former alderperson who is president of the Cook County Board. While Preckwinkle has been viewed as a highly formidable candidate, Lightfoot is a political outsider who’s never held political office. She’s a former federal prosecutor who entered the mayoral race in a long-shot bid before Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would not run for a third term. In 2015, Emanuel appointed her to head the Chicago Police Board. She was also chair of the Police Accountability Task Force in 2016, created after the police killing of Laquan McDonald, that issued a damning report on Chicago police relations with black residents. Part of her mayoral campaign focused on ousting Chicago’s political machine, and she linked Preckwinkle to an ongoing federal corruption investigation at City Hall.

This is Lightfoot addressing her supporters Tuesday night in a victory speech.

MAYOR-ELECT LORI LIGHTFOOT: Thank you, Chicago. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. A few moments ago, I spoke with Toni Preckwinkle. In this election, Toni and I were competitors. But our differences are nothing compared to what we can achieve together. Now that it’s over, I know we will work together for the city that we both love.

Today you did more than make history. You created a movement for change. … This is not us versus them, or neighborhoods versus downtown. We are in this together, and we will grow together. We can and we will build trust between our people and our brave police officers, so that the communities and police trust each other, not fear each other. We can and we will break this city’s endless cycle of corruption and never again, never, ever, allow politicians to profit from elected positions. …

Out there tonight, a lot of little girls and boys are watching. They’re watching us. And they’re seeing the beginning of something, well, a little bit different. They’re seeing a city reborn, a city where it doesn’t matter what color you are, and where it surely doesn’t matter how tall you are, where it doesn’t matter who you love, just as long as you love—let me say that again: where it doesn’t matter who you love, just as long as you love with all your heart. In the Chicago we will build together, we will celebrate our differences, we will embrace our uniqueness, and we will make certain that all have every opportunity to succeed. Thank you.

Every child out there should know this: Each of you, one day, can be the mayor of Chicago. Want to know why? Just look right here. One day you will stand on my shoulders, as I stand on the shoulders of so many, the shoulders of strong black women, like Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks and Annie Ruth Lowery, the shoulders of LGBTQ+ trailblazers, like Dr. Ron Sable, Vernita Gray and Art Johnston, and the shoulders of political giants, like the late, great Harold Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Chicago’s Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot addressing supporters in her victory speech Tuesday night. She won 73% of the vote. She’ll take over as mayor next month.

For more, we go to Chicago, where we’re joined by Barbara Ransby, professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She wrote about all of this for The Nation in piece headlined, “The Rising Black Left Movement Behind Chicago’s Historic Elections.” Her latest book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Ransby. Can you talk about the significance of the mayoral election yesterday?

BARBARA RANSBY: Yes. Thanks for having me, Amy. You know, there’s significance on two levels. I mean, I would be, as a historian, the last to deny the significance of having an openly gay African-American woman as the mayor of the third-largest city, because the way that racism has worked in this city and in this country in the past is through exclusion, right? So, the fact that we have overcome that hurdle in terms of representation is significant.

But what’s more significant is the way in which this generation of activists, particularly young black activists, have transcended narrow identity politics and have really insisted that politicians like Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle and others adhere to a set of progressive demands and issues that have defined this campaign. So I think, you know, on another level, the real victory is that movement organizers, young black and Latinx organizers, have put critical issues on the table and that the two contenders both had to present themselves and make promises around a progressive agenda. The question now is: Will they keep that agenda?

I should also say, in all fairness, that there were critiques of both candidates. And I think that reflects a level of political savvy and sophistication, that it wasn’t enough to say we’re going of a black woman mayor, that many young black queer activists, for example, were very critical of Lori Lightfoot’s role on the police board and didn’t feel that she really fought hard enough to hold police accountable, to punish police for police crimes and so forth. So, they weren’t timid about doing that simply because she was an African-American woman and an out gay black woman.

So, the twofold victory is that, in some ways, the white-led machine in Chicago politics has been wounded, if not defeated, but it’s also a challenge that, you know, a whole ecosystem of black and Latinx and anti-racist white activists in Chicago have shaped the debate around this campaign and will continue to push after the inauguration in May.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Ransby, the last African-American mayor, or the first African-American mayor, of Chicago, Harold Washington, was elected amidst a huge racial divide politically, where the white political establishment made his first few years almost impossible to govern. And now we’re seeing a situation where you have two African-American women, and the winner wins in all the wards, in all the aldermanic wards of Chicago, which seems to indicate that at least now, for the first time in the white community, there is no sense of trepidation about voting for an African-American candidate. But Toni Preckwinkle, while she is considered an establishment candidate, was also—wasn’t she—one of the key figures in the Progressive Caucus of the City Council? So, why this huge landslide for her opponent?

BARBARA RANSBY: Well, we’re still waiting to see how many people actually voted. But, yeah, Lori Lightfoot won by a landslide. That’s undeniable. In the February election, however, we didn’t see either Preckwinkle or Lori Lightfoot win a majority of the black wards. That just was not the case. So, how we see this playing out, you know, we’re still figuring it out.

But this, I will say: I think people have a desire for change. I think sometimes, you know, maybe we’re not as critical as we should be about what kind of change is likely to come. I think both of the candidates, though, made some impressive commitments. And again, you know, I think we have to see whether they’re going to be—whether Lori Lightfoot is in fact going to deliver on the promises made. So, I think the desire to break with tradition—and Toni Preckwinkle was certainly seen as a part of the old guard. She was one of the founders in the City Council, when she served there, of the Progressive Caucus, and certainly was supported by the progressive wing of the labor movement here in Chicago. But I think the idea of someone who hadn’t held office, the idea of someone who had a strong message of being independent and so forth, was appealing to a number of people.

Now, that said, also, a lot of people with money supported Lori Lightfoot. A lot of, you know, North Side wealthy districts, wards, went with Lori Lightfoot, and that allowed for TV ads and a reach that Toni Preckwinkle didn’t have.

So, you know, I mean, people vote for a lot of different reasons. And I guess, you know, part of the way I’m making sense of this, this morning, is that it’s not just about what individual wins. It’s about what issues got put on the table and what commitments were extracted. And so, phase two then is to see whether the movement sustains its pressure, sustains the push, and actually holds Lori Lightfoot accountable for the things that she has promised to do.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could talk more about, Professor Ransby, the politics of issues of police brutality, police killings, and how they very much played into this campaign and the—you know, ultimately, earlier, the dumping of, the defeat of Alvarez, with the killing of Laquan McDonald, of course, Rahm Emanuel holding back that videotape of the police killing of McDonald right through his re-election, and the fact that Lightfoot, yes, is the head of the Chicago Police Board, and how all these different movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement, all came together around this, and what now Mayor-elect Lightfoot says about issues of police brutality and police violence, since they were so central to this campaign?

BARBARA RANSBY: Yeah, absolutely. And I just want to preface my response to your question by saying they’re also a set of very related economic issues, because the people who are most vulnerable to police violence in Chicago and elsewhere are poor and working-class, primarily black and secondarily Latinx, folks. And so, the movement here, I think, has also been very clear about gentrification, issues of rent control, the fact that black people are being pushed out of the city because of the priciness of the city and the abandonment of services. So, all that is the backdrop to the issue of police violence.

But you’re right, Amy. The Laquan McDonald case was really the pivot of this election in a lot of ways. It was the issue that Rahm Emanuel couldn’t run away from. And he couldn’t run away from it because of the relentless pressure by a whole network and coalition of organizations, from Black Lives Matter Chicago to Assata’s Daughters to #LetUsBreathe Collective to Black Youth Project 100. So, putting the pressure on Rahm not to run, or letting him know that this was going to be the fight of his life if he did run, was part of what shaped the election as it unfolded.

Secondly, you know, the movement really confronted Lori Lightfoot when she was in her role as the chair of the police board. And young people confronted her around the Rekia Boyd murder and confronted her around the Laquan McDonald issue during the campaign. There were actually T-shirts that said “Queers Against Lori Lightfoot,” which was interesting and, I think, eye-catching for a number of people to see that kind of formulation of people saying this is not just about identity. And a lot of that centered around grievances around police accountability. Of course, Lori Lightfoot is a former prosecutor and, many felt, much too closely allied with the police, even though the promises she has made re for police accountability and police reform. And so, again, it’s a question of pushing and making sure that at least some of those promises are kept and that the movement sustains its momentum.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Ransby, Chicago is one of these cities that’s about one-third African-American, one-third Latino and one-third white. Any sense of how this election played out in the Latino community of Chicago? Given—I understand that Chuy García, who last ran against Rahm Emanuel, was backing Lightfoot. But how did this play out among the voters?

BARBARA RANSBY: Yeah, I mean, I think the Latino community was divided. I mean, certainly, high-profile Latinx leaders in the city ultimately sided with and endorsed Lori Lightfoot. Chuy was one of those. Of course, you know, Chuy—when Chuy ran, Toni Preckwinkle declined to endorse him against Rahm Emanuel, so there may have been some residual from that. But also, Susana Mendoza, who was the other high-profile Latinx candidate in the race, Gery Chico, both endorsed Lori Lightfoot.

But what I would say, on the grassroots level, organizers in the immigrant rights movement, some young, queer Latinx organizers allied with young black organizers in challenging that scenario, in challenging Lori Lightfoot, in challenging the idea that she would be some sort of savior for the city. So, there were Latinos on both sides of the debate between the two contenders.

And I think, you know, really, it’s—there are political, ideological differences, and we don’t see black people voting in a single bloc. We don’t see Latinx people voting in a single bloc. I think there’s a real move beyond a certain kind of narrow identity politics, and really embracing issues and forming new alliances. And we’ve really seen more black-brown unity at the grassroots level in Chicago than we have in actual more formal electoral coalitions.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Ransby, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at University of Illinois, Chicago. Her latest book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century. And we’ll link to your piece in The Nation, “The Rising Black Left Movement Behind Chicago’s Historic Elections.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Mexico City. Stay with us.

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