Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has lost her bid to lead the United States’ third-largest city for a second term after failing to qualify for the runoff election in a race where public safety took centre stage.
Lightfoot came in third in the mayoral election on Tuesday – behind Paul Vallas, a former schools CEO, and Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner – becoming the first Chicago mayor to lose re-election since 1983.
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Lightfoot’s loss signals growing discontent in US cities where crime rates rose and housing became more expensive amid growing economic hardship and inflation after the COVID-19 pandemic.
As none of the candidates cleared 50 percent of the votes in a crowded field of contenders on Tuesday, Vallas and Johnson will face off in a runoff election in April.
Lightfoot made history four years ago when she became the first Black woman and openly gay person to lead the city of 2.7 million people.
She promised to put an end to corruption and backroom dealing in local politics. But her tenure was marred by mounting challenges that faced other major cities as well.
Crime rates, already an issue in Chicago, went up during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the city seeing 804 homicides in 2021, compared to 500 in 2019, according to police data. Nearly 700 people were killed in the city last year, a decline from 2021 but still well above pre-pandemic levels.
“Regardless of tonight’s outcome, we fought the right fights and we put this city on a better path,” Lightfoot said on Tuesday. Asked if she was treated unfairly because of her race and gender, Lightfoot said: “I’m a Black woman in America. Of course.”
Right-wing politicians often cite gun violence in Chicago – a Democratic stronghold – as a symbol of what they see as the failure of liberal policies.
Although both Vallas and Johnson identify as Democrats and the race is non-partisan, many Republicans celebrated Lightfoot’s loss on Tuesday.
“Lori Lightfoot. Crime doesn’t pay,” far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote on Twitter.
Lightfoot had clashed with the police union and teachers’ union in her handling of the pandemic, sparking criticism from both conservatives and progressives.
The mayor faced off in a legal and political battle with the Fraternal Order of Police in 2021 over the city’s requirement for law enforcement officers to report their COVID-19 vaccination status.
She also feuded with the teachers’ union early in 2022 over her push to return to in-person learning amid educators’ health and safety concerns.
Serving as your mayor has been the honor of a lifetime, and I am so grateful to all of you who have stood beside me these last four years.
We’ve made significant progress building a safer, more equitable city. I thank each and every one of you for believing in me. pic.twitter.com/l33IGevNPC
— Lori Lightfoot (@LoriLightfoot) March 1, 2023
The opponents who bested her on Tuesday were respectively backed by the two unions. Vallas was supported by the police union, and Johnson was endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union.
The top vote-getter, Vallas had made public safety a focal point of his campaign.
“Public safety is a human right, and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure residents feel safe and secure. Confronting the city’s crime problem and ensuring our residents’ safety is my top priority,” his campaign website reads.
On Tuesday, he pledged to “make Chicago the safest city in America”.
Johnson, who is backed by progressive groups, has vowed to pursue a different approach to public safety by investing in social programmes, youth employment and mental health clinics to prevent crime.
“I will work with police and first responders to invest in community-based interventions that de-escalate conflict, reduce violence and make our neighborhoods safer,” his campaign website reads.