A new mayor, new hope and old problems for Chicago

April 2019

By Paul Krugman


Donald Trump, it turns out, may have been the best thing that could have happened to American democracy.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. Individual-1 is clearly a wannabe dictator who has contempt for the rule of law, not to mention being corrupt and probably in the pocket of foreign powers. But he’s also lazy, undisciplined, self-absorbed and inept. And since the threat to democracy is much broader and deeper than one man, we’re actually fortunate that the forces menacing America have such a ludicrous person as their public face.

CHICAGO–April 2 was an historic night in the history of Chicago mayoral politics. It was the first time two Black women were vying for the highest political office in the city, and the first time an openly gay candidate was on the ballot. It would be only the third time that a Black person held Chicago’s mayoral seat, as well as the second time that a woman would be the one sitting in power at city hall.

The victory would also be one of the most lopsided ever as Lori Lightfoot, an attorney and former federal prosecutor billed as a political outsider, having never campaigned for elected office before, was the runaway winner. She garnered 74 percent of the vote and swept all 50 of Chicago’s wards, and 2,049 of the city’s 2,069 voting precincts.

It was a watershed moment for a city facing major changes and challenges. Now that mayor-elect Lightfoot is poised to assume the reins from outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel, she has work to do to restore faith in the mayor’s office, which has a history of controversy, and restore faith in Chicago communities that are underserved, overpoliced and seemingly forgotten.

“This is a very dynamic moment in the history of Chicago. I believe a lot of children woke up this morning with hope, because that’s what it’s all about, giving our children hope. Hope for a better education, hope for being able to live in an area where they do not have to be fearful of crime and in an area where there is economic development,” said Dorothy Brown, Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, during a joint April 3 press conference featuring mayor-elect Lightfoot and the woman she beat, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, hosted by Rev. Jesse Jackson at his Rainbow PUSH headquarters.

“We have some real challenges ahead in our county and in our city and I look forward to working with Mayor-elect Lightfoot to address those challenges,” Ms. Preckwinkle said. The two women were the last candidates standing out of a larger field earlier this year. Neither won 50 percent of the vote plus one, leading to the April runoff election.

“Today, you did more than make his- tory. You created a movement for change. You know, when we started this journey 11 months ago, nobody gave us much of a chance. We were up against powerful interests, a powerful machine and a powerful mayor,” observed Ms. Lightfoot in her election night acceptance speech.

“But I remembered something Martin Luther King said when I was very young: Faith, he said, is taking the first step when you can’t see the staircase. Well, we couldn’t see the whole staircase when we started this journey. But we had faith—an abiding faith in the city, its people and in its future.”

“We still have faith,” she added. “We are still determined, and with this mandate for change, now we’re going to take the next steps together. Together, we can and will finally put the interests of our people—all of our people—ahead of the interests of a powerful few. Together, we can and will make Chicago a place where your zip code doesn’t determine your destiny.”

It is that final sentence that many who live in Chicago’s poor and impoverished neighborhoods hope aren’t empty words spoken by a politician.

According to a study by the Social IMPACT Research Center, almost a half million Chicagoans live in what is considered to be extreme poverty, another half million are at or below the poverty line, and 538,384 people would be considered low income, meaning they live just above the poverty line.

In a city of approximately 2.7 million people, roughly 1.5 million of them are experiencing some form of poverty or financial hardship in America’s third-largest city.

In many of Chicago’s poorest areas, residents have seen school closures, business closures, communities that are food deserts with no grocery stores nearby, and other forms of decline and decay.

The only thing that seems to be constant in Black and Brown, low income and poor communities, is heavyhanded policing.

Restoring faith in the people who experience these day-to-day realities will be one of Lori Lightfoot’s toughest tasks.

“Despite it being a historic election where we had two African-American women running for mayor of Chicago, I think that we shouldn’t expect a whole lot to change,” Eric Russell, a grassroots community and police accountability activist, told The Final Call. “Unfortunately, we got into this [mayoral election] situation on someone’s watch. Chicago and Illinois has been one of the most progressive cities and states, when it comes to putting Black people in high-powered, political positions. … We’ve had Black people in prominent spots, but it has done nothing to elevate the quality of life for Black people in Chicago and across Illinois. And I’m fearful of what the election of Lori Lightfoot as mayor will bring, particularly with her being a police sympathizer based on her public career of service as president of the Chicago Police Board, and of the way the police were allowed to violate the civil rights of Black and Brown people on her watch.”

In 2018, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for an independent review of all the cases Ms. Lightfoot decided the outcomes of as Police Board president. He accused her of using her position as a springboard to running for mayor. The irony in the accusation is Mr. Emanuel appointed her twice to be president of the Police Board as well as co-chair of the Chicago Police Taskforce on Accountability, the same group that lambasted the Chicago Police Department for its handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting. That tragedy, the murder of a teenager at the hands of a Chicago cop and a subsequent cover-up, started political dominos falling that led to Mr. Emanuel’s decision not to seek reeelction given fallout and protests about his role in covering up what happened. His decision opened the door for the Lightfoot win.

Ms. Lightfoot, in her victory speech, pledged to tackle crime in Chicago, but said nothing about holding police accountable when they abuse the power of their positions. This is part of the reason Mr. Russell says he is somewhat skeptical about what the Lightfoot victory will mean for Chicago’s Black and Brown people.

Others are reserving judgment, choosing to see an opportunity to enact real change in the city.

“The election of Lori Lightfoot as mayor could possibly represent a new beginning here in Chicago,” activist Tio Hardiman, a violence interrupter and former Illinois gubernatorial candidate, told The Final Call. “Over the last 20 or 30 years in this city, the same types of political candidates have always had some kind of tie to Chicago’s political machine, and they’ve run this city for a long time.

“Lori has an opportunity to make things better for Black people on the East, West and South sides of Chicago. I know she has to look out for the entire city, but I hope that one day we can look down 79th Street, from Stony Island to Yates Blvd., and we’ll see an oasis of businesses, hotels, restaurants, and things like that. And it can happen if we have a mayor who wants to really bring about economic change for the better in the African American communities throughout Chicago.”

While Ms. Lightfoot’s landslide win can be seen as a victory for Blacks, women, and the LGBTQ community, it came in the face of on increasingly dissatisfied Chicago electorate.

When the original election was held on Feb. 26, the field included 14 candidates with Ms. Lightfoot and the Cook County Board president, receiving 17.5 percent and 16.04 percent of the vote, respectively, forcing a runoff.

Voter turnout for the runoff was exceptionally low, with only 33 percent of Chicago’s 1.5 million registered voters casting ballots. During the April 2 election, only 504,123 people participated, more than 50,000 fewer than those who showed up just six weeks prior.

Chicago is a city that has become increasingly gentrified, seeing its Black population steadily decrease.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2016 and 2017, more Black people (14,000) left Cook County, Ill., than in any previously recorded years. Since 2010, Chicago’s Black population has decreased by more than 61,000.

Black unemployment in the state of Illinois for 2016, according to the Illinois Policy Institute, was 12.7 percent, the highest in the country, with the bulk of that number being tied to manufacturing job losses in Chicago.

“The low voter turnout is just a sign of the times. People just aren’t interested in the electoral process for a multitude of reasons,” Mr. Hardiman said. “People these days want to vote for change, and they haven’t really seen anything from a candidate that will inspire them to come out in the numbers they did for Harold Washington in 1983.”

Mr. Washington was Chicago’s first Black mayor and died while in office in November 1987. During the 1983 election, nearly 1.2 million Chicagoans cast mayoral votes (82 percent) representing, at the time, the largest turnout in the city in 25 years. Sixty-nine percent of Chicago’s registered Black voters participated in that election. To date, the 1983 Chicago mayoral election still has the largest turnout in the last 36 years.

“So many politicians care about keeping their office and their pensions, more than about the needs of the people, and folks are tired of the same old status quo,” Mr. Russell said.

Noted writer, author and activist Conrad Worrill shared sentiments similar to both Mr. Hardiman and Mr. Russell regarding low turnout.

“People are burnt out on electoral politics. And the reason for this specifically in the Black community is that people are not feeling a return from their vote,” Mr. Worrill told The Final Call. “And the corporate takeover of elections, in many instances run by people outside of your neighborhood and your community who create advertising on radio or TV that create spins of illusions. This has unfortunately resulted in staying home being the reaction from the people.”

Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s South side, is an ardent supporter of Lori Lightfoot. As incoming mayor of Chicago, she is going to have a lot to deal with starting the first day she officially takes office, he said.

“She not only has a lot on her plate, but she has a plate that is overflowing,” Father Pfleger told The Final Call. “We have violence that is a way of life because there’s nothing else offered in the streets. I think that we’ve got to give people hope and we’ve got to let people know that it’s not going to turn around overnight because there’s so much work to do. But she [Ms. Lightfoot] is committed to equaling the playing field, investing in communities that have been neglected and giving opportunity to people who it’s been shut to. She’s a strong sister and I think she is a very smart sister. I’ve been supporting her through this whole runoff and I have hope today.”

With Lori Lightfoot being the first Black woman, and only third Black person to be mayor of Chicago, the city, and by extension the state of Illinois, continues its history of placing Black people in prominent political positions. However, some are fearful Blacks who live in the city, the surrounding suburbs, and throughout the state, are being lulled asleep by symbolic representation—the idea that having Black people in high profile spots alone represents progress.

Mr. Worrill warns against having that mindset and, instead, says Blacks need to shift to demand substantive results from elected officials—in particular the Black ones.

“With my many years of being an active participant and observer of politics, going back to the 1960s, we have to turn symbolism into substance in politics for Black people,” Mr. Worrill argued. “It’s obvious that Black people can get elected citywide, countywide and statewide in a lot of important positions in government. But now the challenge is leveraging that to get us up from the bottom, and being the low rung on the ladder in terms of receiving contracts and employment. Fundamentally, that’s what politics is: contracts, employment, public policy and delivery of services. Those are the four areas of electoral politics, fueled through taxpayers’ money. It’s time now to move beyond symbolism, and into the execution of Black political power that benefits the Black community at a higher level.”