CHICAGO (AP) — Paul Vallas, the former schools CEO endorsed by the Chicago police union, advanced to a two-candidate runoff for Chicago mayor on Tuesday. His rival in a bid to unseat Mayor Lori Lightfoot had not yet been decided.
Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first openly gay person to lead the city, was still vying to make the April 4 runoff for a second term. Among her top opponents were Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, and U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Vallas served as an adviser to the Fraternal Order of Police during its negotiations with Lightfoot’s administration. He has called for adding hundreds of police officers to patrol the city, saying crime is out of control and morale among officers has sunk to a new low during Lightfoot’s tenure.
Lightfoot has criticized Vallas as too conservative for Chicago and for welcoming support from the police union’s controversial leader, who defended the Jan. 6 insurrectionists at the Capitol and equated Lightfoot’s vaccine mandate for city workers to the Holocaust.
Lightfoot in 2019 became the mayor of the third-largest U.S. city, and is only the second woman to hold the office. But Lightfoot, a former prosecutor and head of a city police review board, now risks becoming Chicago’s first one-term mayor in 40 years.
Opponents have hammered her over crime that spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic and a leadership style they say is unnecessarily combative. Lightfoot has touted her record of investing in neighborhoods and supporting workers, such as by increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. She also notes that the city has navigated unprecedented challenges such as the pandemic and its economic and public safety fallout to protests over policing.
“The world is very different than it was four years ago. I believe that I’m still the right person and I think the voters will validate that, but we’ve been through a lot,” Lightfoot said after a rally on the city’s west side during the final days before the election. “We can’t go back.”
With nine candidates in the race, no one received the more than 50% needed to win outright, meaning Vallas will face the next highest vote-getter in an April 4 runoff.
Lightfoot would be one of the few big-city mayors in recent history to lose a reelection bid. That’s particularly true in the first round of voting, when incumbents generally enjoy an advantage. But this election is unique because of the 10 largest U.S. cities, Chicago is the only place without mayoral term limits, which may make voters in other cities more willing to give an incumbent one more term.
Lightfoot also is the first mayor of a major U.S. city to face reelection following the pandemic, the recession and the crime wave that’s occurred in many places. Those factors weighed on some voters as they made their decisions.
Rita DiPietro, who lives downtown, said she supported Lightfoot in 2019. But she voted for Vallas on Tuesday, saying she was impressed by his detailed strategy to combat crime.
“The candidates all talk about what they’d like to do,” she said. “This guy actually has a plan. He knows how he’s going to do it.”
Lindsey Hegarty, a 30-year-old paralegal who lives on Chicago’s North Side, said she backed Johnson because “he seemed like the most progressive candidate on issues like policing, mental health” and public transit.
Race also is a factor as candidates court votes in the highly segregated city, which is closely divided in population among Black, Hispanic and white residents. Lightfoot, Johnson and five other candidates are Black, though Lightfoot — who is hoping strong support from Black voters will help propel her to victory — has argued that she is the only Black candidate who can win. Garcia, the only Latino in the race, would be Chicago’s first Hispanic mayor, while Vallas is the only white candidate in the field.
Lightfoot has accused Vallas of using “the ultimate dog whistle” by saying his campaign is about “taking back our city,” and of cozying up to the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, whom she calls a racist. A recent Chicago Tribune story also found Vallas’ Twitter account had liked racist tweets and tweets that mocked Lightfoot’s appearance and referred to her as masculine.
Vallas denied his comments were related to race and says his police union endorsement is from rank-and-file officers. He also said he wasn’t responsible for the liked tweets, which he called “abhorrent,” and suggested someone had improperly accessed his account.
But Lightfoot and some of her supporters see some of the criticism of her leadership as motivated by racism, sexism and anti-gay sentiment.
“No other mayor has been asked to change this city within four years,” said city Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, who is Black, and noted that white mayors like Emanuel and Richard Daley served multiple terms. “When we get in the game, the rules change.”
At a weekend campaign stop, Vallas said he is focused on things like public safety, Chicago’s “demoralized” police department and the number of residents “fleeing” the city’s school district.
“It’s all a product of bad leadership,” Vallas said.
A former city budget director who also led school systems in Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia, Vallas lost a 2019 bid for mayor. This time, he has been laser-focused on public safety, saying police officers who left the force under Lightfoot’s administration will return if he’s elected.
It seems to have resonated with voters, such as Antwoin Jackson, who are concerned about an uptick in crime. Jackson said he supported Lightfoot four years ago but cast his ballot for Vallas in Tuesday’s election because he said Lightfoot “did not hold control over the violence in the communities.” Jackson said he feels particularly unsafe when riding public transit.
Johnson, who lives in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, says more needs to be done to provide affordable housing and social services such as mental health care.
Garcia, a former City Council member, state lawmaker and county commissioner, has called Lightfoot too combative and says he has a record of bringing people together.
The other candidates are Chicago City Council members Sophia King and Roderick Sawyer, activist Ja’Mal Green and state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner.
Associated Press writers Claire Savage and Teresa Crawford in Chicago contributed to this report.
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