‘Chicago is waiting for another candidate’: Lightfoot’s re-election will hinge on crime

2021 was the worst year for violent crime in nearly three decades. More than 1,000 homicides took place in Cook County last year. Crime — especially violent crime — is still a big issue for Chicago voters, and the recent spike could be the tipping point for the mayoral race on Feb. 28, 2023.

In less than 10 months, Chicago voters will elect the city’s next mayor. Issues such as crime, education and economic development are always key issues in any Chicago election and are likely to be prevalent in this race as well.

Recent years have been marked by a sharp increase in crime across the country. At least 12 major US cities hit records for violent crime in 2021. Since Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected in 2019, Chicago has also seen upticks, in particular the 36% increase in shootings between 2019 and 2020.

The city has also suffered from a pandemic and labor disputes between the mayor’s office and groups like the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Police Union. For many, various crises like these, along with a hitherto somewhat unknown group of candidates, should make for an interesting ride.

“You have some sort of anomalous situation,” said John McCarron, a former DePaul assistant professor and political columnist for the Chicago Tribune. “We have a minority, female, non-heterosexual incumbent…and there’s a widespread feeling that the mayor won’t be very popular.”

A recent private poll shows Lightfoot’s public approval rating has fallen below 30%, according to an April article in the Chicago Sun-Times. That comes as a surprise to some, given Lightfoot’s landslide victory in 2019.

“She won an incredible 70% of the vote and all 50 neighborhoods in the city [in 2019]said Craig Sautter, a professor at DePaul’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “But the big problem was crime, and she couldn’t control it.”

An incumbent with approval ratings as low as Lightfoot’s is still vulnerable to a challenger. At this point in the race, only three other major contenders have declared themselves to face Lightfoot in February.

On Thursday, State Representative Kam Buckner declared his candidacy for mayor. Buckner was nominated to the Illinois House of Representatives in 2019 and chairs the Illinois House Black Caucus. The former Chicago-raised University of Illinois football player and DePaul Law School graduate holds an endorsement from the Chicago Teachers Union, a group that has regularly feuded with Lightfoot during the pandemic.

Born in Chicago, 15th Ward Ald. Raymond Lopez threw his hat in the ring in April. Lopez was first elected to the office of alderman in 2015, and if elected, he would be Chicago’s first Latino and second openly gay mayor. If history is any indicator, Lopez is in for an uphill battle, as no member of the city council has ever been elected to the office of mayor.

The other top contender to declare so far is Chicago businessman Willie Wilson. Wilson, a perennial candidate who also ran in 2015 and 2019, recently made headlines with his free gas giveaways to residents of Chicago and its suburbs.

Experts like Sautter believe voters are waiting to see if a familiar figure declares themselves for the race. Otherwise, Lightfoot could win back his default seat, despite his low approval ratings.

“To quote a long-standing political saying, ‘you can’t beat somebody without somebody,'” Sautter said. “Chicago is waiting for another candidate… but who will it be, the great white hope?”

Some thought U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., would fill that void, but on April 28, Quigley announced in a statement that he would not challenge Lightfoot in 2023.

Although the current pool of candidates is small, Lopez’s first strategy is to repeatedly repeat criticize Lightfoot’s efforts to fight crime during his tenure. With public concerns turned to recent violence, Lopez’s strategy may prove viable.

“People are listening to the 10 p.m. news and seeing crime downtown near Randolph and the state,” McCarron said. “It will be at the top of people’s minds when they go to vote.”

In Chicago, crime is defined in many ways in different communities. For residents like Southeast Side community activist Oscar Sanchez, Lightfoot’s mishandling of issues such as crime with respect to Chicago’s respective neighborhoods is a major cause of his low approval rating.

“You can’t just stamp a policy or a solution and copy it to another community,” Sanchez said. “North side security is different from south side security, but that doesn’t mean that [one community’s] policies should mean less than those of others.

While violence is a big issue in Chicago, Sanchez thinks Lightfoot’s handling of other types of crime is just as important. He says that’s why some activists like him can be quick to criticize.

“When we hear ‘Mayor Lori Lightfoot is tough on crime,’ the crime she’s tough on is gun violence and theft,” Sanchez said. “But things like environmental injustices… those are also crimes. Is she tough on them? Does she hold them responsible?

In southeast Sanchez, poor air quality and pollution are major issues. Residents on the southeast side of Chicago are more prone to cardiovascular and respiratory disease than residents on the north side, according to a 2020 air quality report. Shortly after the report was released, a planned demolition at the old Crawford Coal Works in Little Village took place. The blast blanketed the neighborhood in huge clouds of dust and raised concerns among residents about possible health issues. At a press conference on the day of the demolition, Lightfoot admitted to the city’s active role in the explosion.

For some, environmental inequalities between neighborhoods are part of a general trend regarding inequality in Chicago and are likely to be considered by voters next year.

“The city has become divided between haves and have-nots,” McCarron said.

McCarron wonders what some voters think of Lightfoot’s recent selection for a new casino or related development plans, especially with studies showing gambling rates tend to be higher among people of socioeconomic status. lower. McCarron also thinks some voters think the city’s resources and efforts could be better spent elsewhere rather than luring wealthier Chicagoans downtown.

One policy Lightfoot proposed to tackle crime was the Justice for Victims Ordinance last year. The proposal would allow the city to seize the assets of individuals engaged in criminal activity. Since being made public, the order has faced strong opposition from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, who say it would only take resources from families in Chicago who most need.

Sanchez sees the order as another example of Lightfoot’s political efforts directed at the wrong issues. While violent crime is a significant problem in countless communities, the Southeast Side activist believes using similar strategies could do some good if directed at other issues.

“When [Lightfoot] put the victims justice ordinance in place and said ‘we’re going to take the assets of these gang members and give them to the people involved’ why doesn’t she [take the same strategy] with things like environmental injustice? Sanchez said.

Lightfoot has fought many other political battles during his current tenure. Throughout the pandemic, she’s endured a handful of disputes with the Chicago Teachers Union, mostly related to back-to-school safety during the Covid-19 crisis.

The Chicago Police Department has clashed publicly with Lightfoot for months over its vaccination mandate for city employees. In the end, Lightfoot agreed to exempt more than 1,400 officers from the vaccination in April.

Chicago voters have a slew of criticism for Lightfoot during his final years as mayor. Still, many don’t yet see a strong candidate to contest his seat, and that could give him an edge in February – although there’s plenty of time between now and Election Day.

“I think it’s too far to tell who has a real chance,” Sautter said. “But I would say even if she’s unpopular, she [currently] to the inner track.

Similar to Lightfoot, less than a year before Chicago’s 2015 mayoral election, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had a relatively low approval rating of 35.7%. Despite the low rating, Emanuel was re-elected in a second round with 56% of the vote.

No matter what happens over the next nine and a half months, Lightfoot’s lack of endorsement coupled with what some see as a hitherto unknown field of challengers could make for a unique election day.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Sautter said. “Chicago politics is always interesting, and in Chicago, it’s always the main show.”

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