Something historic happened in Chicago on Tuesday. By now, most people have heard that two African-American women emerged from a crowded field of mayoral candidates to land coveted runoff positions.
That means Chicago will elect its first African-American female mayor on April 2. Regardless of who wins, both women will have accomplished a remarkable feat.
As an African-American woman, I am particularly proud that our city will finally have a black woman at its helm. Of the 14 candidates in the race, Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, and Toni Preckwinkle, the longtime president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, were the cream of the crop.
Both women are smart, politically astute and undeniably competent. I voted for one of them but at this point, it doesn’t matter which. Either would make an excellent mayor.
So on Wednesday, each will begin renewed campaigns to convince voters that she is the best person for the job.
There is no doubt that both candidates will garner the support of a large number of white voters. Their greatest challenge, however, could be with African-Americans.
What makes this mayoral race so unique is that neither of the black women heading to the runoff was the first choice of voters in wards where the majority of the city’s African-Americans live.
Preckwinkle won only four of the city’s predominantly black wards, according to unofficial results. Though she emerged as the front-runner, Lightfoot didn’t win any.
Voters on the South and West sides overwhelmingly supported Willie Wilson, a black self-made millionaire who never had a real chance of winning citywide support. But Wilson won 14 predominantly African-American wards.
Here’s the bottom line: In a race that drew only 34 percent of the registered voters to the polls, white people in Chicago decided that it was time to have an African-American female mayor. That has never happened in our city.
Lightfoot’s and Preckwinkle’s victories are extraordinary because they beat some well-known white males. Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, the son of the former Chicago boss named Richard and the brother of another former mayor with the same name, came in third. Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and former Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy barely made a dent.
That’s definitely progress for whites in the liberal city of Chicago. But for African-Americans, it should also be a little scary. In this election, the black vote, for the most part, was marginalized.
A lot of it had to do with low voter turnout overall. Nearly 539,000 Chicagoans determined the outcome of the election. It was almost a record low, barely inching past the 33 percent mark set in 2007, when Richard M. Daley won his sixth and last term.
What happened Tuesday was unusual in another way, too. In contrast to Mayor Harold Washington’s election in 1983, there was no consensus candidate among African-Americans. Neither of the two top vote-getters managed to build a diverse coalition of supporters, bringing Hispanics and African-Americans together in one gigantic melting pot, the way Washington did. In those days, that’s what it took for an African-American to win.
That clearly isn’t the case anymore. Lightfoot won with the help of affluent white voters on Chicago’s North Side lakefront. Though Preckwinkle pulled voters from across the city, her base proved to be in neighborhoods around Hyde Park, where she once served as alderman.
In a field that included six African-Americans, Lightfoot emerged with 17.5 percent of the vote, while Preckwinkle garnered 16 percent, both substantially below the more than 50 percent threshold needed to avert a runoff. Lightfoot came in a distant third in the majority of African-American wards. Preckwinkle fared better, coming in a close second behind Wilson in many of them, according to unofficial results.
If this outcome proves anything, it is that African-Americans cannot afford to be apathetic about voting. With the city’s black population rapidly declining, African-Americans are going to have to be more diligent at the polls than ever.
Having two African-American women in a runoff for mayor makes Chicago seem like a city that has figured out how to bridge its social and racial gaps. To outsiders, our city probably seems pretty cool right now.
But we aren’t there. Not yet, anyway.
This time, African-American residents were lucky. White voters chose two candidates that would be a great asset to the entire city. With Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, there is a chance that the leadership will look at the city through a more diverse lens. And neighborhoods where voters did not choose them will have a chance to thrive along with the rest of Chicago.
In order to win the title of mayor, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle will need to convince those Wilson voters that they will lead the city forward. They must convince residents who have lost the most faith in Chicago that they will be heard.
Most importantly, they must prove that they care as much about African-Americans on the South and West sides as they do about the white residents who put them in the runoff.
Believe me. That’s not going to be easy.