The runoff to decide the next mayor of Chicago is set, and America’s third-largest city could not have asked for a clearer choice.
On the one hand, Paul Vallas, the hard-line law-and-order candidate who was the head of the city’s public school system. On the other, Brandon Johnson, a teacher and organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union who promises to fight the “root causes of crime and poverty.”
They will be fighting for Chicagoans whose sympathies lie somewhere in between—voters who supported outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who finished third with 17 percent of the vote. Vallas, who took 33 percent of the vote, and Johnson, who got 20, will face off in a runoff election next month.
The contrast between Vallas and Johnson is a familiar one. It looks a little like the recent mayoral contest in Los Angeles, which also featured a white, tough-on-crime candidate who critics said was not really a Democrat and a Black candidate backed by unions and other progressive groups. More broadly, the candidates represent the divide in the urban Democratic coalition about how to respond to rising crime rates. Is crime a problem whose solutions lie with the police department or elsewhere? That is what Chicago voters will decide in April.
But that comparison understates just how unusual the results in Chicago are. Incumbent mayors who run for reelection rarely lose, and they especially do not lose in Chicago, where Lightfoot is the first mayor there to lose a reelection effort in four decades.
Some of that loss can be put on Lightfoot’s style. She ran as a reformer, then shut out the press. She lost the support of colleagues and other allies with the same hardheaded demeanor that made her such a promising candidate.
But with Tuesday’s defeat, Lightfoot becomes a symbol of something larger: the plight of the pandemic mayor. She will join a long list of big-city mayors to have left office since the summer of 2020, including New York’s Bill de Blasio, Los Angeles’ Eric Garcetti, Boston’s Marty Walsh, Oakland’s Libby Schaaf, Seattle’s Jenny Durkan, Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto, and Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms. Two years ago, the New York Times identified a wave of mayoral resignations related to “COVID burnout.” In January, the Atlantic wrote, “What had been one of the best perches in American politics is becoming one of its worst.”
The reasons vary, but rare is the mayor who does not show the scars of 2020. The term-limited de Blasio left office with a 37 percent approval rating, and a subsequent congressional run showed that New Yorkers were tired of him. Durkan filed reelection paperwork but decided not to run after Seattle’s tumultuous 2020. Her house was vandalized after a City Council member led a march to her front door, and she received death threats. Bottoms became the first mayor of Atlanta to serve just one term since the 1970s. Once considered a potential running mate for Joe Biden, Bottoms was exhausted by the protests in 2020 and the subsequent crime surge.
Perhaps the closest analogue to Lightfoot is Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto. A well-liked two-term mayor who ran unopposed in the 2017 general election, Peduto found himself in a 2021 primary with a serious challenger on the left, as well as a former police officer sapping his support on the right. He lost by 7 points—the first incumbent to lose a reelection bid in Pittsburgh since 1933!
There are exceptions to this rule: Muriel Bowser, of Washington, D.C., cruised to a third term; Dallas’ Eric Johnson is running unopposed. Minneapolis’s Jacob Frey, whose political career seemed to be in serious jeopardy when he was humiliated by a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters in June 2020, weathered a strong challenge from the left.* (Unlike Lightfoot and Peduto, Frey had no serious opponent to his right—and a ranked-choice voting system that favors moderation.)
For her part, Lightfoot won a nine-way primary in 2019 with 17 percent of the vote. But she had widespread support in the subsequent runoff, beating the well-known local Democrat Toni Preckwinkle in every single one of the city’s wards to become the city’s first Black mayor since Harold Washington.
Progressives never forgave her for shutting down the subway during the George Floyd protests and even raising the city’s drawbridges, giving the Chicago River the look of a medieval moat. The teachers union soured on her after a vicious fight over keeping schools open in 2021. But those moves earned her little quarter on the right, where voters are furious about the 2020 looting, rising crime, and a broader sense that the city has lost its way. Lightfoot’s robust support on Chicago’s Black South Side, which she mostly won on Tuesday, was not enough.
It’s tempting to say that this failed class of mayors reflects the one-time shock of the pandemic. Even in the best of times, mayors rarely move on to higher office, and the past three years have been just about the worst of times. But the pandemic wasn’t what did in Lori Lightfoot—it seems almost unfathomable now, but her approval rating was in the high 70s at the start of June 2020, when she had embraced her status as a COVID-era meme, and her seriousness compared favorably to the then president’s shtick. Even though the lakefront had been closed for months.
Instead, it was what happened afterward that got her primaried—the increasingly fraught politics of policing, the sense of a downtown in decline, neglected public services. This may signify the dawn of a more volatile period in mayoral politics. Mayors are tied to the fates of their cities, and—between crime, high housing costs, falling populations, and impending budget crises—America’s cities are not in a good way right now. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Correction, March 2, 2023: This article previously stated that Minneapolis has a mayoral primary. In fact there is just one day of voting, with the winner selected via the ranked-choice system.