CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot is the first to admit that her re-election bid will be far from smooth.
“There are nine people on the ballot,” Lightfoot said in an interview with NBC News. “It’s impossible not to have a drain.”
What seems increasingly possible, however, is that Lightfoot won’t even get that far.
If a candidate fails to secure a majority in Chicago’s municipal election, the top two voters will face each other in a second round of voting in April.
But with less than two weeks until the Feb. 28 election, the first-term Democratic mayor’s stunner — who quickly swung a national hate-hate relationship with conservatives — faces credible threats from at least three opponents in the race of nine people. Her adverse points have skyrocketed with Chicago residents fed up with gun violence. In recent polls, she has failed to break into the top two.
All of that adds up to the staggering prospect that an incumbent mayor of a major city could be eliminated from the re-election battle on the first ballot.
“Things are looking more and more difficult for her,” said one of her competitors, Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, in an interview. “It’s a great front to fight on, from her vantage point.”
A recent poll has Lightfoot in a statistical dead heat with two others — Paul Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who has gained the backing of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, and Garcia, who has a high name identification who, in 2015, was forced then-mayor Rahm Emanuel to a runoff election. Garcia lost but was elected to Congress.
“I love that people think of me as the underdog,” said Lightfoot. “I have been an underdog all my life. And I’ve always proven people wrong, so I’m good at that track.”
Now Lightfoot is going up against yet another candidate showing signs of growth: Brandon Johnson, a district commissioner backed by the politically powerful Chicago Teachers Union, who has long been at odds with Lightfoot.
At a candidates forum last week, Lightfoot focused her attacks on Johnson, who has not led the polls the way Garcia and Vallas have. It seemed to be an acknowledgment that she was battling with a growing candidate who could eventually displace her to advance to the next round.
“I take it as a sign of desperation,” Johnson said of Lightfoot’s attacks. Johnson’s support of the Chicago Teachers Union brings with it a strong, local organization that can go door-to-door on his behalf. “She certainly recognizes that our movement is picking up steam, and more and more people are responding to our message.”
Lightfoot, the city’s first black woman and first openly gay person to serve as mayor, has had a tenure marked by uproar. She has clashed with the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on strike under her watch, and has had spirited conversations with both Governor JB Pritzker and her fellow aldermen.
In 2021, a media organization sued the mayor after announcing that she would conduct interviews only to flag her halfway into office with journalists of color. (At the time, the mayor said she was trying to draw attention to a Chicago press corps that was predominantly white and male.)
More recently, her campaign faced an investigation after she attempted to recruit public school students to volunteer for her re-election effort in exchange for school credit.
She has been credited, including recently in a Chicago Tribune editorial, for grappling with the Covid pandemic “much better than most mayors.” The editorial also praised her for improving Chicago’s financial condition. “Lightfoot has put fairness at the top of its agenda,” the editorial said, “and has worked tirelessly to improve the economic prospects of neighborhoods that have long been struggling.”
Lightfoot notes that she was counted out earlier. In her first run for mayor, she had so little support that she sometimes failed to qualify for the debate phase. Garcia and Vallas have had their own stumbling blocks lately. Garcia has faced questions about donations from FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried, and Vallas’s support of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police has dogged him, especially after news that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis would speak for the union on Monday.
Gun violence dominates the race
This time, given everything Lightfoot has to deal with, it’s the inescapable issue of crime permeating the Chicago mayor’s race and jeopardizing her re-election chances.
Nationally, the Second City is immediately called upon after mass shootings, inserted into ideological clashes over gun laws playing out on cable news. City officials have for years pushed back the idea that gun laws do little to stop crime. They say that despite local restrictions, guns are flowing across the border from states like Indiana, even from as far away as Mississippi, and illegally entering and leaving gangs in the hands of young people. Despite federal and local law enforcement working toward tougher penalties and more aggressive cases, Chicago remains one of the most dangerous major cities in America — though violence decreased slightly in 2022 compared to the previous year.
Locally, the pain and anger over repeated crime is palpable. At one of the mayor’s own recent events, the conversations that erupted over the past hour told story after story of crimes happening in the neighborhood: an armed robbery, a burglary, a robbery, including reports of shootings closer to their homes – the “safe neighborhoods” – on the north side of Chicago
“I know many of you are feeling a whiff of violence, perhaps for the first time in your lives in Chicago,” Lightfoot told the crowd, hoping to quell the questions she was sure to get about neighborhood safety.
Lightfoot focused her speech on the flow of guns into the city, including her fight to bring out-of-state gun shops to justice.
“We warned them, we gave them the data and they kept doing it. So this old litigator? she said, referring to her past as a federal prosecutor. “We pinned him up and we sued these bastards – sorry for my language.”
That line woke up the group of about 50 people on a Saturday afternoon in late January. But Lightfoot’s trademark tough talk did little to allay their fears.
“I feel worse,” said a North Side Chicago resident who listened to the mayor’s comments but did not want his name used. “I still don’t think she gets it.”
Chicagoan Greg O’Neil, who helped organize the event at Moe’s Cantina in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of the city’s north side and had not yet made a mayoral election, said the main concern he has heard is a recent spike in neighborhood crime , and a general feeling of unease among friends and neighbours. Some of those with him shared those concerns.
“If you pay $20,000 in property taxes and there’s an armed robbery in your neighborhood at 1 p.m., people think 20,000 isn’t getting your money’s worth,” one said.
“It’s moving to the affluent areas, we’ve become a target,” said another.
“People who are streetwise are absolutely terrified from my point of view. And they’re moving,” said yet another.
A recent poll found that 63% of Chicago residents did not feel safe.
And one of them was Eddie Pulliam, who came from the south side of town that afternoon to listen to Lightfoot talk about the decline of his neighborhood over time.
“I just wish she would put more emphasis on what’s happening in established neighborhoods on Chicago’s south side,” Pulliam said. “I am very upset by the crime in the city of Chicago. What frustrates me is that now crime started on the North Side, and now it’s a big problem.
In an interview, Lightfoot said that the ongoing crime in Chicago is different from other cities. Generational poverty in parts of Chicago is combined with broken gangs, she explained, all of which is compounded by the steady stream of illegal guns.
“The biggest problem and existential threat to us in the city is a proliferation of illegal weapons,” she said. She then slammed Vallas, her opponent, saying that he is oversimplifying the problem to believe that hiring more police officers will solve the problem.
Vallas, also a former budget manager for the City of Chicago, built his campaigns around the crime issue, like many of Lightfoot’s detractors.
While Garcia has maintained a lead in the polls, Vallas has also received momentum in recent weeks, including winning the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune, which said Lightfoot was “reluctant to see this moment as the time for a reboot.” of leadership.”
Following an event for seniors near Chicago’s South Side this week, Vallas said his plan to tackle crime would include investing in the city’s South and West Sides — traditionally home to the worst crime — and adding vocational training. But he believes the officer shortage in some of the most dangerous districts is the most pressing concern.
“There is absolutely no substitute for providing the police with the resources and support they need so that they can protect communities and what you see is the considerable humiliation of the police,” he said in an interview.
In a lighter moment, Vallas recalled supporting Lightfoot in her first run for mayor and seeing her transformation.
“It’s an extremely busy job,” Vallas said. “It will take its toll on everyone. I hear it, I hear the stress in her voice. So I keep telling people, let’s stay positive. Let’s talk about problems and try not to talk about anyone else.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com