The Chicago Mayoral Election Also Tells a Story About the Country Right Now

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On Tuesday night, former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago in a runoff election, winning handily over her opponent Toni Preckwinkle. As many journalists covering the election have noted, both the election itself and Lightfoot’s victory marked some important firsts: the first race in which it was guaranteed that a black woman would be the next leader of one of the nation’s largest cities, and with Lightfoot’s win, the first time an openly lesbian woman will be the city’s mayor.

The historic nature of Lightfoot’s win has been the central frame through which the story has been covered across much of the political press, and of course her win is laudable and historic—especially for a city in which, as the historian and activist Barbara Ransby wrote in the Nation, politics have long been dominated by “white, male-led machine politicians” who “have worked to keep outsiders at bay, while trying to keep black voters and black politicians in check.”

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But what is also notable is the fact that many progressive activists and police reform organizers in Chicago have responded to her win—much as they responded to her campaign—primarily with concern about her record on law enforcement and accountability. This focus stands apart from from the press narrative around her identity as a black queer woman, and mirrors a dynamic that is also playing out in the presidential campaign of Kamala Harris in particular and, more broadly, a uniquely diverse Democratic primary field.

We are in a moment in time when various organized movements—from Black Lives Matter to the call to end deportations and the campaign for Medicare for All—are making clear demands of our elected officials and those who run for office, and more people are doing the work to hold public officials accountable. In response, candidates and politicians are embracing increasingly progressive platforms, even if their records tell a more complicated story. 

In that way, the Chicago mayoral election is a window into some of these shifts. As we move closer to 2020, and as the Democratic Party continues to take a slow, uneven leftward turn, we will continue to see these kinds of tensions between progressive movements and the candidates working to court them. What happens next in Chicago, then, will be instructive.

Lightfoot ran as a progressive, specifically lauding her credentials as someone who has held police officers accountable and pushed for reform of the police department. But organizers in the city see a different legacy: Charlene Carruthers, the founder of BYP100, a network of young black activists in Chicago, wrote on Twitter that Lightfoot “loves and has worked to protect the very systems that suck resources and harm our communities.” In an email to Jezebel, Carruthers added, “Lightfoot’s record as a federal prosecutor and police overseer foreshadows an administration that will favor policing over community investments.”

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In 2002, Lightfoot was appointed the head of the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards, a police oversight agency. In that role, she at times sided with top CPD officials, at least once despite the findings of OPS investigators. In one case, she declared an officer was justified in shooting and killing a 17-year-old, despite investigators concluding that the officer, Phyllis Clinkscales, had lied about what occurred; Clinkscales was given a 30-day suspension. During Lightfoot’s short tenure, according to one researcher, less than two percent of complaints made by Chicago residents against police officers were found credible, and few officers faced serious discipline. As a private attorney at the law firm Mayer Brown, Lightfoot also often sided with police officers and the department, defending the city in a high-profile police misconduct lawsuit in 2012 and representing the police department in a lawsuit brought by four men who were beaten by six off-duty police officers in 2006.

More recently, in 2015, Lightfoot was appointed by then-mayor Rahm Emanuel to lead the Chicago Police Board, a disciplinary body with the power to fire police officers. That year, he also tapped Lightfoot to chair the city’s Police Accountability Task Force. Here, her track record on holding police accountable is similarly mixed, with local activists recalling instances where Lightfoot was dismissive of Chicago residents outraged over police killings.

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Lightfoot, though, defends her work, and also points to structural limitations on some of the reforms she wanted to enact. “There’s been nobody in the city that’s been a more vocal, persistent, demanding advocate for police reform and accountability than I have,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Tribune. And it’s true that she has demanded some reforms in her role as the chair of the task force, which in April 2016 released a scathing indictment of the CPD. Lightfoot has also not shied away from criticizing Emanuel for his many efforts to skirt accountability.

But community organizers like Rey Wences of Organized Communities Against Deportations, remain skeptical: “I think it’ll be interesting to see how campaign promises turn into action,” they told Jezebel. “She was owning the progressive brand and running as a reformist, but just from meetings with her and her campaign, you can tell as progressive as she is, she’s also very pro-cop.”

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For many activists on the left, Lightfoot’s identity as a black queer woman is far less important than the decisions she has made as a prosecutor, attorney, and police reformer. As Ransby wrote in the Nation, “Having come of age in the era of Obama, they know all too well that black elected officials don’t equal black liberation. They are savvy enough to understand the struggle is much bigger than that.”

It’s a point that Carruthers, the founder of BYP100, underscored as well. “As a Black queer woman, my faith is in the growing Black and Brown insurgency poised to move a community based agenda focusing on public education, mental healthcare access, affordable housing and quality jobs.”

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With nearly two years until the general election, progressives might look to Chicago to see what happens when someone who ran on a progressive platform clashes with the very movements whose values they claim to uphold. And Chicago has seen a tremendous resurgence in powerful organizing in recent years, and the city’s activists understand the work that lies ahead. As Carruthers told Jezebel, “We were already poised to organize regardless of who won the election.”

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