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It'll be a runoff for Chicago's mayoral race — and the incumbent is out

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A history-making tenure is over for the leader of the country's third-largest city.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: We were fierce competitors in these last few months, but I will be rooting and praying for our next mayor to deliver for the people of this city for years to come.

CHANG: Lori Lightfoot, Chicago's first Black woman and openly gay mayor, will not serve a second term. Yesterday, voters chose between her and eight other Democratic candidates, and none of them met the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff. After nearly four tumultuous years in office, including a lot of criticism over crime and public safety, Lightfoot came in third place. Now two other candidates are headed into a contentious runoff. Let's hear more about them and the runoff election from Laura Washington, a political analyst and contributing columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Welcome.

LAURA WASHINGTON: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just first give us some context here? What do you think was the top issue that decided yesterday's results?

WASHINGTON: The top issue was public safety and crime. Chicago's been experiencing a surge in crime, particularly violent crime, in the last several years. And the issue is not just the fact that crime is increasing, but it is spreading throughout the city - murders, shootings, carjackings. And that has become a major issue of concern for voters.

CHANG: Lightfoot did note a year-over-year drop in homicides last year, but there is no denying that there has been an overall spike in crime during her tenure. Is Lightfoot...

WASHINGTON: Right.

CHANG: ...Really, truly to blame for that increase in violent crime?

WASHINGTON: Well, I think it's a very complicated issue. The city is dealing with many social and economic problems and challenges. There's not enough of city money being devoted to anti-violence programs, to social service programs. We just went through a pandemic. We went through social unrest around the city. And some of that, I think, is responsible for creating the instability. But I think voters expect her to be able to - you know, she's the mayor. They expect her to be able to solve the problem. Crime is still a pretty serious issue. And every day you hear about events and incidents, and people are pointing the finger at her.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the candidates who beat Lightfoot to head into the runoff. We have Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, followed by Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. What are they offering in terms of improving public safety?

WASHINGTON: Well, Paul Vallas has made public safety and crime the centerpiece of his campaign, even though he - his background is chiefly as a public educator. He has been really talking only about crime all day long.

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PAUL VALLAS: Public safety is the fundamental right of every American. It is a civil right.

WASHINGTON: And he has said that he believes that the police need more support. And, in fact, he has said something along the lines of taking the handcuffs off the police to allow them to be more assertive in terms of fighting crime. Brandon Johnson was once a strong supporter of the defund the police movement. He has backed off of that position, but he wants to move more resources into social services, into anti-violence programs. And he feels that more policing is not the solution.

CHANG: What other dynamics do you see coming into play for each of them?

WASHINGTON: Well, in Chicago, you can't talk about politics without talking about race.

CHANG: Right.

WASHINGTON: This is a very racially diverse city. That's a good thing, but it's also a segregated city. People of color tend to vote for other candidates of color, and whites tend to vote with white candidates. So what you saw in the campaign yesterday was the areas of the city which were predominantly white, more conservative, had more city workers, went to Vallas, and Brandon Johnson got the areas of the city that tended to be populated by more people of color. So there's a debate around race. There's a debate around the haves and the have-nots. That's something that Brandon Johnson talked about in his acceptance speech.

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BRANDON JOHNSON: We are going to finally retire this tale of two cities and usher in a better, stronger, safer, united city.

WASHINGTON: Paul Vallas would say that he wants to address some of the inequities in the city as well, but his big argument is that we need to get our public safety situation in line first.

CHANG: Well, over the next five or so weeks, as you're watching the runoff campaign unfold, what will you specifically be watching for?

WASHINGTON: I will be looking for the influence that the unions will have. Brandon Johnson is staunchly supported by the teachers' union and many other progressive unions in the city, and they've poured more than $1,000,000 into his campaign. Paul Vallas, on the other hand, has the support of the FOP and many conservatives in the business community. Hopefully beyond the money and the back-and-forth finger pointing, hopefully there will be a real discussion of policy and what the future of the city looks like.

CHANG: That is Chicago Tribune commentator and political analyst Laura Washington. Thank you very much.

WASHINGTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Gabe O'Connor