Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP
The year 2021 was the worst year for violent crime in nearly three decades. Over 1,000 homicides took place in Cook County last year. Crime — especially violent crime — is always a significant issue to voters in Chicago, and the recent surge could be the tipping point for the mayoral race on Feb. 28, 2023.
In less than 10 months, Chicago voters will elect the city’s next mayor. Issues like crime, education and economic development are always pivotal issues in any election within Chicago and are likely to be prevalent in this race too.
The past few years have seen significant surges in crime across the country. At least 12 major U.S. cities hit record highs in violent crime in 2021. Since Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected in 2019, Chicago has seen upticks as well, especially the 36 percent increase in shootings between 2019 and 2020.
The city has also endured a pandemic and labor disputes between the mayor’s office and groups like the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Police Union. To many, various crises like these, along with a field of somewhat unknown candidates thus far, should make for an interesting race.
“You have sort of this anomalous situation,” said John McCarron, a former DePaul adjunct professor and political columnist for the Chicago Tribune. “We have a minority, female, non-heterosexual as an incumbent … and there’s a widespread feeling that the mayor is not going to be very popular.”
Recent private polling shows Lightfoot’s public approval rating has dipped below 30 percent, according to an April story in the Chicago Sun-Times. This comes as a surprise to some, considering Lightfoot’s landslide victory in 2019.
“She won an incredible 70 percent of the vote and all 50 wards of the city [in 2019],” said Craig Sautter, a professor in DePaul’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “But the big issue has been crime, and she hasn’t been able to get a hold of it.”
An incumbent with approval ratings as low as Lightfoot’s is always vulnerable to a challenger. At this point in the race, only three other major candidates have declared themselves to face off with Lightfoot in February.
On Thursday, State Rep. Kam Buckner declared his bid for mayor. Buckner was appointed to the Illinois House of Representatives in 2019 and chairs the Illinois House Black Caucus. The Chicago-raised former University of Illinois football player and DePaul Law School graduate holds an endorsement from the Chicago Teachers Union, a group that has regularly quarreled with Lightfoot during the pandemic.
Chicago-born 15th Ward Ald. Raymond Lopez threw his hat into the ring in April. Lopez was first elected as Alderman in 2015 and, if elected, would be Chicago’s first Latino and second openly gay mayor. If history serves as any indicator, Lopez is in for an uphill battle, as no city council member has ever been elected to the office of mayor.
The other prominent candidate to declare thus far is Chicago businessman Willie Wilson. Wilson, a perennial candidate who also ran in 2015 and 2019, recently made news with his free gas giveaways to residents across Chicago and its suburbs.
Experts like Sautter feel that voters are waiting to see if a familiar figure will declare themselves for the race. If not, Lightfoot may win back her seat by default, despite her low approval ratings.
“To quote a long-time political saying, ‘you can’t beat someone with no one,’” Sautter said. “Chicago is waiting for another candidate … but who’s it going to be, the great white hope?”
Some believed U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., would fill this void, but on April 28, Quigley announced in a statement he would not challenge Lightfoot in 2023.
While the current pool of candidates is small, Lopez’s early strategy is to repeatedly criticize Lightfoot’s efforts to combat crime during her term. With the public’s concerns turned toward recent violence, Lopez’s strategy could prove to be a viable one.
“People are turning on the 10 p.m. news and seeing crime downtown near Randolph and State,” McCarron said. “It’s going to be at the top of people’s minds when they go to vote.”
In Chicago, crime is defined in many ways in varying communities. For residents like Southeast Side community activist Oscar Sanchez, Lightfoot’s mishandling of issues like crime as they relate to Chicago’s respective neighborhoods is one of the leading causes for her low approval rating.
“You can’t just stamp one policy or one solution and copy it to another community,” Sanchez said. “Safety for the North Side is different than safety for the South Side, but that doesn’t mean that [one community’s] policies should mean any less than another’s.”
While violence is a significant issue across Chicago, Sanchez believes that how Lightfoot has handled other types of crime is just as important. He says it’s why some activists like him may be quick to criticize.
“When we hear ‘Mayor Lori Lightfoot is hard on crime,’ the crime that she’s hard on is gun violence and theft,” Sanchez said. “But things like environmental injustices … those are crimes too. Is she hard on them? Is she holding them accountable?”
In Sanchez’s Southeast Side, poor air quality and pollution are major issues. Residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side are more prone to cardiovascular and respiratory disease than North Side residents, according to an air quality report released in 2020. Not long after the report’s release, a planned demolition at the old Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village took place. The blast covered the neighborhood in massive dust clouds and led to concerns from residents about possible health issues as a result. In a news conference on the day of the demolition, Lightfoot admitted the city’s active role in the explosion.
To some, environmental inequalities between neighborhoods are part of an overall trend regarding inequality in Chicago and are likely to be thought about by voters next year.
“The city has been dividing into the haves and the have-nots,” McCarron said.
McCarron wonders how some voters feel about Lightfoot’s recent selection for a new casino or the related development plans, especially with studies showing that gambling rates tend to be higher among individuals of lower socioeconomic status. McCarron also thinks some voters believe the city’s resources and efforts could be better spent elsewhere rather than attracting more wealthy Chicagoans downtown.
One policy that Lightfoot proposed to combat crime was the Victims Justice Ordinance last year. The proposal would allow the city to seize property from individuals engaged in criminal activity. Since made public, the ordinance has faced heavy opposition from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, who claim that it would only take resources from Chicago families that need them the most.
Sanchez sees the ordinance as another example of Lightfoot’s political efforts directed toward the wrong issues. While violent crime is an important issue in countless communities, the Southeast Side activist thinks using similar strategies could do good if directed towards other issues.
“When [Lightfoot] put up the Victims Justice Ordinance and said, ‘we’re going to take these gang members’ assets and give them to the folks affected,’ why doesn’t she [take the same strategy] with things like environmental injustice?” Sanchez said.
Lightfoot has fought plenty more political battles during her current term. Throughout the pandemic, she’s undergone a handful of disputes with the Chicago Teachers Union, mainly relating to the safety of returning to school during the Covid-19 crisis.
The Chicago Police Department clashed publicly with Lightfoot for months over her vaccine mandate for city employees. Ultimately, Lightfoot agreed to exempt more than 1,400 officers from vaccination in April.
Chicago voters have a multitude of criticisms for Lightfoot during her past few years in city hall. Still, many don’t see a strong candidate to challenge her seat yet, and this may give her an advantage in February — although there is plenty of time between now and election day.
“I think it’s way too far out to say who has a real chance,” Sautter said. “But I’d say even though she’s unpopular, she [currently] has the inside track.”
Similar to Lightfoot, less than a year before Chicago’s mayoral election of 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had a relatively low approval rating of 35.7 percent. Despite the low rating, Emanuel won re-election in a runoff with a staggering 56 percent of the vote.
No matter what plays out over the next nine and a half months, Lightfoot’s lack of approval paired with what some view as an unfamiliar field of challengers thus far could make for a unique election day.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Sautter said. “Chicago politics are always interesting, and in Chicago, it’s always the main show.”