The Chicago mayor’s race wrapped in April of 2019 when Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor and President of the Chicago Police Board, beat out Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in a runoff by a landslide. Lightfoot became Chicago’s 56th mayor and the first black woman and openly LGBTQA person to hold the office.
An unprecedented amount of candidates had already announced their intention to run for the position before former mayor Rahm Emanuel made the announcement he wouldn’t seek a third term. More joined the fray after Emanuel bowed out, and by election day in February Chicagoans had a slate of 14 candidates to choose from.
Emanuel’s tenure as mayor was fraught with controversy. He closed half the city’s public mental health clinics and shortly after shuttered 50 public schools. He faced a strike from the Chicago Teacher’s Union, and his administration was accused of being involved in an alleged cover up in the shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager shot 16 times by a white Chicago Police Officer. Additionally, the police under his administration infiltrated and ran surveillance on activist groups including Occupy Chicago, the NONATO Coalition, and Black Lives Matter.
Local activists in Chicago fought Emanuel every step of the way, and during his 8 year tenure built strong coalitions among themselves. Before he announced his departure, those coalitions had already pushed several issues – police accountability, education, economic disparity in Chicago’s neighborhoods, and government transparency – to the forefront of the mayor’s race. Candidates were forced by the people of Chicago to put these issues at the top of their platforms.
These issues also drove races for positions on Chicago’s 50 person City Council. By the end of the runoff, several long-time incumbents had lost their seats to more progressive minded candidates, and six members of the Democratic Socialists of America managed to win seats on the council.
I spent months covering the election for a variety of outlets including Shadowproof and Third Coast Review. For Shadowproof, I focused very specifically on covering the race from the perspective of activists who had been fighting for a better Chicago, some long before Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. The biggest lesson to be learned from the outcome of the 2019 Chicago election is that sustained organizing matters. Activism matters. The movements you see in the city streets really can shake the seats of power.