Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost reelection Tuesday night, but her defeat does not equate to a victory for Republicans, Alvin Tillery, Northwestern University professor of political science, told Newsweek.
Lightfoot, a Democrat who took office in 2019, conceded defeat just before 9 p.m. local time. Former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas and current Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson advanced to an April runoff.
The election was defined by voter concerns about crime, which has become a major issue in mayoral races across the country. Lightfoot faced scrutiny from both the left and right over her record on crime and policing, as she sought to stake out the center in the sharply divided race. Vallas, who received the most votes Tuesday night, ran on a platform of expanding the city’s police force.
Tillery told Newsweek that concerns about crime grew following the COVID-19 pandemic. Following widespread shutdowns across the United States, several cities saw increases in crime, though these numbers have since dropped. Furthermore, a focus on crime by local media and political candidates has fueled voters’ concerns, he said.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters on February 1, 2023. Lightfoot, a Democrat who faced scrutiny over crime and policing in her city, conceded defeat in the mayoral race Tuesday night. Scott Olson/Getty Images
“Everyone from Willy Wilson to Paul Vallas to Lightfoot touting her sort of record, they’ve all made their ability to protect Chicagoans a central focus of the campaign,” he said. “That’s why it matters.”
The election was set to the backdrop of Republicans zeroing in on crime as a salient campaign issue. Republicans highlighted crime during the 2022 midterms, blaming Democrats‘ embrace of criminal justice reform policies. However, advocates of these policies argue criminal justice reform is needed to address systemic racial disparities in policing.
Despite tough-on-crime politics playing a major role in the Chicago mayoral election, Tillery said the results have little bearing on the GOP’s stance, as Chicago is a solidly Democratic city where Republicans have minor political influence.
“The evidence that somehow Republican rhetoric in a city like Chicago is going to make one bit of difference—I think that there’s no social science or polling evidence to validate that,” he said.
While Chicago residents remain concerned about crime, they tend to place equal emphasis on police reform, Tillery said. Candidates will be tasked with striking a balance between these two issues during the runoff election.
“Chicago has a long history of brutal policing against communities of color. This is also what’s registering in this concern over crime is like, how are you going to handle the uptick but also make sure that it’s fair policing?” he said. “I think that’s what people who aren’t in the city miss—that once we get to the runoff, those issues are going to be more salient.”
Crime has dominated recent elections in some of the largest American cities in recent years.
In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams narrowly defeated other candidates by running on a tough-on-crime message in 2021. In Los Angeles, businessman Rick Caruso also embraced tough-on-crime policies but fell short in a high-profile race against now-Mayor Karen Bass despite a close race.