May 1, 2019


The two most intriguing takeaways from Chicago's 2019 mayoral election involve one glaring fallacy and one glaring irony.

The widely-accepted pre-Feb. 26 fallacy was that the excessive number of mayoral candidates, which eventually numbered 14, would over-tax the voters' judgmental process, and that they would refrain from making a choice until the April 2 runoff, when they would then have to make a choice. Turnout was 560,701 in the Feb. 26 primary, or 35.5 percent of the city's 1,581,755 registered voters. And then it was 526,886 on April 2, which was a 33.1 percent turnout, and 33,815 less than Feb. 26.

So what happened? It is now self-evident that 1,021,054 registered Chicago voters didn't choose any of the hopefuls on Feb. 26, staying away from the polls; and 1,054,869 voters didn't bother to make a choice in the Lightfoot-Preckwinkle April 2 runoff, again staying away from the polls.

Lightfoot won 386,039-137,765, or 73.7 percent. The current narrative is that Lightfoot's win was a resounding voter clarion for change. However, vote stats belie that presumption.

To be sure, Lightfoot grew her citywide vote by 288,372, from 97,667 to 386,089 (see chart), while Preckwinkle grew her vote by just 48,422, from 89,343 in the primary to 137,765 in the runoff. But the astounding reality is that 314,619 Chicagoans voted for one of the other Feb. 26 candidates and, on April 2, 288,372 of them, or 91 percent, returned to the polls and voted FOR Lightfoot and/or AGAINST Preckwinkle.

The glaring irony is that it was the city's white and Hispanic voters that elected Lightfoot. In the 18 wards with black voting majorities, which encompass the South Lakefront, Southwest Side and far South Side along the Ryan Expressway, and the West Side along the Eisenhower Expressway to Maywood, Feb. 26 turnout was 190,738 of the 608,334 registered voters, or just 31.4 percent. With six of 14 candidates being African-American, and with the mayoralty at stake, it was expected that black turnout would be stratospheric. It wasn't. In those wards, Lightfoot got 28,384 votes, or 14.9 percent, to Preckwinkle's 44,416 and Willie Wilson's 47,087, getting 23.2 and 24.7 percent, respectively. Wilson, a wealthy conservative businessman, appealed to the older black base, getting 47,087 of his citywide 59,074 votes, or 79.7 percent, from that base. Wilson finished first in 13 of those 18 wards, topping Preckwinkle 47,087-44,416. In the runoff, Wilson endorsed Lightfoot.

In the primary, Preckwinkle packaged herself as a progressive to appeal to white liberals and got 44,416 of her 89,343 citywide votes, or 49.7 percent, from the black base. She finished first in the more affluent South Lakefront 3rd, 4th and 5th wards, in the still Stroger-dominated 8th Ward, and in Jesse White's West Loop 27th Ward, which is quickly gentrifying. Preckwinkle won that ward 2,012-1,905 with 1,772 for Lightfoot. Wilson won all the less affluent black-majority wards, where crime, food deserts and economic neglect are the major issues. Preckwinkle anticipated building a leftist racial/gender coalition, but her party chairmanship, Ed Burke contributions, county tax-hiking and sluggish reaction to alleged sexual harassment in her office crippled her credibility among non-blacks.

In the runoff, Preckwinkle got 137,765 votes citywide, or 26.2 percent, with 62,737 of that coming from the black base, which she lost 130,904-62,737 to Lightfoot. Just 54.5 percent of her runoff vote came from her black base, the 193,641 April 2 turnout constituting 36.7 of the citywide vote. To win, Preckwinkle needed 90 percent of a black base turnout of 250,000 and half the non-black vote. Instead, she got 32.3 of her base, and 22.5 percent of the 333,245 votes cast in white and Hispanic wards.

By comparison, Preckwinkle won the 2018 primary for county board president against ex-alderman Bob Fioretti with 62.5 percent, getting 258,703 votes citywide, and 104,195 in the black base. Her 2019 vote was down, respectively, by 121,019 and 41,458 - despite the fact that she raised and spent over $6.5 million, the bulk from public sector unions. There was no Preckwinkle "coalition."

Lightfoot never sought to play the game of racial identity politics, instead positioning herself as an attorney and prosecutor, and an advocate of stringent police reform who happened to be of a different generation than those in charge. Of her 97,667 primary votes, 28,384 came from the black base; she finished third in every ward, and ran especially poor in the least-affluent wards, like the 37th (843 votes), 24th (739), 17th (946) and 16th (573) wards. Of her citywide 97,887 votes, which constituted 17.5 percent to Preckwinkle's 16.1 and Wilson's 10.8 percent, 69,283, or 71 percent, came from the white and Hispanic wards. In the runoff, Lightfoot upped her vote by 102,070 in the black base, and by 185,852 outside that base.

Lest, however, one think that Lightfoot's win was a mandate, the outcome was a mixed signal. In the black base in the primary, 70,861 voted for anyone other than Preckwinkle, Wilson or Lightfoot, and 417,596 didn't vote. Citywide in the primary, 314,619 voted for anyone other than Preckwinkle, Wilson or Lightfoot, and 1,021,054 didn't vote. In the runoff 1,054,869, or 66.9 percent, didn't vote.

So Lightfoot comes into City Hall boasting a support level and base of not more than 150,000, close to two-thirds of her 386,038 runoff votes coming from non-blacks, with those voters perceiving that she was the least-worst choice, and most apt to govern differently. Hispanics now outnumber blacks in Chicago, with each around 800,000 of the city's 2.5 million population. African-Americans occupy 18 council seats, with a Hispanic in 11 of the 13 Hispanic-majority wards.

As depicted in the chart, African-American vote is declining in the 16th and 37th wards, as Hispanics move in, and in the near West Side 27th, 24th and 28th wards, as younger whites move in. Chicago has lost 250,000 black residents since 2000, which means forfeiting at least one aldermanic seat after the 2021 remap.

Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once said that, in geopolitics, there are no permanent alliances, only permanent interests. Lightfoot's task will be to pacify and satisfy the mutually hostile interests that united to put her in office, and to convince the vast number of non-voters that she deserves the job.

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