December 18, 2019


If one applied Mark Twain's famous observation about "lies, damn lies and statistics" to the political realm, it would be subtraction, damn subtraction and the pernicious arithmetic of attrition. People-pleasing is an elusive skill set and shelf lives expire, especially for incumbent officeholders.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is one-eighth through her 4-year term, and the arithmetic is quite predictably on a subtractive, not additive trajectory. While not going downhill fast, Lightfoot is displeasing certain constituencies who will surely vent their displeasure in 2023.

But, according to Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th), "most people I talk to are OK with her," adding that they may "sometimes get upset," but that the consensus is that "she's still better than the alternative," which is Toni Preckwinkle, who she defeated with 75.7 percent in the 2019 runoff. "Give her time," the alderman said.

But some are already itching to give her the boot in 2023, when the election will be a referendum on her performance. Already positioning to run are:

(1) Two Preckwinkle allies, West Side county Commissioner Brandon Johnson (D-1) and Chicago Teachers Union vice-president Stacy Davis Gates; one will defer to the other. Preckwinkle and the union in 2018 supported and funded Johnson in his challenge to Commissioner Richard Boykin, an outspoken critic of Preckwinkle's soda tax. The 1st District takes in 143 precincts in 7 Chicago wards, with the bulk in the black-majority 29th and 37th wards. Boykin won Chicago 12,343-11,084, largely with the help of Danny Davis and Emma Mitts. In the 88 suburban precincts, with 37 in Oak Park Township, where Boykin resides, and 56 in Proviso Township (Maywood), where Preckwinkle ally Karen Yarbrough (and county clerk) is the "committeeperson." Johnson won 13,779-12,083. The overall result was 24,863-24,426, a Johnson margin of 437 votes. Johnson is still obscure, but has adequate time for a public relations buildup. Gates' moment of fame in the teachers' strike was when she proclaimed that the CTU's 16 percent pay hike over 5 years was no fiscal problem, as more taxes "on the wealthy" would pay for it.

(2) Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), chairman of the Chicago Socialist Party and the council's 6-person Socialist caucus, will surely find a "democratic socialist" to run, if not himself. Amara Enyia got 44,589 votes, or 8 percent, on Feb. 26. Ramirez-Rosa opposed Lightfoot's 2020 budget, and had the support of groups like United Working Families, the Grassroots Coalition and the CTU. That is a base for 2023. It should be remembered that socialist Bernie Sanders LOST TO Hillary Clinton 380,208-320,894 in the 2016 presidential primary in Chicago, so there is a definite leftist progressive/socialist base in the city. The CTU has 25,000 members, but there is no city residency requirement. Nevertheless, a city CTU/teachers/family/support staff vote would be close to 35,000.

(3) Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) represents the upscale Michigan Avenue Gold Coast/Rush Street ward where liberalism is trendy but taxes are abhorrent. Reilly has been alderman since 2007 and has $1,141,862 now on-hand - and is, according to sources, retiring in 2023. He may take a shot just for the hell of it.

(4) Aldermen Ray Lopez (12th) and Anthony Beale (9th), both persistent Lightfoot critics. Lopez is a contrarian, while Beale is disgruntled because Lightfoot dumped him from his committee chairmanship. A deterrent is that they would forfeit their $122,304-a year job to run.

(5) City treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, who won the 2019 runoff 296,293-202,714 over Alderman Ameya Pawar, and is from the West Side 28th Ward, where husband Jason Ervin is the alderman. A 2023 mayoral run would give her visibility for 2027, but she would have to forfeit her current post.

It must be remembered that 2019 was a CHOICE among 14 candidates, with incumbent Rahm Emanuel not running. In the Feb. 26 primary, Lightfoot finished first with 97,667 votes, or 17.5 percent, and Preckwinkle second with 89,343 votes, or 16.1 percent, in a 556,758 turnout. There are 1,592,658 Chicago registered voters, so 1,494,991, or 93.8 percent, did not vote FOR Lightfoot, 459,091 for others on Feb. 26, and 1,035,900 not voting at all. Lightfoot's hardcore pre-election base was 6.2 percent.

In the April 2 runoff Lightfoot trounced Preckwinkle 386,039-137,765 in a turnout of 523,804, which was 33.1 percent and was 32,954 less than Feb. 26. Lightfoot got 288,372 more votes than in the primary and Preckwinkle 48,422 more, which means of the 459,091 votes cast for the other 12 on Feb. 26, she got 62.8 percent, Preckwinkle 10.5 percent, and the rest didn't vote. Lightfoot won because, given a CHOICE between two women, Lightfoot was the least unacceptable. Even in the runoff, 1,206,619 Chicagoans either didn't vote or voted for Preckwinkle, making the pro-Lightfoot vote 24.6 percent of registered voters.

Lightfoot's 386, 039 runoff vote is her ceiling, while her 97,667 primary vote is her base. Her task in the next 3 1/2 years is to minimize subtraction from her ceiling and to maximize addition to her base. To that end she must navigate through and master the complexities of identity politics, with its nuanced overlays and overlaps among various demographics, while addressing the economic demands of the city's haves and have-nots. In an era where government is now perceived as a social agency, there is a growing gulf between those concerned about "quality of life" and those preoccupied about "quality of self."

In short, about half of Chicagoans are focused on economic satisfaction, which means wealth accumulation and preservation, and fundamental quality of life issues such as superlative schools, city services, public safety, property value preservation and manageable taxes. They are the residential and commercial property owners and landlords. They want stability and predictability.

The other half is those who are permanently or temporarily jobless, disabled and/or retired, and those who work for some government entity, are represented by a public sector union, and view those who pay taxes as a cash cow. They, too, want stability and predictability - meaning a guaranteed government stipend. Anybody who threatens that is going to pay a price.

And then there are the subgroups, with serious conflicts. The trades unions want and need businesses to make a profit, and homeowners to be affluent. The public sector unions just want more money from somebody. The police want a deal like the CTU's - 18 percent over 5 years. The insiders want to know that they can use their clout to benefit their contributors. Likewise, the progressive/ socialists want the city to spend more money. Lightfoot raised $2.7 million in the second quarter, and the likes of Madigan, Burke and Preckwinkle are still rolling in dough.

Overlapping this is the specter of identity - race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. And overlaying everything is the specter of ideology and political correctness. Lightfoot is black/female/LGBTQ. That's a gigantic overlap, but her governing style is more practical than PC. She is not thus far perceived as a woman on a mission, but rather as an executive trying to do a competent job, which includes reining-in the city council.

The $11.6 billion 2020 budget was a "mission accomplished," with the $838 million shortfall plugged by $352 million in new revenue and $538 million in cuts. It passed the council 39-11. The revenue package included a $72 million property tax hike, with the money earmarked for libraries and debt consolidation. It was relatively painless, but won't be in the future - meaning before 2023. The unfunded liability for the four city pensions - police, fire, labors and municipal employees - is $28 billion, and for the teachers and CTA is $14 billion. The city must kick in billions a year for the four pensions beginning in 2023, and $836 million/year for the teacher/CTA pensions after 2020. Plus there is the matter of settlements for police unlawful arrests or conduct. More money must be found, and either a 1 percent income tax on city residents, or a head tax on those working in the city, would be the most viable option. There are tough fiscal times ahead.

Lightfoot must appoint a new police commissioner who must quell the city crime rate. There were 760 homicides and 4,000 shootings in Chicago in 2016. As of Nov. 2019, it was down to 440 homicides and 2,400 shootings. The statistics for New York City and Los Angeles are roughly 120/700. Lightfoot must get it down, or be accountable. And she cannot scapegoat the police. Nor allow fewer cops on the beat.

There has been a bell-curve in past mayoral contests, with a new incumbent winning big, gaining popularity, and then fizzling. Emanuel won with 326,331 votes, or 55.3 percent, in 2011, then fizzled to 218,217 in the 2015 primary. He got 332,171 against Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in the runoff, or 56.2 percent. After the Laquan McDonald fiasco, Emanuel's base collapsed. Conversely, Richard M. Daley got 324,519 votes, or 71.1 percent, in 2007 and 363,389 votes, or 78.5 percent, in 2003, but he bailed before he became tiresome.

With the right issues and opposition, any Chicago mayor is beatable. Right now, Lightfoot looks unbeatable.

But that can change.