In an historic twist, Chicago will elect its first African-American woman Mayor, 100 years after a series of violent race riots tore the city apart.
When the recent Chicago mayoral race began to heat up, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the primary election would culminate with two African-American women as the final contenders out of a field of about a dozen, destined for an April 2nd runoff. Either Toni Preckwinkle or Lori Lightfoot will become the first black female mayor in the history of my hometown. Chicago’s first female mayor, Jane Byrne, was elected in 1979, and served until April of 1983. Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington, was elected in 1983 and died of a heart attack while in office in 1987. Both before and after their terms, Chicago was ruled by mayors named Richard Daley, one was the father, and the other was the son. In the last 64 years, there have been only two other elected (not counted the acting) mayors besides them: Mayor Michael Bilandic, who lost the office to Mayor Byrne after a fierce snowstorm when it seemed that he couldn’t get the streets plowed fast enough. And the current Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who shocked everyone with his decision not to run for another term.
Their election is coming exactly one hundred years after one of the most racially brutal chapters in Chicago history: the race riots of 1919. The riots occurred from July 27th through August 3rd, killing 38 people—23 black, 15 white—while injuring over 500. Though roughly 25 riots reportedly occurred during the period known as “Red Summer” that year was reportedly the worst on record. I was born and raised in Chicago and I still live here and care deeply about its future. When I first began traveling internationally back in the 1970’s, I was surprised to learn that the gangster Al Capone was one of the first persons associated with Chicago’s image. This was not good.
So you can imagine how pleased I was when Michael Jordan and the Bulls were winning six championship rings, or when Oprah Winfrey was broadcasting from here, and even when my very own Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were bringing news of movies from their balcony on “At The Movies.” Carl Sandburg’s city of of the big shoulders started gaining a rehabilitated image. But in the last few years I have heard more about the number of people, especially children, dying by gun violence. I am hoping that our next mayor will help to resuscitate our reputation of a world class city.
Chicago still has so much to offer from its architecture to its jazz clubs and cultural institutions like the Art Institute, the Lyric Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Navy Pier, South Shore Cultural Center, the Field Museum of Natural History, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, the American Writers Museum, Jane Addams Hull House Museum, the Driehaus Museum, the Museum of Broadcast Communications and many many more. Of course we have many colleges and universities like the University of Chicago, DePaul University and College of Law, Northwestern, Loyola and many good city colleges. And a wealth of hospitals and medical centers.
No matter whom one supports, it is impossible to deny the momentous and meaningful nature of the mayoral decision itself, and you can feel the current of electricity running through the city as you discuss this historic decision at the bus stop, at coffee shops, on the streets or at the office. Though I am throwing my support behind Toni Preckwinkle, I am thrilled and proud to have this choice of two women candidates who I think will do everything they can to fulfill the promises they are making on the campaign trail to uplift this city and all of its residents. I have no naive thought that they will be magicians, but I do have hope that they will come prepared to address the issues so near and dear to all of us: safe streets, reduction in gun violence and deaths, good public schools, affordable housing, accessible health care, meaningful employment for city residents, partnership with the business community and community organizations, maintenance of utilities and infrastructure, continuation of the cultural institutions that attract international tourists, and just the joy of being part of such a thriving hub of humanity.
Nine years ago, Ms. Preckwinkle became the first woman elected as the President of the Cook County Board, and has been a tireless champion of affordable housing. Earlier in her life, Preckwinkle spent a decade as a high school history teacher, and spent two decades as Alderman representing the needs of her community. She worked in the Department of Economic Development during the Harold Washington Administration, and as County Board President, she has expanded access to health care for 350,000 people. Among her stated priorities as mayor are ensuring a $15 minimum wage, preventing school closures, investigating various unsolved murder cases suspected to be hate crimes against transgender citizens, quadrupling the city’s investment in small business microloans, replacing all water lines that may contain lead, and creating the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
Ms. Lightfoot recently served as President of the Chicago Police Board from 2015 to 2018 and was also a partner at the Mayer Brown law firm. With her role as chair of the Police Accountability task force, she conducted an in-depth analysis of the Chicago Police Department and issued a detailed report of her findings in April 2016. Other notable titles she has taken on have included Assistant United States Attorney in the criminal division and the Interim First Deputy of the Chicago Department of Procurement Services. She shares Preckwinkle’s desire to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and investigate hate crimes. Lightfoot also believes in legalizing cannabis, abolishing ICE, eliminating food deserts throughout the city, implementing mayoral term limits and addressing gun violence as a “public health crisis.”
Both candidates are smart and capable women, and I believe both are sincere in their desire to improve our city. I am supporting Toni Preckwinkle because she has balanced county budgets of over nine billion dollars ($9,000,000,000); created the CountyCare program for Medicaid-eligible residents, provided new educational and ecological opportunities as president of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and reduced the number of children tried as adults and the population in the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, among her many other notable achievements.
Yet what she and Lightfoot have provided me, above all else, is an indefatigable hope for the future at a time when it is in distressingly short supply. I must admit too, that I am hoping that as women they will bring a deep wealth of caring and empathy. One primary example of this was demonstrated after the horrible tragedy in New Zealand when a terrorist killed fifty people in a mosque. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand was there on site comforting the survivors and their families, providing hugs and assurances, exhibiting a level of compassion so deep that it was felt around the world, and then getting down to the immediate business of gun control so that an act like that would be much more difficult to carry out in the future.
Yes, we need more women in these governing positions, and on April 2, Chicago will have one more.