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Lightfoot Down: Does the Demise of Chicago’s Mayor Matter?

The incumbent finished third on Tuesday in the city that is ostensibly America’s third-best.

Chicago Holds Runoff Election For Mayor
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Until May anyway, all five feet and one inch of Lori Lightfoot’s dainty frame still sits in the seat of Richard Daley. In the city of broad shoulders, where hogs more mammoth than the mayor were deconstructed in the vicious abattoirs made famous by Upton Sinclair, Lightfoot is set to exit the stage at a time when many wonder if that is true of Chicago itself, too. 

Lightfoot was left for dead by that Democratic machine politician, President Joe Biden. She was cut loose, as well, by Illinois's governor, the oligarch J.B. Pritzer. She is, by most accounts, positively reviled. All that was on display in her third place finish in Tuesday’s re-election effort. 


Lightfoot garnered less than 20 percent of the vote. Those are Francois Hollande numbers. But on a human level, the scale of the achievement of this black, lesbian, urban Nguyen Sinh Cung should not be given short shrift. Lightfoot reached a zenith in the land of the Daley dynasty, both Michael and Richard. Lightfoot was commandant of a political labyrinth that once had the power to swat away a young Barack Obama like a summer cicada—and did, with considerable relish. 

Lightfoot was an heir to Harold Washington, the Windy City's first black mayor. Washington was, for Obama and many other black men during his tenure in the '80s, another father figure he didn't really know. From College Park to Hyde Park, Washington’s tenure saw cocaine snatch out the heart of black America. Innuendo, never proved, that dope snuffed out Washington’s life too would dog his legacy, just as innuendo dogs all former mayors of Chicago. 

Chicago is where the nascent Republican Party made Abraham Lincoln its nominee for president. This was the year before the local kid embarked the young country upon the bloody brother war, as Johnny Cash called it. Like modern Italy, born in tandem with Cosa nostra, Chicago’s appetite for spectacle and combat has been seemingly eternal. 

As if to even the scales, four years later in Chicago, Democrats nominated crypto-confederate Garden Stater George McClellan, the dashing former commanding general of the U.S. Army. As Christopher Hitchens liked to recount at his home in D.C. overlooking the McClellan statue (facing south), Lincoln famously asked to borrow the armed forces because McClellan seemed to have no use for them.    

Chicago is where President Warren Harding was nominated. Better known now for running a gangster’s paradise in Washington City, this product of the Midwest is the man who brought Americans home, coastal protestations aside. Harding’s own internal tour of the country in the last year of his life was dubbed the “Voyage of Understanding,” which is certainly the kind of open mind and lack of moral presumptuousness required to understand Chicago politics. 


And Chicago is where Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke George Washington’s great taboo, and was successfully nominated for a third term as president—while over in Europe, Adolf Hitler blitzed London. In 1968, Chicago is where the former party of Jefferson and Jackson gathered to nominate a commander-in-chief to see out a war its own members and own president stopped believing in. There, the Democrats rioted. They were done, “maybe forever,” Roger Sterling quipped, with a characteristic lack of prescience. 

These days, the mean streets 700 miles northwest of the Beltway are best known nationally as: “Chiraq.” That is no homage to the president of the Fifth Republic who opposed the American suicide mission embarked upon twenty years ago. But rather, as all know, it refers to the vestiges of the "State Department: Level 4 travel advisory" country itself. 

Chicago is a city of killers. This mayor’s self-assessment was rather more priapic than murderous. And for a brief moment on Lake Michigan, Lori Lightfoot was the biggest of them.

Bear that in mind. So...what now? 

In the invincibly forgotten early 2010s show Boss, Kelsey Grammer portrays the archetypal Chicago city executive as an impressive and intimidatingly self-aware master of the dark arts. “I am a bad man,” Grammer’s Mayor Tom Kane explains. “One necessary evil leads to another until one day you can’t differentiate between what’s necessary and what’s merely expedient.”

As Boss revealed in short order, the mayor was concealing a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, and privately knew he was symptomatic. Perhaps an in-joke for my old college row house who watched this thing, Kane’s essential posture throughout the show was: “I am the mayor of this g*ddamned city.” Similar sentiments have been expressed about Detroit. And so Mayor Kane pressed on, with no similarities at all with that other Irish backslapper, the president of this country. 

I quite like and want to root for Chicago. A maiden approach on Lake Shore Drive is as impressive as almost any speed-through in America, bested only by taking in the New York skyline from New Jersey, and of course, seeing California for the first time. The alluring, opal-black cityscape one can take in from afar leaves no doubt: Chicago is the real Gotham, not Manhattan.

That is not fully a compliment. Its balefulness can be seductive. Lightfoot herself stole a script page from Batman, reportedly marshaling the political power of prisoners this cycle to her advantage.

The Midwest was once the heart of this country’s frontier promise, and then a century later, center stage for its middle class stability. Relative optimists like Aaron Renn believe Chicago could be the focal point of a second Midwestern century, at least as affordability is concerned. Still, even for those who desire such an outcome, it is searing to see how the problems for Chicago and the Midwest mirror that of the Kremlin in the `90s—the brain drain, the hope to be a relative winner of whatever climate change, and so on. The attendant danger is also parallel with Russia: of greater parochialism, insularity, isolation, and ballistic criminality.

The great Midwestern states have started voting Republican not because things are going well. They have done so because they have been forsaken by the powerful. The optimistic case for Chicago has to contend with the more plausible reality: that the great city of white ethnics is in the process of being cut down to size, a process the WASPs underwent a generation earlier. 

After Rahm Emanuel left the White House to become Chicago mayor, he all but explicitly remarked that the nature of this job meant he would never become president, as if he had made a career jump to pornography. Still, Chicago used to be considered very cool, as late as the early 2010s, when Obama made it once again world-famous. That sentiment was bipartisan, and the University of Chicago was emblematic: serious academic liberalism, but paired with a reputation for tough grading and no-nonsense libertarianism for the right.   

All that is mostly gone now, as most media elites are loath to pump a freezing cold oasis of liberalism in a region that has started voting GOP. Meanwhile, the right has no real love lost for the place, as its most ambitious young minds have given the legacy of Milton Friedman its own Pinochet treatment. And Chicago’s descent in the national imagination is likely to only intensify whenever President Biden leaves the scene, as his tenure is a last hurrah for a certain kind of Irish American politician. 

Mayor Emanuel’s tenure was reviled by informed writers with Second City roots, namely historian of conservatism Rick Perlstein and historian of populism Thomas Frank. In 2015, there was a pre-Sanders Era leftist effort to oust Emanuel: the failed project to elect Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Chuy is now a Congressman and ran again this year. Lightfoot spent much of her campaign savaging him, all in the service of her finishing third and he fourth. Say what you will for “MAGA,” Donald Trump at least became the president. 

As could be said of the Sanders movement coast-to-coast, it is occasionally difficult to discern what the point all was. To say nothing of the already left-wing tilt of all America’s ruling institutions, the Sandernista energy is particularly curious when, in the end, figures like Lightfoot came in succession of Emanuel, who did not run in 2018 after a long run as bete noire of the Windy City’s left. Only in the throes of middle-aged peer jealousy could someone even begin to make an argument that Emanuel was worse at the job than Lightfoot—all send-ups to her Boss Tweed skills in the game aside. 

Who, frankly, would step into this farrago? 

Two names are now on offer in the early April runoff. Paul Vallas, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO who has tacked strongly to a law-and-order message, and Cook County board member Brandon Johnson. In reverse order, Jonathan Martin smuggled this chestnut into Politico, on Johnson: “The son of a pastor who grew up in Chicago’s suburbs, as some of his critics are eager to point out, Johnson has caught on with the city’s younger and most progressive voters — the sort of person on the North Side’s Roscoe Street who has side by side; ‘Johnson for Mayor’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs in front of a million-dollar home.”

Though Vallas has a background in education, his record is that of a disruptor (for lack of a better word) of entrenched interests, at least as far as the teachers’ machine goes. Vallas here will reprise the role of the technical non-Republican in city politics (a critique also of his enemies). It was last prominently exhibited by the milquetoast, but thoroughly able tenure of Michael Bloomberg in New York, and more demoralizing: the Rick Caruso campaign in Los Angeles last year. 

On the race at hand, Obama’s old wizard, the great David Axelrod said to the hometown press: This will be a battle of “the candidate of the Fraternal Order of Police” against the “candidate of the Chicago Teachers Union.”

The last time I was in town, right before the grim “double dip” Delta late summer of 2021, I took in the sights on the always perplexingly long journey from O’Hare. On the road was an advertisement, replete with the photogenic visages of the former first couple, for the Obama Center, which broke ground that fall. The Obamas, of course, had to be neo-bullied into putting the place in Michelle Robinson’s city of birth, and the political staging ground for the 44th president, at all.

As has been subtly admitted, the Obama Center is not even a real presidential library. Still, its inauguration was feted as a point of pride for Chicago locals, and rather understandably so, at a time when so many other institutions have left the place. But the message just below the surface was clear: The good get out.