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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot runs for re-election next week

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Round one of Chicago's mayoral election on Tuesday. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is the first openly gay person and first Black woman to lead the city. And she now faces a tough reelection battle. Mariah Woelfel of member station WBEZ reports.

MARIAH WOELFEL, BYLINE: Lightfoot won by a landslide in 2019 by running as a reformer who would put an end to political corruption and unite the city. Now Lightfoot is telling voters she needs four more years. She says she's faced unprecedented challenges and joked she'd give this note of caution to her 2019 self.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: Beware of a global pandemic.

(LAUGHTER)

WOELFEL: Lightfoot's term has been defined in part by pandemic-era battles. Fights with the teachers' union over when to bring kids back to school after the height of the pandemic led to work stoppages. She fought with police when she mandated they get a COVID-19 vaccine to stay on the job. Those disputes and more have inspired eight challengers, some pushing themes of unity, including a Democratic U.S. congressman from Illinois, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia.

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JESUS CHUY GARCIA: Chicago needs a mayor who will bring together and unite instead of driving us apart.

WOELFEL: But Lightfoot's opponents have hit her most on a spike in crime, an issue cities across the country have grappled with amid the pandemic. In Chicago, gun violence is a long-standing issue affecting mostly Black and brown communities. But it has taken a front seat this year as crime has seeped into wealthy areas.

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PAUL VALLAS: I think the top issues, obviously are public safety, public safety, public safety.

WOELFEL: That's one of Lightfoot's leading challengers to her right, Paul Vallas, who led the city's public school system in the '90s. He has built a tough-on-crime campaign and is endorsed by the city's largest police union. Racial politics have also been on full display in this election. Vallas is the only white person in the running among one Latino and seven Black candidates. Veteran political consultant Delmarie Cobb says in a city that's a third Black, a third white and a third Latino, it's a factor that can't be ignored.

DELMARIE COBB: The racial part of this is that whites will galvanize around Paul Vallas. And we've already seen that the wealthy Republican establishment is pouring money into his campaign right and left.

WOELFEL: Lightfoot faced backlash recently after warning Black residents against splitting the vote, saying a ballot for anyone but her is like giving your vote to Vallas. But there are serious Black challengers to her left to choose from who say Lightfoot has reneged on progressive promises. A local county commissioner, Brandon Johnson, is chief among them.

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BRANDON JOHNSON: We have built a multicultural, multigenerational movement - Black, brown, white, Asian. There's a couple of rich people that even want to see me elected. We're not going to allow people, including this administration, to provoke fear and anxiety.

WOELFEL: The tough reelection campaign is no surprise to anyone, Lightfoot included. She frequently touts that she's one of few incumbent big-city mayors deciding to ask for another term after the pandemic. And upon announcing her reelection, she told a room of supporters on Chicago's South Side she anticipated the challenging campaign.

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LIGHTFOOT: I'm a Black woman in America. People are betting against us every single day. But that doesn't mean we're not ready for the fight.

WOELFEL: If reelected, Lightfoot would be the first woman mayor in Chicago history to get a second term. Election Day is Tuesday, with a likely runoff for the top-two vote-getters in April.

For NPR News, I'm Mariah Woelfel, in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mariah Woelfel
Mariah Woelfel is WBEZ’s morning news producer--up before the sun to produce newscasts for the local broadcast of NPR’s Morning Edition. Prior to WBEZ, Mariah worked as a reporter, producer and All Things Considered host during her time as a fellow at WVIK, an NPR member station in western Illinois. She got her start in radio interning on WBEZ’s news desk during graduate school.Mariah has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in journalism from DePaul University.She grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago before moving with her family to the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood when she was 13. Mariah currently lives in Chicago’s Noble Square neighborhood with her dog, Lola.