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Was Preckwinkle complimenting Lightfoot or reminding voters she’s a lesbian?

Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle

Lori Lightfoot (left) and Toni Preckwinkle, shown at their election night parties on Feb. 26. | Sun-Times photos

Was Toni Preckwinkle complimenting Lori Lightfoot at last week’s debate when she commended her opponent for being open about her sexuality?

Or was she sending a not-so-subtle homophobic message by reminding voters who may not know that Lightfoot is a lesbian?

The Preckwinkle campaign insists that it was a genuine compliment in response to a question about what she admires most about her opponent.

Lightfoot and openly gay state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, are not so sure.

For all of the progress that the LGBTQ community has made, Lightfoot said there are still “folks who believe in a very conservative doctrine, purportedly originating from the Bible, that condemns anybody who lives a life that is other than a man and a woman together in a marriage sanctified by the Lord.”

“If there was a dog whistle that was blown to try to motivate that base and say, ‘Oh, by the way, did you know?’ that’s the thing that would be concerning if that was, in fact, the intent,” Lightfoot said Monday after accepting Cassidy’s endorsement.

“The words are the words. I can’t go into her mind and understand her intent. But what I’ve heard from people is, in the context of this decidedly negative campaign which has a daily attack on everything about me [and] about supporters, it’s a concern.”

RELATED STORY: Lightfoot, Preckwinkle clash over credentials, career paths — and character

Cassidy said “the intent isn’t relevant. The impact is.” Even if you take “them at their word that it wasn’t intentional, the effect was, to some,” Cassidy said.

“I found out about it from folks who heard it in that way,” Cassidy said.

She added, “Representation matters. And it will matter that there is an openly gay mayor of the city of Chicago. It will matter that we will be represented at so many levels of government and that those kids . . .  see someone who looks like them.”

Lightfoot then grabbed the baton and ran even further with it.

“It doesn’t matter what the intent was. In the context of her campaign and the way in which she has conducted herself — literally from election night — those kind of words are gonna have an impact,” Lightfoot said, stopping short of demanding an apology from Preckwinkle.

State Rep. Lamont Robinson rose to Preckwinkle’s defense.

“It is ridiculous to criticize Toni Preckwinkle for praising her opponent. Toni has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community for decades,” Robinson was quoted as saying in a statement released by the Preckwinkle campaign.

“She was supportive of my successful run for the legislature last year, allowing me to become the first Black openly LGBTQ member of the Illinois General Assembly. I know, and Toni understands, the struggle that Black and Brown LGBTQ people still have living in their truth, sometimes with life-threatening consequences. We can’t forget that ordeal. Toni believes strongly in people living their lives openly and proudly.”

The Preckwinkle campaign insisted the remark was a heartfelt compliment — not a subtle reminder.

“Toni Preckwinkle remembers a time when being your openly authentic self was shamed or had to be hidden. Now we celebrate people for living their best lives,” campaign spokesperson Ty Cratic was quoted as saying in a statement.

“Only today do we have the first openly LGBTQ Black member of the Illinois Legislator, and the first openly LGBTQ member of [County Board].  The first openly LGBTQ countywide elected official was elected in 2006. Toni is honored to have supported all of them and earned their support. She is proud of the strides made by the LGBTQ community and will continue to fight alongside them.”

During a Thursday night debate that turned bitter fast, both candidates were asked what they admired most about their opponent.

Lightfoot complimented Preckwinkle’s career-long devotion to improving health care for Chicago’s most vulnerable residents.

Preckwinkle said she admired how open Lightfoot is about her sexuality. If she wins the April 2 runoff, Lightfoot would become Chicago’s first openly gay mayor.

Either way, Chicago will have its first African-American woman as mayor and only the second female mayor in the city’s history.

“She’s got a lot of sophisticated people around her. . . . The question was coming. You knew it was coming. We both did. And she chose to say what she said,” Lightfoot said Monday.

“We all have a responsibility in public life to be conscious of what we say, how we say it and the impact on the listener. . . . I said what I said. She said what she said. And we go on from here.”