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Is Chicago ready for reform? Lightfoot, Preckwinkle poised for mayoral runoff

Chicago Mayoral Candidate Lori Lightfoot addresses the crowd at her election night party as she leads in the polls, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Lori Lightfoot once accused Toni Preckwinkle of trying to “bully” her out of the race for mayor. Now, the two political adversaries will face off against each other in the April 2 runoff with the winner becoming the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of Chicago.

Riding a wave of voter discontent, Lightfoot appeared to punch her ticket by finishing first, with 17.5 percent of the vote with 96 percent of the precincts reporting. Preckwinkle was second with 15.9 percent to Bill Daley’s 14.7 percent. Although 31,000 mail-in ballots were still outstanding, Daley conceded the race shortly before 10 p.m.

The runoff battle between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle promises to be a donnybrook, pitting a new reformer against an old one who has since become a party boss. Whatever happens, assuming the two indeed face each other in a runoff, Chicago will make history with its first African-American woman as mayor.

“This, my friends, is what change looks like,” a beaming Lightfoot told her cheering supporters at around 9:20 p.m.

“I want to thank the voters of this great city for fighting through the noise and coming to a place where we brought in the light.”

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Lightfoot has openly referred to herself as a “triple-threat”: an African-American woman who is openly gay. She thanked her supporters for standing with her when “so many others said this day would never come.”

“The field was too crowded. There was no path for a new reformer without huge donors being an elected official for 10,000 years amidst a pack of establishment figures. People said that I had some good ideas, but I couldn’t win. And it’s true that it’s not every day that a little black girl in a low-income family from a segregated steel town makes the runoff to be the next mayor of the third-largest city in the country,” she said.

Preckwinkle took to the podium shortly after 10 p.m., acknowledging the moment.

“We may not be at the finish line. But, we should acknowledge that history is being made,” she said.

Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle speaks at her election night event at Lake Shore Cafe, 4900 S. Lake Shore Dr., Tuesday night, Feb. 26, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle speaks at her election night event at Lake Shore Cafe, 4900 S. Lake Shore Dr., Tuesday night, Feb. 26, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Taking a shot at Lightfoot’s lack of executive experience, Preckwinkle said, “It’s not enough to stand at a podium and talk about what you want to see happen. You have to come to this job with the capacity and the capability to make your vision a reality.”

Lightfoot was leading throughout the evening, with Preckwinkle and Daley locked in a battle for second place. Daley threw in the towel shortly before 10 p.m., thanking billionaire Ken Griffin for $2 million in campaign cash that may have cost him the election by linking him to a top donor of former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“I love this city. It’s my home and I’m going to continue to work hard to make it a better city. And I ask the same of each and every one of you,” Daley told his supporters. “Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you’ve done for me.”

Willie Wilson, with 10.5 percent of the vote, and Amara Enyia, with 7.9 percent, appeared to be carving into Preckwinkle’s base. She carried only five of the city’s 50 wards, four of them in her south lakefront base.

Jerry Joyce, son of a legendary political operative, appeared to have undercut Daley with 7.4 percent of the vote, including walloping Daley in Joyce’s home 19th Ward. Gery Chico, at 6.3 percent, and Paul Vallas, at 5.5 percent, also siphoned votes from Daley.

Lightfoot’s lead over Preckwinkle was a stunning development. She carried 11 wards, including ones on the reform-minded north lakefront.

Despite a campaign war chest one-third the size of Preckwinkle’s, Lightfoot exceeded expectations by selling herself as the only truly independent candidate in the race.

Lightfoot closed the campaign with the Chicago Sun-Times endorsement, free media coverage handed to her by Preckwinkle’s now-fired campaign manager and with a compelling anti-corruption commercial that reminded voters, “Shady backroom deals haven’t served us. It’s time to bring in the light.”

Jason McGrath, Lightfoot’s pollster and senior adviser, branded Lightfoot an “agent of change” who was “selling what people want.”

“She’s not tied to the machine system that people are sick of . . . She articulated it well. We got some good momentum. And everything sort of happened at the right time,” McGrath said.

Preckwinkle has been been viewed as the frontrunner ever since she joined Daley, Chico, Susana Mendoza, Bob Fioretti and LaShawn Ford as belated entries into the race after incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s exit.

But the fact that she finished in second place — even with the money and manpower provided by SEIU, the Chicago Teachers Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 881 — speaks volumes about how wounded she was by the bruising Round One campaign and about how vulnerable she may be in Round Two.

“While my opponent was taking multiple appointments in both the Daley and Emanuel administrations, I fought the powers who have been trying to hold this city back for decades,” Preckwinkle said. “I remember when progressive wasn’t a positive. It was as best a euphemism for unelectable.”

Wilson’s strong showing in more than a dozen African-American wards on the South and West sides shows apparent residual anger from Preckwinkle’s tax policies — including the now-repealed tax on sugary beverages, and a penny sales-tax increase that she eliminated but then restored.

The mayoral campaign only made things worse. Preckwinkle suffered a series of self-inflicted wounds that forced her to fire her chief of staff, her security chief and her campaign manager.

But the unkindest cut of all to Preckwinkle came when she was dragged into the federal corruption scandal that threatens to bring down Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

On. Jan. 3, Burke was charged with attempted extortion for allegedly muscling a Burger King franchise owner for legal business and for a $10,000 campaign contribution to Preckwinkle’s re-election campaign as county board president.

Preckwinkle reported the donation, only after Burke was charged. She has since returned all $116,000 she raised at a January 2018 fundraiser at Burke’s house.

“I thought scenario one was Toni and Daley. I thought scenario two was Toni and Lightfoot,” said Jerry Morrison, assistant to the president of SEIU Local 1, who played a key role in the Preckwinkle campaign. “What we talked about happened. Between the building trades spending $1.5 million on TV to blast Daley — and Jerry Joyce looks like he’s running 8 or 9 percent — that probably did enough to Daley to keep him out.”

Mendoza was damaged even more by the burgeoning scandal, particularly after the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Ald. Danny Solis (25th), retiring former chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, has spent the last two years wearing a wire to help the feds build their corruption case against Burke.

Patti Solis Doyle, the alderman’s sister and a former adviser to the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, cancelled a Jan. 29 fundraiser she was scheduled to hold for Mendoza.

Mendoza also purged herself of $141,550 in campaign contributions received over the years from Solis and from a debt collection firm founded by Solis Doyle and an attorney with close ties to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Mendoza conceded early during a speech at Moe’s Cantina. “This campaign may end tonight, but the fight for Chicago’s future does not,” said Mendoza.

For weeks, the mayoral race was dominated by fall-out from the scandal and by the ping-pong finger-pointing between Preckwinkle and Mendoza.

While the two early frontrunners tried to drag each other down into the mud, Daley played the adult in the room and remained above the fray, in part, by skipping many of the mayoral forums.

It wasn’t until the campaign’s final month that Lightfoot and Fioretti hit the airwaves with commercials branding Daley, Preckwinkle, Mendoza and Chico as the “Burke Four” with the closest ties to Burke. Paul Vallas grabbed a broom and cut a commercial promising to clean house at City Hall but couldn’t raise the money to get it on TV.

Meanwhile, Daley used his overwhelming lead in the fundraising sweepstakes to blanket the airwaves with his “No More Excuses” message about crime, taxes and downtown-centric development.

Movers and shakers fearful that Chicago could take a sharp turn to the political left and increase business taxes joined Griffin in filling Daley’s campaign coffers. That allowed Daley to raise $8.7 million, nearly double Preckwinkle’s $4.6 million. Lightfoot made the most of $1.6 million. The dozen other candidates combined together raised $15.9 million.

From the beginning, the race has been one of the most unpredictable in the history of Chicago mayoral politics.

Emanuel was expected to seek a third term — and he didn’t.

The crowded field was supposed to be narrowed significantly by ballot challenges — and it wasn’t.

A looming, $1 billion spike in pension payments, crime and police reform were expected to dominate the debate, particularly as Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke stood trial for the murder of Laquan McDonald. But all three crises were drowned out by talk of City Hall corruption and then, by a flood of celebrity news.

Now, this most unpredictable mayoral election will enter a second round, with the heat turned up on both candidates.

Batten down the hatches, Chicago. You’re in for a wild ride — not just in the mayor’s race, but also in races for the City Council.

In a night of upsets, three aldermen appeared headed toward defeat — Proco “Joe” Moreno in the 1st Ward, John Arena in the 45th and Joe Moore in the 49th.

In addition, as many as 16 wards were moving toward April runoffs, including City Council stalwarts Patrick O’Connor in the 40th, Howard Brookins in the 21st, Ariel Reboyras in the 30th, Milagros “Milly” Santiago in the 31st and Michelle Smith in the 43rd.

Contributing: Sun-Times staff members Alexandra Arriaga and Savannah Eadens; stringers Kendall Polidori, Bridget Ekis, Erica Snow, Kristina Karisch and Adam Klepp, and Carlos Ballesteros, a corps member with Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.