CHICAGO – Voters cast their ballots Tuesday in what’s shaping up to be one of the most competitive mayoral races in Chicago’s 181-year history.
But don’t expect a winner on Tuesday.
With a crowded ballot of 14 candidates and no apparent front-runner emerging, it’s unlikely anyone will reach the 50 percent needed to forestall a runoff election.
If no one wins an outright majority on Tuesday, the top two vote-getters will go head to head in a runoff on April 2.
Polls leading up to the vote Tuesday showed at least six candidates with a serious shot at finishing in the top two, but none coming close to a majority.
The contenders include Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, former Chicago school board president Gery Chico and businessman Willie Wilson.
The 14 candidates and independent groups raised nearly $30 million to besiege Chicagoans with an inescapable loop of television and digital advertising, campaign calls and mailers.
The election could be momentous. Either Preckwinkle, Lightfoot or Amara Enyia would be Chicago’s first American-American woman mayor. Mendoza or Chico would be the first Latino mayor.
A victory by Daley, the son and brother of mayors, would mean the return one of the nation’s most famous political clans to the fifth floor of City Hall. His father, Richard J. Daley, and his brother, Richard M. Daley, served a combined 43 years.
Also on the ballot are races for city council, clerk and treasurer.
Preckwinkle cast her ballot at an elementary school in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
“This is a historic moment for the city,” she said. “I am proud of the work of my campaign and feel optimistic as we head into tonight.”
In the early going, election officials said turnout was low. As of 5 p.m. CT, fewer than a third of the city’s 1.58 million registered voters had cast a ballot.
Most of the field entered the race after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in September he would not seek a third term. Only four of the 14 have held elected office.
Emanuel, a former congressman, White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama and cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton, is a prodigious fundraiser who amassed $10 million in campaign contributions before announcing he wouldn’t seek reelection.
He had become a polarizing figure in the city.
The Chicago Teachers Union called a 7-day strike in 2012, the first work stoppage in the school district in 25 years. Emanuel drew criticism for closing 50 Chicago Public Schools during his first term, the vast majority impacting black and Latino children.
And he saw his standing plummet in the city’s African-American community after the court-ordered release in late 2015 of chilling police video that showed Jason Van Dyke, a white officer, firing 16 shots at Laquan McDonald, a black teen.
Emanuel had resisted releasing the video. It spurred weeks of largely peaceful protests.
The next mayor will inherit major challenges, including unusually high levels of gun violence, a woefully underfunded municipal workers pension program, and a shrinking population.
Chicago recorded 561 homicides last year, an improvement over the previous year but far more than in larger New York and Los Angeles. The city suffered nearly 2,000 homicides from 2016 to 2018, a period when most of the nation saw homicide rates near historic lows.
Some voters remained undecided right up until they arrived at their polling places. Juan Toleltino, 63, said he was torn between Daley, Mendoza and Chico.
Whoever wins, he said, must address the killings and shootings.
“The first thing I want to see them do is deal with the gun violence,” Toleltino said. “We got to get it under control.”
The city is also weighed down by roughly $28 billion in unmet municipal worker pension obligations. At the same time, the population has plummeted – Houston is on pace to pass the city as the nation’s third largest in the next decade – while the chasm between rich and poor has grown.
In 1970, about half of Chicago’s census tracts were classified as middle-income areas, according to a study by the Voorhees Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Only 16 percent of the tracts were classified as middle income in 2017, according to the study.
The difficulties are particularly notable in huge swaths of the city’s South and West sides, predominantly African-American neighborhoods that have lost the most population.
“We got to get some vitality back in those (neighborhoods) by trying to get some of the benefits that are downtown and in some of these good neighborhoods,” Daley said in an interview.
“Try to get capital in these neighborhoods, build homes in these neighborhoods. We need to bring young people back into some of these neighborhoods where you may be able to get a good deal because there is so much property.”
The race was shaken up last month when federal authorities announced charges of attempted extortion against Alderman Ed Burke, a powerful 50-year veteran of the city council.
Burke is accused of shaking down the operators of Burger King restaurants in Illinois. He has pleaded not guilty, and is running for re-election.
Four of the top candidates – Preckwinkle, Mendoza, Chico and Daley – had ties to the alderman and found themselves scrambling to distance themselves.
Preckwinkle received more than $100,000 from a Burke-sponsored fundraiser last year. Mendoza was married at Burke’s home. Burke endorsed Chico, who worked as an aide to the alderman 30 years ago. Daley’s family has received about $30,000 in political donations from Burke over decades.
While political corruption has grabbed headlines, financial stability was cited by 18 percent of voters as the top issue facing the city – a higher concern than any other issue, according to a 270 Strategies poll published Sunday.
Betsy Tavizon said she voted for Preckwinkle – the “least worst” of the choices.
Tavison, 29, said she was looking for a candidate who spoke to her concerns about the rising cost of living in the city. She thinks about leaving Chicago because she finds it difficult to imagine a scenario in which she’d ever be able to become a homeowner.
“It was a difficult decision,” Tavizon said. “I didn’t make my choice until last night.”
Dane Lopez, 41, was most concerned about the impact gentrification was having on his neighborhood, Humboldt Park. His neighborhood, home to one of the country’s biggest Puerto Rican communities, has become more affluent over the last two decades, and rising real estate prices, rents and property taxes have made it difficult for many of his longtime neighbors to keep up.
He decided to vote for Mendoza, in part because she was the only candidate to visit his church and ask for the community’s support.
“She said she’s going to put the focus in the community,” Lopez said. “It was difficult sorting out who to vote for, but she was one that connected the most to my values.”
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