Leaving the Pack Behind

Yesterday, Lori Lightfoot’s election as the next mayor of Chicago was certainly a landmark in the city’s history. As a black, openly gay woman, her odds of becoming Chicago’s mayor were pretty steep. But she prevailed – impressively. 

It’s true that when all the campaigning began, her name wasn’t completely unknown but it was far less familiar than names like Daley or Preckwinkle, or even Mendoza. And certainly there were a number of candidates that were better “connected” within the political world.  

So how did such a surprising outcome happen? It’s no great insight on my part to say Lightfoot’s election victory was the result of a variety of things. Not the least of these was Lori’s confidence in herself. She has been a U.S. States Attorney, a partner at a major Chicago law firm and has held positions in Chicago government including a role as President of the Chicago Police Board. 

The Laquan McDonald murder and the scandal that followed led Mayor Emanuel to appoint Lori Lightfoot to a Police Accountability Task Force. This put Lightfoot much more in the public eye. But it’s also pretty clear that fate (and the FBI) played a role in her path to victory with the indictment of the Machine’s longtime gray eminence, Ed Burke. Every 2019 mayoral candidate who had spent any time in Chicago politics (that would include all the front-runners) had some history, however benign, with this disgraced scoundrel.

With all that said, this morning I thought about another unusual aspect of this now concluded mayoral race. It’s an election dynamic that often appears when an incumbent leaves office with no heir apparent. The Democratic Primary leading up to this mayoral election had a huge number of candidates vying to be mayor. And on Primary Election Day, there were 15 choices for Chicago mayor on the ballot. That is a crazy big number.  

Each candidate had a constituency in some part or parts of Chicago which meant no one candidate had an overwhelming numbers advantage over all the others. Few observers were willing to predict a winner. Such a situation can give a less well-known candidate a boost if they can separate themselves from the pack. Ms. Lightfoot did just that – especially after the Burke indictment. 

It’s hard for me to imagine a Chicago primary race with 15 candidates for a single office ever occurring back when the city’s Democratic machine ruled. – Maybe it happened, I don’t know. 

However, today in thinking about February’s prodigious list of Democratic mayoral candidates, I was reminded of the jumbo lineup of GOP presidential hopefuls that showed up for the Republican debates in 2016. (Please understand I’m not saying our party’s recent candidates were similar in any way to that unforgettable gallery of the GOP’s best and brightest that included Ben Carson, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.) 

Sixteen Republicans appeared in at least one 2016 presidential debate. Five withdrew after their first appearance. Eleven continued through more of those events. I have no memory of the various positions presented and promises made by those many candidates. But we all know how that 2016 presidential race turned out.  

The number of competing Republicans was so large that differentiating the positions of one from another was problematic. The exception was Donald Trump who separated himself from the pack with his outrageous demeanor and un-politic statements. He didn’t win the popular vote across America but he won a majority of electoral votes from states where outrageous and un-politic language was just what those voters wanted to hear. 

Looking ahead to 2020, we Democrats presently have a similarly large array of presidential hopefuls to review. There are fourteen declared presidential candidates and at least three more who might decide to run. Will this impressive selection of Democrats still be competing with their ideas and positions next fall when the Democratic primaries are on the horizon? Will the number of Democrats with similar progressive positions blur in the minds of voters? Could there be one candidate who separates him- or herself from the pack in a way none of us anticipated? Yesterday’s newsworthy election in Chicago is a fitting kick-off to what is sure to be an exciting year for Democrats everywhere.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973