Chicago’s mayor-elect joins a small but growing group of black women holding elected positions.
Chicago made history this week by electing Lori Lightfoot, a black woman who is openly lesbian, as mayor. It’s the largest American city to do so. Her victory ushers in a new political era for Chicago, which has been plagued by various policing controversies, corruption scandals, and a large economic deficit.
Lightfoot’s election — and the fact that her opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, was also a black woman — also highlights a much broader trend around the country: the growing number of black women running for political office and winning.
The 56-year-old lawyer and former president of the Chicago Police Board, though she was no stranger to local politics, had not held political office before the election. Born in Ohio and raised in a largely segregated area, Lightfoot attended the University of Chicago Law School and remained in the city after graduation, serving as a federal prosecutor with the Northern Illinois US Attorney’s Office in the 1990s before working in various city departments and joining a corporate law firm.
During the campaign, Lightfoot argued that she was a strong police reform advocate. In 2015, outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to lead the city’s police accountability task force, which was created in the wake of the controversial police shooting of 17-year old Laquan McDonald, and the task force quickly issued a searing report criticizing the Chicago Police Department’s treatment of people of color. Lightfoot also led the city’s police board, which handles police disciplinary cases and has the power to fire officers.
Lightfoot was one of several women of color — joining Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Preckwinkle, and community organizer Amara Enyia — in thecrowded race to succeedEmanuel, who declined to seek a third term amid falling popularity and continued criticism of his handling of the McDonald case. A February 26 election narrowed the field to Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, meaning that no matter who won the April runoff, Chicago would have its first black woman mayor.
Lightfoot ran on a message of promoting accountability in the city, positioning herself as a political outsider who wanted local government to better respond to the needs of city residents. As Vox’s Emily Stewart noted, Lightfoot’s platform called for “increasing access to affordable housing, creating an office of public safety to reduce crime and reform policing, and pushing through a graduated real estate transfer tax to help combat homelessness.”
In her race, Lightfoot — like several candidates of color who’ve won election in recent years — didn’t back away from discussing her identity and how her experiences had shaped her political goals, particularly when it came to matters of policing.
The message appealed to voters in a city reeling from the ongoing fallout from the 2014 McDonald shooting, which saw city officials block the release of footage contradicting officers’ accounts for more than a year. The city also continues to face a number of crises over education funding and school closures. In recent years, waves of black Chicagoans have left the city in search of better economic opportunities in surrounding suburbs and in Southern states, fueling what some demographers have called a “reverse Great Migration.”
In an acceptance speech Tuesday night, Lightfoot acknowledged the historic nature of her win. “Today, you did more than make history,” she told a crowd of supporters. “You created a movement for change.” She has pledged to work with Preckwinkle as she begins her tenure as mayor, joining her at a unity prayer on Wednesday.
The mayoral race, which saw two black women compete for leadership of one of the largest cities in America, was unprecedented. And the race highlights a growing number of black women candidates who are seeing success in local politics.
Lightfoot joins a growing number of black women winning political office
With her victory, Lightfoot joins a small but growing number of black women serving as mayors in the US. According to CNN, just 4 percent of mayorships in America’s 307 largest cities are currently held by black women. When she takes the oath of office in May, Lightfoot will also join San Francisco Mayor London Breed as one of two black women mayors leading one of the 14 largest cities in America.
“A few years ago in 2014, there was just one Black woman elected and serving as a Mayor of a major city,” Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, explained in an email to Vox. “When Lori Lightfoot is sworn into office, we will have eight Black women serving in these top roles.”
Just 18 black women have served as mayors of America’s 100 largest cities, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The wave of black women seeking mayoral positions saw an uptick in 2017 when eight black women were on the ballot across the country, leading some political strategists to call the year “The Year of the Black Woman Mayor.”
Some of these women were not elected, but there were victories that year, including in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Vi Lyles became the city’s first black woman mayor, and New Orleans, where LaToya Cantrell accomplished the same feat. That December, Keisha Lance Bottoms became the second black woman to win a mayoral race in Atlanta following a bruising contest. One year later, in 2018, Breed won the mayorship in San Francisco. When smaller cities are included in the analysis, at least 10 black women (including Lightfoot) have been elected to a mayoral position since 2016.
The victories have been encouraging to groups that support black politicians and political candidates, especially since many of these groups have long noted that black women candidates often struggle to gain institutional support and funding in the early stages of their campaigns.
“Victories for Black women in mayoral races demonstrates that these aspirants are worthy of future investment that closes the gap between Black women’s electoral potential and their electoral power,” Peeler-Allen says.
Black women’s electoral success isn’t just about who they are — it’s also about how they run for office
In recent years, black women have also seen success in other local elections. According to the crowdsourced Black Women in Politics database, at least468 black women ran for politicaloffice in 2018, and the majority of this group competed in local races.
They’ve won positions on city councils, as local representatives, and as district attorneys. In one particularly high-profile example, a group of 19 black women dubbed the “Houston 19” all won election to judgeships in Harris County, Texas, last year.
These victories have been historic, but the success of black women candidates in recent years isn’t just because of who they are, but how they are running for office. Many have used their campaigns to stress issues like racial justice, economic development, health care, and gun violence, focusing on issues that voters of color have listed as priorities in recent years.
As the congressional campaign of Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley showed last year, many women candidates of color are highlighting how their lived experience has prepared them for political office, connecting their stories to thecommunities they are running to represent. Black women like Lucy McBath and Lauren Underwood have also seen electoral success in predominantly white districts, suggesting that women of color can be viable candidates in a variety of districts.
The ability to speak to issues important to voters was crucial to Lightfoot’s campaign in Chicago, where she ran as political outsider invested in reforming the city’s political machine. While Lightfoot’s election as a black woman and a member of the LGBTQ community is a big deal in a city that continues to struggle with inequality and disparities between predominantly white communities and communities of color, voters who backed her campaign have said that one of the biggest reasons they supported her was the fact that she wasn’t closely tied to local politics.
Still, even with the wave of success black women candidates have seen in recent years, this group holds a relatively small number of political offices in the US. At the beginning of 2018, an analysis from Higher Heights and the Center for American Women and Politics found that black women held just 3.7 percent of state legislative seats, 0.96 percent of statewide elected executive positions, and just five mayorships in the US’s 100 largest cities.
Recent elections have improved these numbers slightly, but black women and women of color more broadly still hold a limited amount of elected positions, and continue to face barriers to running for office. Experts focused on boosting the representation of women of color in politics hope that recent victories encourage even more women to run, and that political parties and funders will do more to support them in the early stages of their campaigns.
As for Lightfoot, she says that while she has made history, she is focused on moving Chicago forward. “This is something obviously that we’ve been talking about, the historic nature of the election, for some time,” Lightfoot told CNN on Wednesday. “But I think the most historic thing was beating the old, entrenched Chicago machine and getting such a resounding mandate for change.”