No matter who wins – Lori Lightfoot or Toni Preckwinkle, Chicago will have elected an African American woman mayor for the first time in history, says Camille Erickson of In These Times
CHARLES LENCHNER: Hi. Welcome to The Real News. I’m Charles Lenchner.
Today we’re looking at the runoff election in Chicago for mayor, to be decided at the polls tomorrow. Lori Lightfoot And Toni Preckwinkle, both African-American women, both with historic runs, consider themselves to be progressive. And they both have a lot of connections to politics done the Chicago way, meaning part of the Democratic Party’s machine.
We’re talking today with Camille Erickson, a graduate student at Northwestern University and the author of a comprehensive article about the race for In These Times. Welcome, Camille.
CAMILLE ERICKSON: Thank you so much for having me.
CHARLES LENCHNER: Thank you for being on. Camille, were you born and raised in Chicago?
CAMILLE ERICKSON: I was. I was born in Chicago, yes.
CHARLES LENCHNER: What kind of background do you bring to this article, which was really in depth?
CAMILLE ERICKSON: Well, I, you know, have grown up very involved in local politics. I will say while I was born in Chicago I did go to high school in Oak Park River Forest, which is a first ring suburb of the city, and I think that’s important to note. And I spent some time in Minneapolis, as well. But I made my way back to Chicago to report on the city where I’m from.
CHARLES LENCHNER: Excellent. One of the biggest set of issues in Chicago, and these of course are very linked, the murder rate, gun violence, the police killing of Laquan McDonald, which was captured on video. And we’re going to–we’re going to see a clip about this in just a second. But we’re thinking about how these candidates relate to this set of issues. Let’s see that clip.
SPEAKER: People say you’ve given the cops a break. In June 2000, 17-year-old Robert Washington was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer during an attempted carjacking. The Office of Professional Standards ruled the shooting unjustified. But you overturned the ruling. You said there was nothing you could do because the police superintendent rejected the finding. Would you advocate for harsher punishments for police officers? And what specifically would that look like?
LORI LIGHTFOOT: By the time this case got back to me, the command channel review–I mean, supervisors of the officer were recommending that no punishment be done. So by the time it got to me there was a 30-day recommendation on the table, and I upheld that that recommendation to fight to make sure that there was some discipline against the officer.
SPEAKER: Ms. Preckwinkle, 30 seconds.
TONI PRECKWINKLE: Sure. You know, many of our officers are good and decent people who struggle everyday to do a very difficult job well, and we need to acknowledge that. Look, it’s important to understand that Lori Lightfoot, at the same time that she received appointments from Rahm Emanuel to various police accountability positions, was also defending police for misconduct and being paid by the city to do so.
CHARLES LENCHNER: So how are Chicagoans responding to this story? What kind of conversation is happening about Preckwinkle and Lightfoot?
CAMILLE ERICKSON: Well, I think it’s important to start with the video that we just saw, which is the murder of 17-year-old black teenager Laquan McDonald at the hands of a white police officer, Jason Van Dyke. And it’s a really traumatic video that has been circulated and flooded the media for years. And I think Chicagoans are still not numb to it, or they shouldn’t be. And I think it really attests to how this one event and how the really systematic brutality that the Chicago Police Department has toward disproportionately black and brown residents within Chicago is something that is the backdrop to this mayoral election. And I think that there is still a big wound when it comes to not just this murder, but even also the killing of Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old young woman who was shot by an off-duty police detective, Dante Servin.
And I still think that–the activists that I’ve been speaking with and the community organizers I’ve been speaking with on the ground, this has not left their memory, and I think has really shaped the mayoral election significantly. And I can tell you a few reasons why. The first is that Lori Lightfoot is, you know, she is a former prosecutor, and she also served as the chief administrator appointed by Mayor Richard Daley on the office [no audio] brought forward by civilians against the police. And she also served on the Police Accountability Task Force, this time appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And so I think a lot of times this election has been seen as change versus experience, and change being Lori Lightfoot coming in and disrupting the Democratic machine, as many call it, within Chicago, and Toni Preckwinkle representing experience, since she’s served as an alderman for 19 years and is now Cook County Board President. But I think really both of them have their hands within an institution and within a machine that has not been serving a lot of very marginalized residents within the city of Chicago.
CHARLES LENCHNER: We’re talking about two leading candidates, both African American, in a city that’s recovering from these killings you described. But if memory serves, and your article mentions this, they were not prominent voices in demanding accountability from Rahm Emanuel or the Chicago Police Department when these issues were up for contestation. How do residents explain that absence?
CAMILLE ERICKSON: I think it’s very much on the forefront of their minds, because as we have two progressive candidates that have come up–which to a political outsider I would say they sound very similar at the mini debates and forums that we’ve heard in the last few weeks. So people are looking to their track records. And when they see that there hasn’t been, as you mentioned, a really declarative stance when it comes in reaction, when it comes to police accountability, in the past, I think there’s skepticism from residents of whether or not change is really going to happen within Chicago, and they’re really going to be working within the interests of residents or continuing to protect the Chicago Police Department.
CHARLES LENCHNER: Well, this thread of of a city administration, a Democratic Party machine that works hand in glove, police is the most significant expenditure of the city, there’s a financial crisis looming with pensions of city workers, it feels as though the system has come out with two challengers to each other who are very similar, in a sense depriving residents of the ability to vote for someone who’s going to be different. Why is this the outcome, given that there was such a large field of candidates going into it?
CAMILLE ERICKSON: Yeah, we had a field of 14 candidates going into the February 26 election, and we’re down to two now in the runoff for April 2. And I think people certainly want change. We’ve had, I think it’s important to note, that we’ve had Mayor Rahm Emanuel for two terms. And he has really pumped quite a bit of money into the downtown, and already invested neighborhoods at the expense of the South and West Side, which is home to the majority of residents of color within Chicago. And I think it’s also worth saying that the black population has declined by 25 percent within the last two censuses since 2000. And I think many residents, especially black residents, just haven’t seen a future for themselves, from folks that I’ve spoken with in Chicago.
And I think that also we have, you know, within the last 12 years the complaints and misconduct cases brought against the Chicago Police Department have cost the city $600 million in settlements. And I think that also Rahm Emanuel has shuttered 50 schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, and shut down half of the mental health facilities. And so I think the city is in crisis, and the city has been in crisis for some time, and folks have been speaking out against it. But I think that this particular election is really–and the fact that we have Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot as the two remaining candidates, and what will be a tight race, although polls are saying that Lori Lightfoot will be coming ahead, I think is a testament to this history of Chicago and residents having enough.
CHARLES LENCHNER: Well, one thing I read was that because the radical teachers union led by Jesse Sharkey, which supported Chuy Garcia last time around, because they’re in the tank for Preckwinkle, that that somehow reflects the fact that she would be a more progressive mayor if she was elected, versus Lori Lightfoot, who I’m told is receiving a lot more donations from corporate sources. How can we interpret that from a distance?
CAMILLE ERICKSON: Yeah, I think that it’s really important to look into the endorsements, as well as where the campaign money is coming from. And the Chicago Teachers Union, CTU, is a very powerful force within the city of Chicago, has backed Toni Preckwinkle. And I think, though, that it’s important to say that both candidates have received corporate donations. But overwhelmingly Lori Lightfoot’s background has come under most scrutiny. And I think having–you know, she has funds in a 501(c)(4) for Change Chicago, which a WBEZ report called’dark money.’ And she’s also receiving support from people like John Canning, who is a private equity investor, and other folks who have supported the privatization of education.
And so I think that it’s really important to look at where the money is coming from, and to see who, you know, whoever becomes mayor, who they’re going to have loyalty to, where they’re going to have some remaining debt to. And I think that also it’s important to know that Toni Preckwinkle was a part of the city council which, you know, the city Chairman Edward Burke, who is the longest-serving chairman, he has been charged with alleged extortion, or attempted extortion, with owners of a Burger King, and organized a fundraiser for Toni Preckwinkle. While she returned that campaign money, I think both of them have come under a lot of criticism from where they’re getting their funding and money, and it’s important to follow that trail.
But in terms of the CTU backing, as you mentioned, Toni Preckwinkle, you know, she spent 10 years as a teacher, although she also supported charter schools within her ward. And so both of them are very complicated candidates. And I think something that I heard from organizers again and again is that both of the candidates are flawed. Bot of the candidates are not perfect. And when it comes to progressive politics, the very core of progressive politics is holding politicians accountable. Whoever gets into city hall, you know, whoever gets to oversee city council, is going to have to answer to activists on the ground. Whether it’s Lori Lightfoot, or whether it’s Toni Preckwinkle, both of them are going to be having protesters at their doors.
CHARLES LENCHNER: One of the organizations that gained more prominence before, during, and after the rise of the Black Lives Movement and the release of the Laquan McDonald video is Black Youth Project 100, which as you know is a national organization at this point. But the kinds of activists that they represent, having gone through a journey of focusing on protests, and organizing, and then having some electoral interventions, what kind of power do they think they’re going to wield once the elections are over and the voter is no longer having a say for another four years?
CAMILLE ERICKSON: I think that they have incredible power in this city. And I think that both candidates have really actually started to respond to them. And I think both of them are–you know, I think both of them have really felt the need to be cognizant of the demands that they’re making. Which, to be honest, is really the abolishment of prisons and police. And I think that they see Lori Lightfoot as someone who often when questions are posed to her, her solutions are we should invest more into the police. We should invest more into training. We should convert the 38 closed schools into police academies. Although she walked back her statement saying that if that were to happen that she would want pretty intense community input.
But I think it’s something to be said that BYP100 is pointing out that a third of the city budget is spent on a police department that has really a track record of abusing black residents. And I think that, you know, there’s a $95 million police academy that set to be built in the West Side of Chicago in Garfield Park, and activists, part of No Cop Academy and BYP100 have really come out against that, saying that that $95 million should be invested in mental health clinics, it should be invested in grocery stores, and it should be invested in education. And I think when looking at the two candidates, Toni Preckwinkle has really been one to suggest a little bit more of those holistic approaches to responding to public safety issues, so looking at what are the root and more systemic reasons why violence is plaguing our city.
CHARLES LENCHNER: Given all the need for drastic change that exists in Chicago, do you think the outcome of this election is going to be a real change for Chicago? Or is it going to be mostly more of the same?
CAMILLE ERICKSON: I do think that it’s going to be a change for Chicago. I think even just this past debate and campaigns that we have seen have really allowed us to uncover what does it mean when we say progressive politics. Because even that word should be scrutinized. And I think it really means, you know, serving all residents in the city of Chicago, especially those who have been neglected and overlooked for so many decades. And I think that both candidates are–they’re going to have to listen to activists on the ground. They’re going to have to listen to BYP100 and No Cop Academy. [No audio] is significant, yes, we’re going to have a black woman to be mayor of Chicago. It’s long overdue. We need that representation, representation matters. And I think that it’s an election that we can really look towards when we’re trying to move forward and make a more equitable city where justice is going to be served for residents of Chicago.
CHARLES LENCHNER: Thank you very much for joining us.
CAMILLE ERICKSON: Thanks so much for having me.
CHARLES LENCHNER: That was Camille Erickson, author of the In These Times article about the Chicago mayoral election, which is this Tuesday. Thank you for watching The Real News Network. If you enjoyed this segment, please do subscribe so you’ll see our other broadcasts. Thank you.