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Chicago Voters Elect Their First African-American Female Mayor


The next mayor of Chicago will be a black woman. The next mayor of Chicago will be openly gay. The next mayor of Chicago is a former prosecutor who has not held elected office before. So Lori Lightfoot was certainly correct when she said this in her victory speech after winning a runoff election last night.


LORI LIGHTFOOT: And they're seeing the beginning of something, well, a little bit different.

INSKEEP: So what is she going to do differently in the great metropolis of the Midwest? NPR's Cheryl Corley is in Chicago, followed this race.

Cheryl, good morning.


INSKEEP: Wow, quite a race. How did Lori Lightfoot defeat 13 other candidates in these two rounds of voting?

CORLEY: Well, you know, Lori Lightfoot ran as an outsider, Steve, a change agent. And after Rahm Emanuel announced he was not seeking a third term in office, that kind of shook everything up. So during this first round of voting, there were 14 candidates, as you mentioned. And there were some pretty well-known candidates in the race, including William Daley, the former commerce secretary whose brother and father led the city of Chicago for more than 40 years combined.

But a city hall scandal helped Lightfoot's campaign. One of the most powerful Chicago alderman was charged with attempted extortion for allegedly shaking down a restaurant owner. And that case tainted some of the other candidates who had ties to him. And Lightfoot, meantime, talked about getting rid of corruption at city hall, and that just kind of seemed to resonate with voters. So she and Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president and head of the Democratic Party survived round one.


CORLEY: And during the runoff election between them, it was a battle over who was the most progressive since they had similar policies. And Lightfoot was able to successfully paint Preckwinkle as a really entrenched Democrat while she was a change agent.

INSKEEP: Well, when you talk about who's the most progressive, one factor in this, I suppose, is diversity. And Chicago's had a black mayor but never had a black female mayor, never had someone who openly described herself as lesbian. This has not happened before. Was that a big factor for voters?

CORLEY: Well, I think it energized the LGBT community, and there was an instance of a homophobic flyer being distributed in one instance. And after a forum, Lightfoot said she wondered if a comment Preckwinkle made was some sort of dog whistle of sorts to let conservative voters know that Lightfoot was a lesbian. But there were forums held all over the city, and Lightfoot campaigned in many churches and got support. And last night, to some roaring cheers at her victory party, Lightfoot said the election proved that it didn't matter who a person loved.


LIGHTFOOT: In the Chicago we will build together, we will celebrate our differences. We will embrace our uniqueness. And we will make certain that all have every opportunity to succeed.


INSKEEP: Although, isn't she going to have to work with the person she just defeated in order to achieve those goals?

CORLEY: Absolutely. Lightfoot is going to have to work with Toni Preckwinkle, the other African-American woman who had hoped to make history. And Toni Preckwinkle, you know, had been an alderman for nearly 20 years before she became Cook County Board president and then head of the Cook County Democrats. And those were historic moments as a black woman had never held those posts either. Today, both of them are holding a unity press conference, something they pledged to do after Reverend Jesse Jackson asked them to do so. And while Lightfoot is the mayor-elect, Toni Preckwinkle remains the head of the Cook County Democrats and the county board. Here she is.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a little bit of that.


TONI PRECKWINKLE: Not long ago, two African-American women vying for this position would have been unthinkable.


PRECKWINKLE: And while it may be true that we took different paths to get here, tonight is about the path forward.

CORLEY: And they say they're both going to work on issues together.

INSKEEP: Although only 32 percent of the voters showed up to make this choice.

CORLEY: Absolutely. And, you know, municipal elections in Chicago have always been low, unfortunately. So I don't think it's any reflection on their campaign.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago. Thanks.

CORLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.