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By Charles M. Blow
It was a stunning rebuke. On Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, the first Black woman and first openly L.G.B.T.Q.+ person to lead the city, failed to advance to a runoff, earning just 17 percent of the vote and becoming the first incumbent mayor in 40 years to lose a re-election bid.
Four days before the election, I interviewed Lightfoot in her Chicago office. The space, with its soaring ceiling, was a clash of aesthetics, like many government buildings, displaying a kind of prudent grandeur, evoking the gravitas of the office without signaling excess, much like Lightfoot herself, who settled her small frame, dressed in a smart gray suit, into a large chair.
During our nearly hourlong interview, she choked up and fought back tears when discussing the sacrifices her parents had made for her and her siblings. A smile lit her face when talked about all the memes that had made her a folk hero in the early days of her term, and she puffed with pride when discussing her proudest moments as mayor, including how she and her team had dealt with the Covid-19 crisis.
But those weren’t the reasons I’d trekked to the frigid city on the lake. I’d come because Lightfoot belongs to a group of recently elected Black mayors of major American cities, including Eric Adams in New York, Sylvester Turner in Houston and Karen Bass in Los Angeles.
In those cities, Black people are outnumbered by other nonwhite groups, and in New York City and Chicago their ranks are dwindling.
Each of these four mayors was elected or re-elected around the height of two seismic cultural phenomena — Black Lives Matter and the pandemic. Of the four, Lightfoot would be one of the first to face voters and test the fallout. (Turner is term-limited and can’t run again.)
It clearly did not go well.
On one level, the results of Tuesday’s election speak to how potent the issue of crime can be and how it can be used as a scare tactic. Lightfoot said that it was absolutely used as a political tool in her race: “You’ve got people who are using it as a cudgel against me every single day. You’ve got the only white candidate in the race who’s acting like he’s going to be a great white savior on public safety.”
That white candidate is Paul Vallas, who finished at the top of the crowded field on Tuesday with 34 percent of the vote. Vallas had run a tough-on-crime, law-and-order campaign in which he told one crowd that his “whole campaign is about taking back our city, pure and simple.”
Lightfoot called the remark “the ultimate dog whistle.”
In our interview, she was brutal in her racial assessment of Vallas: “He is giving voice and platform to people who are hateful of anyone who isn’t white and Republican in our city, in our country.” She is also surprisingly candid about how race operates in the city itself: “Chicago is a deeply divided and segregated city.”
It is that division, in her view, fomented by candidates who see politics in the city as a zero-sum game, that provided Vallas with an opening to win over the city’s white citizens. As she put it, “People who are not used to feeling the touch of violence, particularly people on the North Side of our city, they are buying what he’s selling.”
Indeed, Vallas won many of the wards in the northern part of the city, while Lightfoot won most of the wards on the largely Black South Side of town.
But two things can be true simultaneously: There can be legitimate concerns about rising crime, and crime can be used as a political wedge issue, particularly against elected officials of color, which has happened often.
In this moment, when the country has still not come to grips with the wide-ranging societal trauma that the pandemic exacerbated and unleashed, mayors are being held responsible for that crime. If all politics is local, crime and safety are the most local. And when the perception of crime collides with ingrained societal concepts of race and gender, politicians, particularly Black women, can pay the price.
In 2021, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta chose not to seek re-election, becoming the city’s first Black mayor to serve only a single term, after wrestling with what she called the “Covid crime wave.” Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans is facing a possible recall, largely over the issue of crime in her city, and organizers said this week that they have gathered enough signatures to force a recall vote.
Even in cities where Black mayors aren’t likely to be removed from office, their opponents are searching for ways to limit their power, using criminal justice as justification.
The Mississippi House recently passed a bill that would create a separate court system and an expanded police force in the city of Jackson, one of the blackest cities in America. The new district “would incorporate all of the city’s significantly populated white-majority neighborhoods,” as an analysis by The Guardian pointed out. Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, said the plan reminded him of apartheid.
Crime often comes in waves, but a question lingers about how people, even liberals, respond when a crest arrives under Black leadership: Are Black mayors too quickly and easily blamed for rising crime, and if so, why? Because of an unwillingness to crack down on criminals, or because of a more insidious, latent belief in ineffectual Black leadership in times of crisis?
Lightfoot told me she understood that as a woman and as a person of color, “I’m always going to be viewed through a different lens, that the things I do and say, that the toughness that I exhibit, is viewed as divisive, that I’m the mean mayor, that I can’t collaborate with anyone.”
Even so, she conceded, “If you feel like your life has been challenged because of the public safety issues coming to your doorstep, it doesn’t matter what the numbers are, you need to feel safe.”
But feelings on issues of politics, crime and race also tap into our biases, both conscious and subconscious. In that vein, Lightfoot may be a harbinger, or at least a warning, for the other big-city Black mayors: As the Covid crime wave wears on, will their mostly non-Black citizens feel that their safety is being prioritized and secured under Black leadership?
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