Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to the media following a city council meeting on February 1, 2023.
CNN  — 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is fighting for her political survival, seeking to finish in the top two in Tuesday’s crowded primary and advance to an April runoff in her quest for a second term.

Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first out gay person to serve as mayor of a city often pilloried by conservatives in national debates over violence and gun control, rose to prominence as a pugnacious reformer promising a break from the corruption and clubby governance that had long marked Chicago politics.

But years of contentious brawls over policing, teacher pay and Covid-19 public safety policies, as well as mounting complaints about long waits in Chicago’s public transit system, have left Lightfoot vulnerable, raising the prospect of the Second City ousting its Democratic mayor in the first round of voting.

Voters on Tuesday will sort through the nine-candidate field – including eight Democrats and one independent. No candidate is expected to top 50% of the vote, which would mean the top two finishers will advance to an April 4 runoff.

Campaigns and Chicago political observers describe the contest as wide open, with four candidates emerging at the top: Lightfoot; progressive US Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García; Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson; and Paul Vallas, a law-and-order candidate and a onetime head of schools in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

If the outcome is close, it could take days to determine the top two finishers, as mail-in votes postmarked by election day get delivered.

Powerful interests with which Lightfoot has at times brawled are split among her major challengers. Conservatives and the police have aligned behind one rival. Teachers have backed another. And many progressives are backing a third major contender.

Above all else, concerns about crime and public safety have rattled Chicago. Violence in the city spiked in 2020 and 2021. And though shootings and murders have decreased since then, other crimes – including theft, car-jacking, robberies and burglaries – have increased since last year, according to the Chicago Police Department’s 2022 year-end report.

Lightfoot and her rivals have placed the issue at the forefront of their campaigns.

“We absolutely need to hire more officers,” Lightfoot said at a WTTW mayoral forum earlier this month. “This is one of the toughest times in the country to recruit, and mayors all over the country are experiencing the difficulty.”

The competition

Chicago’s municipal elections are nonpartisan, which means all voters – Democrats, Republicans and independents – can participate. However, Chicago is an overwhelmingly blue city, and all the major contenders say they are Democrats.

Vallas, however, has attracted support from conservatives, and has described the Democratic Party as moving away from him in recent years on certain issues. Lightfoot, in an email to supporters, said Vallas “has so strongly aligned himself with Republican views that he can’t even be considered a moderate Democrat.”

Vallas, who unsuccessfully ran for Illinois governor as a Democrat in 2002 and was the losing Democratic lieutenant governor nominee in 2014, was endorsed by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, the same organization that hosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in nearby Elmhurst earlier this week.

“I have talked about the need to take our city back from the criminals that are preying on our residents and preying on our businesses,” Vallas told CNN in an interview.

Johnson, meanwhile, has floated the idea in the past of diverting some funds from the police budget to alternate sources, saying he wants to “invest in people.”

He has the backing of the Chicago Teachers Union, a powerful organization that has repeatedly clashed with Lightfoot – including over teachers’ pay and class sizes in 2019 that led to an 11-day strike and then last year as Lightfoot pushed teachers to return to classrooms at a time of rising Covid-19 cases.

“The reason we don’t have enough police officers is because we are asking them to be social workers, therapists and marriage counselors,” Johnson said at the WTTW forum. “I’m actually investing in actually having social workers, therapists to show up on the front line, to actually free up law enforcement to deal with the more severe crime that happens in the city of Chicago.”

García – a former Cook County commissioner who in 2015 forced then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff – has sounded similar themes.

“Hiring more civilians to free up more police officers with their guns and badges to walk the walk, to talk to people, rebuild trust is the most important. The other important element is investing in communities and investing in violence prevention programs,” he told CNN.

Vallas, whose message has revolved around a tough-on-crime message, said Chicago needs more police on “L” station platforms and on trains as part of a push to place more officers on local beats.

He said combating violent crime is the “first, second and third priority” of his campaign.

“Everything becomes undermined if you can’t provide public security,” Vallas told CNN.

Lightfoot in recent days has lambasted Vallas after he told a crowd that his “whole campaign is about taking back our city, pure and simple.”

The mayor told reporters that Vallas was “blowing the ultimate dog whistle.”

“Take our city back, meaning what? To what time? And take our city back from whom?” she said.

When pressed by CNN, Vallas said he was referring to criminals in his remark that Lightfoot has criticized.

“I have talked about the need to take our city back from the criminals that are preying on our residents and preying on our businesses,” he said.

For her part, Lightfoot has touted Chicago’s lawsuit against an Indiana gun store – part of an effort to demonstrate that the influx of firearms into the city isn’t a result of Chicago’s gun policies, but rather neighboring states with more lax laws.

She has also touted her administration’s efforts to hire nearly 1,000 additional police officers, put privatized, unarmed security on public transit and create teams and task forces focused on car-jacking, halting the flow of guns into the city and more.

The Chicago Tribune, the city’s largest newspaper, has endorsed Vallas. The newspaper’s editorial board credited Lightfoot’s financial management of the city and her navigation of the Covid-19 pandemic and said it hopes the mayor will advance to face Vallas one-on-one in the runoff.

“Vallas has the ear of rank-and-file police officers on the street. We will expect him to use that trust to improve police conduct and the abysmal clearance rate for violent offenses,” the editorial board said.