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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot faces 8 challengers in Tuesday's election

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Chicago voters are heading to the polls tomorrow to decide if the city's current mayor should serve another term.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah. Lori Lightfoot made history four years ago as the first openly gay and first Black woman to lead the country's third-largest city. Now she faces a stiff reelection battle and could be the first mayor in decades to not get a second term.

MARTÍNEZ: WBEZ's government and politics reporter, Mariah Woelfel, has been covering the race. Mariah, she made history four years ago when she was elected. She beat out - what? - more than a dozen people. But now she's in a similar situation. But since, typically, the city's incumbent mayor wins reelection, why is Lightfoot facing so many challengers?

MARIAH WOELFEL, BYLINE: Right. Well, like many other big-city mayors, Lightfoot faced a really unprecedented set of challenges in her first four years in office - elected in 2019, soon after hit with a global pandemic. She was elected as a political outsider, as a reformer who was going to put an end to long-standing political corruption in Chicago. When submitting her paperwork to run this time, she joked that she'd give this note of caution to her 2019 self.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORI LIGHTFOOT: Beware of a global pandemic.

(LAUGHTER)

WOELFEL: Her term has been marked by pandemic-era challenges - you know, public disputes with the teachers union over when to send kids back to school, with police over vaccine mandates. But I think most of all, people are lining up to replace her because she's dealt with an increase in crime that, you know, many cities across the country have grappled with that her opponents say they can do a better job of fixing.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Chicago is a big city - third-largest city - but largely a segregated one, too. There's a mix, though, of Black, Latino and white candidates. How is race playing a role in this election?

WOELFEL: Sure. The main point here is that there are seven Black candidates, one white, one Latino in the race. So some strategists fear that the Black community's vote - who want to see someone in office who will represent that community's issues - of course, those issues are diverse - but that that vote will be split among those seven candidates, leading to, you know, two others who might not have broad support getting into what's to be a likely runoff election. There's also one - only one white candidate, like I said, Paul Vallas. And he's just one of two candidates running to the right of Lightfoot politically. He's a Democrat but more conservative than her. He has a very clear and uncrowded lane, with a tough-on-crime message. Delmarie Cobb is a veteran political strategist and said that's a factor in his front-runner status this time.

DELMARIE COBB: The racial part of this is that whites will galvanize around Paul Vallas. And we've already seen that the wealthy Republican establishment is pouring money into his campaign right and left.

WOELFEL: Racial politics has a long history here in Chicago, and it's been on full display this election, too.

MARTÍNEZ: And we've talked about how Lightfoot is a first for the city. But if she does not win the race, she would join the city's only other female mayor - and that's Jane Byrne in the '80s - in not winning a reelection bid. Has being a female mayor been at all a factor for her so far?

WOELFEL: Well, I think Lightfoot would say absolutely yes, it's been a hurdle for her reelection fight. She started this campaign saying to a crowd of people at a bakery on Chicago's South Side that she's a Black woman in America; people are betting against her every day, but that doesn't mean she's not ready for a fight. She's certainly had some major accomplishments, maybe some she hasn't gotten enough credit for. But she also has some very real things to answer for. She's reneged on a lot of progressive campaign promises that people are upset about - to reform the police in a more meaningful way, create a Department of Environment to prioritize ending environmental racism in the city, pushing for an elected school board - things that voters want to see her take on in a more meaningful way.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Mariah Woelfel, political reporter with member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mariah Woelfel
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