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What Change in Chicago Will Look Like: Mayor Lori Lightfoot

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
(Santiago Covarrubias/Sun Times via AP)

Lori Lightfoot must be considered the favorite in April's Chicago mayoral election over Toni Preckwinkle.

Book it.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Yes, I like Lightfoot. That should be evident to anyone who has read my columns about her or listened to Lightfoot being interviewed on my podcast, "The Chicago Way."

She's got guts and a mischievous sense of humor. We both like tweed jackets. She doesn't like corruption. She likes Ald. Scott Waguespack, and so do I.

But election postmortems have nothing to do with likes or dislikes. They do have something to do with ruthlessness, which is often underrated. And I do respect Preckwinkle's ruthlessness. She has great experience in running big government. Lightfoot has none.

But Lightfoot is about change. Preckwinkle is about status quo. The rest is dialogue.

"This is what change looks like," Lightfoot said in her victory speech Tuesday night. "It's true that not every day a little black girl in a low-income family from a segregated steel town makes the runoff to be the mayor of the third-largest city in America."

True, but the only large American city that is losing population. A city with a sickeningly high rate of violent crime, high taxes and a steady stream of taxpayers on the way out.

Lightfoot will need help addressing all that, particularly the fiscal issues, which are not her strong suit. She may consider reaching out to another reform candidate, Paul Vallas, who has the necessary financial chops and the respect of the oligarchs.

Or, she could screw this up and listen to the downtown law firms, the same crowd that counseled the oligarchs to go with Daley.

If I were still smoking, I'd enjoy one right now, and ponder the blunders of the C-suite types who backed Daley and not Vallas.

They're now masters of a city ruled by the hard political left in what could be called San Francisco East. And in political terms, April is just minutes away: Either establishment Chicago does nothing and waits for Preckwinkle and her public-sector unions to take control of Chicago and Cook County, or they go with Lightfoot.

She'll set the terms for those negotiations.

Lightfoot is writing a new chapter of the Chicago Way, and her story is a historic mayoral campaign with no one named Daley in sight.

The two African-American survivors in the April runoff come from the same left wing of the Democratic Party, but they provide ample contrast.

Lightfoot is part of the new wave of politics. She's lesbian and a savvy former federal prosecutor. Preckwinkle is competent, ruthless and elderly. She's president of the Cook County Board and boss of the Cook County Democratic Party.

New vs. old.

The national media and the national Democratic Party will feel pressure to support Lightfoot. How can feminists and liberal Beltway media not support her?

And how could liberal pundits not punish Chicago Democrats, particularly African-American Christian ministers, if any of them dare make Lightfoot's sexual orientation an issue?

African-American voters are socially conservative, particularly the churchgoers, a secret that most Democratic Party hierarchs and many in the national media are loath to mention.

Some black clergy will be compelled to speak out. And how local and national media respond will form another story arc.

And we will witness the Democrats, the party of identity politics, hoisted with its own petard.

Preckwinkle is exasperated. She understands identity politics and doesn't want to be on the wrong end of things. And so, she went out in her Tuesday victory speech to cement her liberal bona fides.

"I remember when 'progressive' wasn't a positive," Preckwinkle said, hoarsely. "It was at best a euphemism for 'unelectable.' Those of us who proudly claimed it had to fight to transform the political landscape."

Yeah, Toni, you did such a great job that those Bernie Bros in fuzzy pink hats and fleece jackets drinking cafe Americanos are now with with Lori Lightfoot.

Preckwinkle is so desperate that she played the grandma card against Lightfoot on election night. Yes, the grandma card.

"When it finally comes down to it, I'm doing this for my grandkids," Preckwinkle said. "I want to make sure they have real access to education. ... As your mayor, I can do something to make hope a reality. ... This race isn't about me. ... It's about all of us."

No, it is about you, Toni. This is a change election and it's a referendum on the status quo.

Can Preckwinkle reverse all this and survive to become mayor?

Of course she could. She knows what to do. But she has serious problems.

Preckwinkle is boss of what's left of the Democratic organization, but what's left of it really doesn't like her. She'll carry the baggage of the federal target, Ald. Edward Burke, who raised all that political cash for her. And Lightfoot won't let that go.

Preckwinkle is also haunted by that disastrous sugar tax she pushed, that hated pop tax that earned her the name Toni Taxwinkle.

Lightfoot will need some political help to reach out to those constituencies that feel threatened by her. She needs somebody who can teach her how she can stay ethically clean while parceling out perks and contracts.

To be successful, Chicago mayors must learn to divide by two.

Lightfoot needs help reaching firefighters and police. The cops loathe Preckwinkle, because they consider her protege, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, as being lenient on violent criminals.

Can Lightfoot make inroads among cops? Yes. She must in order to win. Will Preckwinkle try to stop her? Yes, and she'll also seek to deny Lightfoot access to the black church groups.

It's a brutal business. As Harold Washington used to say, politics ain't beanbag.

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