By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) -Chicago’s incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her re-election bid on Tuesday, with vote totals showing that two of her rivals will face each other in an April runoff ballot.
Paul Vallas, the former public schools chief in Chicago and Philadelphia who ran unsuccessfully for Chicago mayor in 2019, secured the top spot, taking 34.9% of the vote with 91% of precincts reporting, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, secured the other spot in the runoff race, taking 20.2% of votes. Lightfoot had 16.4% of vote totals, and there were not enough votes outstanding for her to make up the ground between her and Johnson.
Polls showed public safety is by far the top concern among residents of the third-largest U.S. city.
The campaign has tested Democratic messaging on policing in the U.S., three years after widespread protests following the police murder of George Floyd and months after Republicans sought to bludgeon Democrats over the issue in the 2022 midterm elections.
The Chicago race is technically non-partisan, but every candidate identifies as a Democrat in the heavily left-leaning city.
Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first openly gay person to serve as the city’s mayor, is bidding for a second four-year term. She emerged as a surprise victor in 2019, campaigning as an outsider who would end corruption.
But her handling of a series of crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice protests, a protracted teachers’ strike and a spike in crime, sapped her popular support.
There were more than 800 murders in Chicago in 2021, the most in a quarter-century. The homicide rate dropped 14% in 2022 but remained nearly 40% higher than in 2019.
Lightfoot has said the 2022 drop in murders and shootings shows that her strategies, such as hiring more officers and focusing on illegal guns, are having an impact.
Natalie Pauls, 53, a healthcare worker who voted in downtown Chicago and declined to say who she cast her ballot for, reflected the sentiment of many voters when she said that crime was a top concern, but she did not think any single candidate really stood out for her.
“I want someone who is going to manage the police in a way where we are not seeing African Americans mistreated,” she said.
Lightfoot has clashed with the police and teachers unions. The police are backing Vallas, and the teachers endorsed Johnson. Vallas is running to Lightfoot’s right, while Johnson is courting the progressive vote.
Vallas’ campaign website asserts the city has been “surrendered” to criminals, and he has vowed to hire more officers and increase community patrols.
His focus on safety has put him at the top of most polls, though Lightfoot has attacked him for telling an interviewer in 2009 that he was “more of a Republican than a Democrat.”
In a recent advertisement, Lightfoot accused Johnson of wanting to “defund the police.” The ad cited a 2020 appearance in which he described the slogan as a “real political goal” in the wake of the Floyd protests.
As a mayoral candidate, Johnson has responded by saying he wants to spend more resources on programs such as mental health treatment but does not intend to cut the police budget.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additioanl reporting by Bianca Flowers and Brad Brooks; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Josie Kao, David Gregorio and Raju Gopalakrishnan)