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How Chicago's mayoral race could upend the city's politics

Tuesday's historic election was catalyzed by a 2014 tragedy and the protest movement that followed.

by Evan McMorris-Santoro
Feb 27 2019, 4:41pm

Whoever wins the runoff for Chicago mayor, it will be historic. It's guaranteed to be a black woman, and it will mark the end to the most crowded, least predictable mayor’s race in the history of America's third-largest city. And it was catalyzed by a tragedy that happened five years ago and the protest movement that followed.

Lori Lightfoot, a former police board president, and Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, are heading to an April run-off after they finished first and second, respectively, in Tuesday night’s election.

How they got here was not Chicago politics as usual.

In Chicago, the next mayor is usually pre-ordained by the so-called “Chicago machine” — a Democratic party-run system of favoritism and financial ties that make most elections in the city all but a foregone conclusion. This infamous machine helped keep Chicago’s most famous mayor, Richard J. Daley, in office for two decades. It helped Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, get reelected five times. And it helped Mayor Rahm Emanuel get elected twice.

But in late 2014, a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager. This was, unfortunately, a familiar story in Chicago — until a protest movement forced change. The cop who killed Laquan McDonald was convicted of murder in January, and the state’s attorney was defeated at the ballot box.

Many Chicagoans blame bias in the system for McDonald’s death and police brutality against black men and women more broadly. The movement sprared by his death hasn’t stopped; the public and government have spent the five years since grappling with how to reform government and its institutions.

Eventually, this public discontent forced Emanuel to drop out of the mayoral race. That opened the floodgates for a 14-candidate ballot, the largest number in the city's history.

For the first time in decades, the machine didn’t have control of this race. So no one really knew who was going to win. The protest movement — the young people who helped create this moment in Chicago — spent the last several months trying to transfer momentum from the street to the ballot box.

“The people running for mayor have been in politics a long, long time,” Taylore Norwood, a 19-year-old activist from Chicago’s Southside, told VICE News. “A lot of these campaigns are building themselves on the idea that they’re going to drastically change the experience for black and brown youth. And from their track records, we know it’s not true.”

Norwood and her group of student activists, Good Kids Mad City, threw their weight behind a fellow organizer named Amara Enyia, who hoped to ride the youth vote into April’s run-off. She fell short. But that doesn’t mean she, Norwood, or the movement will fall quiet as Lightfoot and Preckwinkle fight to become Chicago’s next mayor, or after the winner takes office.

“Regardless of who's in office,” Norwood told VICE News the day she voted, “they're going to have to deal with us.”

This segment originally aired February 26, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.