State Watch

Chicago to vote for new mayor after chaotic and crowded race

Facing rising pension obligations, a fickle financial future, persistent crime and dismal schools, Chicago voters head to the polls Tuesday in what has become one of the most chaotic and unpredictable races to lead the nation's third-largest city.

Fourteen candidates will appear on the ballot, the largest field of mayoral contenders in more than a century.

Public polls show no clear front-runner, and at least six of those candidates - all Democrats in an ostensibly nonpartisan contest - are packed tightly together in the race for two spots in an April 2 runoff.

They are running to succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), whose contentious two terms in office were marked by the fallout from a recession that pinched the city's middle class, a dramatic spike in crime and local battles over struggling schools and police misconduct.

"Fundamentally, Chicago is deciding on our future," said Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who is among the front-runners. "Poll after poll tells you two things: One, that voters believe the city's going in the wrong direction, and they desperately want change as a result of that."

The race has divided Chicago, a city rife with complex racial, generational and class politics that span its 77 neighborhoods.

The leading candidates include Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who have close ties to the city's old-school political machine; former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, the brother and son of former mayors; and several others vying to cast themselves as outsiders.

Three of the leading contenders - Preckwinkle; Lightfoot, the former Chicago Police Board president; and nonprofit executive Amara Enyia - are African-American. Mendoza and former Chicago schools chief Gery Chico are Hispanic.

Business groups in the prosperous Loop and the conservative editorial board at the Chicago Tribune back Daley.

Labor groups are split between Mendoza and Preckwinkle, and one powerful union is mounting a massive advertising campaign against Daley.

The more progressive Chicago Sun-Times editorial board backs Lightfoot, who has attracted several strategists who have made a cottage industry out of challenging the city's established political machine in recent years.

"Every candidate has somebody else in their lane in this race," said Tom Bowen, a Democratic strategist who is not working for any of the candidates. "It is the most complicated multi-candidate primary probably we have ever had."

Making matters more complex are a swirling series of overlapping investigations into corruption at City Hall and in county government.

At a recent public forum hosted by WTTW-TV, Preckwinkle and Mendoza were asked to justify their relationship with a powerful alderman, Ed Burke, who is under federal investigation.

Burke, who is still in office, backs Chico. At the same forum, Daley was asked whether he cheated on an insurance exam four decades ago.

"All these people up here right now need investigation, point blank," Willie Wilson, a philanthropist polling near the bottom of the pile, said of his rivals.

That may present an opening to a candidate from outside the political system - but again, that lane is crowded.

Lightfoot stakes a claim to voters looking for a fresh face. So does Enyia, who has support from activist Chance the Rapper.

"The rest of the front-runner pack represents various factions of the old Chicago regime that people are sick and tired of," Lightfoot told The Hill. "I think the message of change is really resonating with people."

Virtually every public survey has put the top six contenders within touching distance of each other.

The most recent, a Mason-Dixon survey conducted last week for Telemundo Chicago and NBC 5, showed Preckwinkle with support from 14 percent of the voters polled, followed by Daley at 13 percent and Mendoza at 12 percent.

Lightfoot stood at 10 percent, Chico at 9 percent and Enyia at 7 percent. Nineteen percent of the voters surveyed said they were undecided.

It is the first time in modern memory when Chicago has no clear mayoral front-runner.

Preckwinkle, elected countywide three times, has not been able to consolidate what should be a broad base of support, in part because of an unpopular soda tax she championed and in part because she failed to fire a chief of staff accused of sexual harassment.

Daley, the scion of the city's best-known political family, has struggled to articulate a vision for Chicago's future.

The lack of a front-runner suggests that the days of Chicago's strong mayors - Richard J. Daley, Harold Washington, Richard M. Daley and even Emanuel - are gone.

And the pressure to handle the city's exploding pension obligations is likely to hamstring whoever wins.

"The next four years in Chicago are going to be so dramatically different than all of the Richard M. Daley years, all of the Rahm years, that whoever the next mayor is probably walks into office weaker than anybody in the modern era," Bowen said. "This field is not Rahm. And the challenges in front of the next administration are greater, in some ways, than the ones that Rahm faced."

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