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Bronzeville voters weigh in on historic election

Chicago’s neighborhood of Bronzeville, a hub of African American culture, was the childhood home of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. Today, voters in the neighborhood had a chance to take part in history again — this time to elect Chicago’s first black female mayor.

Attorney Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle faced off in a runoff after the two emerged as the top candidates in a Feb. 26 election to replace outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“I think it shows progression in every community, progression and evolution of the time,” Jemal King, 41, said.“I think we just need change. It needs a woman’s touch.”

The two self-proclaimed progressive candidates on the ballot ran vigorous campaigns to get on the ballot today, beating out bigger names and more established candidates.

Outside of the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville, Darius Miller, 19, wasn’t so sure that the significance of the election would mean much to residents like him.

“Everybody says they’re gonna change, but I gotta see it to believe it,” Miller said.

Still, the historical significance was not lost on some residents. Samuel Cohen, 46, took a drag on his cigarette outside the Bronzeville Starbucks. “I think this election is historical,” Cohen said. “I think Preckwinkle has much more legwork and experience in the office. She is more qualified because she is part of the Cook County Board so my vote goes towards her experience.”

Traci Bell, 54, was outside of a polling center today in Bronzeville, which is not unusual, since she has voted in every election since she was 18 years old.

“I support it, it’s actually a great thing,” said Bell, referring to the historic election. “I never thought that I would see it. You know Preckwinkle, she’s been around a long time, so I would like to see what she would do.”

Whichever candidate is elected will have a wide range of issues to address, including violent crime, police reform, education, the pension crisis, and the revitalization of Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods.

Marcus Williams, 54, a masonry worker, stood across the street from a polling place in Bronzeville. “The other mayor was closing down schools, so hopefully a new mayor will do something positive for us,” Williams said.

In 2013, 50 schools were closed in Chicago in an attempt to save money instead of maintaining the underutilized school buildings. While attendance has been generally unaffected, the school closings have had a lasting negative effect on students’ test scores.

“I would like to see the new mayor agree to link development,” said Damani Obadele, a resident of Bronzeville, who was standing outside of a polling place at Mollison Elementary. “For every building you build downtown, you have to build one on the South or West side and build up plighted communities. I think that’s going to spew economic development.”

Emanuel, who decided not to run for reelection, worked during his eight-year run to improve Chicago’s downtown and Loop area while ignoring other areas of the city. Chicago has seen its African American population move out of the city in recent years.

Some of the more segregated neighborhoods on the South and West sides have been neglected in terms of development, which is something Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have both vowed to change.

“We need to make sure that public safety is available in every neighborhood, and not merely a commodity for the rich,” Lightfoot said in her opening statement at a debate broadcasted by WGN last week.

Lejons Deisman, 63, had just voted at John J Pershing Magnet school, and the issue of safety was at the forefront of his mind. “There needs to be lower taxes and more jobs for the younger kids so they stay off the streets,” Deisman said.

Despite the novelty of today’s election, voter turnout is still expected to remain low, as it was in the initial election on Feb. 26.

Markita Counts, a Safe Passage crossing guard for Chicago Public Schools, is keenly aware of the importance of voting and views it as something not to be taken for granted. “At a point of time, my ancestors couldn’t even vote,” she said, outside of the Mollison Elementary polling place. “We couldn’t even vote. To not even do that, that’d be a smack in the face.”

Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle are revered for their experience, but each candidate comes into the runoff election with baggage.

Lightfoot served as the President of the Chicago Police Board from 2015 to 2018, which legitimizes her credentials, but also puts her under scrutiny due to her connection to and defense of the police.

“It’s really important that we work collaboratively with police,” Preckwinkle said. “Many of our officers are good, decent people who struggle every day to do a very difficult job well . . . We have to invest in better supervision and training of our officers, and we also have to invest in holding our police officers accountable.”

Marcus Meedly, a 22-year-old student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, wants a better relationship between the black community and the police. “Police patrol the area but they don’t make us feel safe,” he said. “We fear for our lives when the police are around this area and we want the police to serve and protect us, too.”

Preckwinkle has been working in City Council for more than 25 years, first as an alderman and then as Cook County Board President for the past nine years. Her long-standing political career has labeled her an establishment candidate — part of the machine politics for which Chicago is notorious.

Isaac Agu is a 23-year-old waiter at Yassa African Restaurant in Bronzeville. While on his break, he spoke about the history of corruption within politics, both locally and nationally.

“We saw it in the last presidential election, that people are sick of the same old politics,” he said. “I think it’s really important to have a candidate that is authentic and cares about the problems that the city faces. It’s great to see Chicago, having one of the largest black populations, finally be represented by its leader.”


Attorney Lori Lightfoot won the April 2 mayoral runoff, defeating Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.  Lightfoot will be sworn in as the city’s first African American female mayor on May 20, 2019.


Will Andrews, Nick Canonaco, Larissa Dacic, Nick Forsythe, Lizzie LeBow, Louise Netz, Emma McNamara, Kanwal Memon, Betsy Morici, Yasmeen Sheikah, Jasmeen Vaughn and Colton Weiss contributed to this story.

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