Will Chicago’s New Mayor Support the City’s Artists?

The current mayor of Second City may know his pas de basque from his brisé, but the next mayor has to know what its artists need.

Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle at the ACLU-IL Mayoral Forum on January 18, 2019 at the Chicago Kent School of Law. Photo: @chicagokentlaw via Flickr.

Apr. 1 is April Fool’s Day and on that day, the Mayor of Chicago will still be Rahm Emanuel. In May 2011, I confess that I rather liked candidate Emanuel, with his ballet background, his Obama connections, and his seeming understanding of the role of the arts, especially dance, in improving lives and locales. I even posed next to him in fifth position when he campaigned at my local train station. In the years since, I’ve been often disappointed and several times appalled by him.

Apr. 2 is Equal Pay Day and on that day, Chicago will vote for either Lori Lightfoot, 56, or Toni Preckwinkle, 71. They were the top vote-getters in the first round of voting for mayor on Feb. 26. One will be Chicago’s first Black woman mayor.

Story continues below.

Both candidates exist on the progressive spectrum. Both candidates have problematic pasts and positive potential. Both appear to be arts-knowledgeable, but at February’s Mayoral Arts Forum, sponsored by Arts Alliance Illinois and the League of Chicago Theatres, they sat shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow candidates in terms of their uncertainty around Chicago’s current arts policies.

I was proud to serve as an election judge and I plan to be in place on Apr. 2 as well. In the first round of voting, Lightfoot received 97,330 votes (17.5%), and Preckwinkle, 88,998 (16.0%). These women defeated an interesting and crowded field including another Daley as well as Amara Enyia, who Chance the Rapper endorsed and supported with $400,000.

Story continues below.

Lightfoot’s campaign, centered on the theme #BringInTheLight, puts forward 11 priorities for change:

  1. Investing in neighborhood schools
  2. Stopping violence
  3. Expanding affordable housing
  4. Reforming the police department
  5. Cleaning up city government
  6. Supporting small businesses
  7. Investing in our neighborhoods
  8. Creating good jobs
  9. Supporting LGBTQ+ Chicagoans
  10. Defending immigrants
  11. Legalizing cannabis

It is on two of these issues in particular that Lightfoot particularly stands out. According to her campaign website:

As an out and proud black lesbian, Lori understands the importance of safeguarding the civil rights of the LGBTQ+ community and recognizes that while significant progress has been made, more important work must be done. Challenges are especially acute for youth, members of the trans community, and LGBTQ+ people of color.

Lightfoot, however, is also considered pro-cop and has been slammed because of it. A campaign video did try to put her affiliations in a positive light. This is from her campaign website:

Lori won’t need on the job training to address issues of public safety. She has extensive experience as a former federal prosecutor, a leader in investigating police misconduct including police-involved shootings, and more recently as president of the Police Board and chair of the Police Accountability Task Force.

Story continues below.

Preckwinkle, meanwhile, out-raised all but one mayoral candidate. According to Chi.vote, the former five-term alderwoman and current Cook County Board President raised $6 million, to Lightfoot’s $3.1 million. She is a longtime advocate for affordable housing. She advocated for the short-lived, controversial soda tax, but stood critically against the city’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics. She is calling for a moratorium on Emanuel’s development projects, including Lincoln Yards and the Joint Safety Training Academy (#NoCopAcademy). According to Preckwinkle’s campaign website, she took an early interest in politics as a teen when she volunteered for the campaign of Katie McWatt, the first African-American woman to run for City Council in Preckwinkle’s hometown of St. Paul, MN.

Preckwinkle’s current policy priorities for Chicago are:

  1. Education
  2. Public safety
  3. $15 minimum wage
  4. Environmental justice
  5. LGBTQ
  6. Economic opportunity

Her website also mentions her role as grandmother several times:

When it comes down to it, I’m running for my grandkids. I want them to have a solid education and real opportunities afterwards. I want to make sure that they are safe and happy; that they are thinking about their futures and not worried about their present. I can do something to make that hope a reality, and not just for my grandkids – but on behalf of all the other mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles who have too often felt undervalued or overlooked.

Story continues below.

Chi.vote and a seemingly endless array of resources offer tools to help voters to compare Lightfoot to Preckwinkle on many major issues, but I have not seen a comparison of their arts policies. It seems like arts sit outside social change in the minds of these candidates. This is where I wish we, in arts advocacy, ought to be able to make some progress.

Lightfoot and Preckwinkle did, of course, attend that Mayoral Arts Forum, so there’s a sign that both care enough about the arts to take the time to show up. Reporting on the forum for The Reader, Deanna Isaacs noted the candidates’ general lack of awareness on Chicago arts, from the Percent for Art program for municipal construction projects to the 2017 Chicago Public Art Plan, the 2019 Year of Chicago Theater and the Cultural Plan.

Story continues below.

Despite neither candidate presenting a clear arts agenda, Isaacs was able to distill their policies as follows:


  • increase in individual artists grants
  • artist residencies in Chicago Public Schools
  • “modest” increase in hotel taxes to support the arts
  • “dedicated income streams in the budget’ for neighborhood arts”


  • “audit city assets and invest in the arts, especially on the south, west, and southwest sides”
  • “make city-owned lots, small business development programs, and vacant schools available to arts organizations”
  • “encourage aldermen to use their discretionary funds for the arts”

No matter the direction that voters find most appealing, we Chicagoans need to find a way to drive radical fundamental change. Chicago politics cannot go on as a Lernaean Hydra. But we have to do so without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We must protect and nurture Chicago’s strengths, especially our innovation, our work ethic and our artistry.

Apr. 5 is National Deep Dish Pizza Day. How will you celebrate?