Out Chicago mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot and some of her supporters are wondering if a remark made by her opponent in a debate was a dog whistle to homophobes.
Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, who will face each other in the mayoral runoff April 2, engaged in a contentious debate Thursday night, and at one point the moderator, journalist Carol Marin, asked each to cite something they admire about the other, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Lightfoot said she admired how Preckwinkle, currently president of the Cook County Board, had worked to expand health care to vulnerable residents of Chicago and the rest of the county. Preckwinkle then said she admires that Lightfoot is “open and honest about her LGBTQ orientation."
"You know, I think it’s really important in this country that we be respectful of differences and that we understand that all of us matter and that there is dignity in each and every one of us," Preckwinkle continued. "And there has been so much discrimination and prejudice and homophobia in our country, it’s very important that particularly prominent people declare their sexual orientation and do it with pride.”
That sounds complimentary, but Lightfoot, at a Monday press conference, wondered if it was a way of emphasizing to conservative voters that she is a lesbian, the Sun-Times reports. Lightfoot noted that there remain “folks who believe in a very conservative doctrine, purportedly originating from the Bible, that condemns anybody who lives a life that is other than a man and a woman together in a marriage sanctified by the Lord.”
“If there was a dog whistle that was blown to try to motivate that base and say, ‘Oh, by the way, did you know?’ that’s the thing that would be concerning if that was, in fact, the intent,” Lightfoot added at the press conference, at which she was accepting the endorsement of out State Rep. Kelly Cassidy.
“The words are the words. I can’t go into her mind and understand her intent,” Lightfoot continued. “But what I’ve heard from people is, in the context of this decidedly negative campaign which has a daily attack on everything about me [and] about supporters, it’s a concern.”
She said Preckwinkle had to be aware of her words’ effect on listeners. “It doesn’t matter what the intent was. In the context of her campaign and the way in which she has conducted herself — literally from election night — those kind of words are gonna have an impact,” Lightfoot said. The Advocate sought further comment from Lightfoot, and her spokeswoman said the quotes in the Sun-Times reflect her position.
Cassidy also expressed concern that the comment would have a negative impact.
“Even if it was unintentional (and I hope it was), it speaks to the importance of representation,” she told The Advocate via email. “Allyship is great and has been critical in getting our community this far. But true allyship means not ‘othering’ LGBTQ+ orientations and working together toward a time when coming out isn’t even an issue to be noted.”
Preckwinkle’s campaign issued a statement to The Advocate saying there was no ill intent behind the remark.
“Toni Preckwinkle remembers a time when being your openly authentic self was shamed or had to be hidden,” spokesman Ty Cratic said. “Now we celebrate people for living their best lives. Only today do we have the first openly LGBTQ Black member of the Illinois Legislature, and the first openly LGBTQ member of the Board of Commissioners of Cook County."
"She is proud of the strides made by the LGBTQ community and will continue to fight alongside them," the spokesperson continued.
Lamont Robinson, the state legislator cited by Cratic, also released a statement in support of Preckwinkle, saying, “It is ridiculous to criticize Toni Preckwinkle for praising her opponent. Toni has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community for decades."
Robinson pointed to his own history with Preckwinkle as evidence that the candidate would not use homophobia for political gain.
"She was supportive of my successful run for the legislature last year, allowing me to become the first Black openly LGBTQ member of the Illinois General Assembly. I know, and Toni understands, the struggle that Black and Brown LGBTQ people still have living in their truth, sometimes with life-threatening consequences."
Lightfoot and Preckwinkle were the top two finishers in the mayoral election February 26, but neither received a majority, forcing them into the runoff. Both are Democrats, but the mayoral race is officially nonpartisan, and either would be the first black woman mayor of Chicago.