Above, from left: Satya Rhodes-Conway, Lori Lightfoot, Jolie Justus, and Jane Castor
Lesbian mayoral candidates could make history in four sizable U.S. cities this month.
The big prize is Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, which would be the largest one ever to have a mayor from the LGBTQ community if Lori Lightfoot wins her runoff election Tuesday — and polls indicate she’s likely to do so.
Also holding a runoff Tuesday, though, is Madison, Wis., the state’s capital and home to the main campus of the University of Wisconsin. Madison is known for its progressive politics — it’s the hometown of Tammy Baldwin, the first out U.S. senator — and Satya Rhodes-Conway is challenging incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin there.
Kansas City, Mo., is holding its mayoral primary Tuesday; 11 candidates are running, and the top two will advance to a runoff in June. Jolie Justus, a former Missouri state legislator and current City Council member, is the front-runner. And Tampa, Fla., will have a runoff election April 23, with Jane Castor facing David Straz.
All four women identify as lesbian — and liberal. All their cities are heavily Democratic, but the municipal elections are officially nonpartisan.
Chicago’s election will be groundbreaking no matter who wins — either Lightfoot or her opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, would be the city’s first African-American woman mayor. The city has had two black mayors, Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer, and one woman mayor, Jane Byrne. Lightfoot and Preckwinkle were the top two finishers in a field of 14 candidates in February, advancing to the runoff. The incumbent, Rahm Emanuel, is not seeking reelection.
Lightfoot has worked as a federal prosecutor and an attorney in private practice. She has held several appointed positions in city government, including chief of staff and general counsel of the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications. In 2015, Emanuel appointed her as president of the Chicago Police Board and then chair of the Police Accountability Task Force. She’s served on the boards of numerous organizations, such as NARAL Illinois and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
The race between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle has at times turned ugly, even though the two candidates are ideologically similar. Lightfoot and her supporters wondered if Preckwinkle has sending a “dog whistle” to homophobes when she brought up Lightfoot’s sexual orientation in a debate; Preckwinkle denied that was the case. And a few weeks ago homophobic fliers targeting Lightfoot were distributed in some Chicago neighborhoods. Preckwinkle denounced the literature and said her campaign had nothing to do with it.
Lightfoot’s priorities include police reform, addressing Chicago’s high rate of gun violence, strengthening public schools, spreading economic development beyond the central business district and throughout the city, and expanding LGBTQ rights. Preckwinkle’s are actually similar. “With both self-proclaimed progressives holding similar positions on a number of issues, the race largely has boiled down to experience versus change,” the Chicago Tribune notes. Lightfoot has characterized Preckwinkle as a candidate of the political establishment, while Preckwinkle has criticized Lightfoot for her lack of experience in elective office.
But it looks like Chicago voters want change. A poll released last week showed 53 percent of respondents favoring Lightfoot and only 17 percent preferring Preckwinkle. Twenty-nine percent, though, remained undecided.
Likewise in Madison, the differences between the candidates are more about style and background than ideology. Soglin, who rose to prominence as a protester against the Vietnam War and has proudly proclaimed himself a socialist, was mayor of Madison from 1973 to 1979, 1989 to 1997, and 2011 to the present, making him the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history. Rhodes-Conway volunteered in one of Baldwin’s early campaigns, spent six years on the Madison City Council, and now is managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project at the University of Wisconsin, working with mayors from around the state.
Soglin has touted himself as a proven change-maker with the experience to meet the challenges created by the city’s growth — the needs for more affordable housing and mass transit, and to address racial inequalities. Rhodes-Conway has said change has been too slow to come and that she will bring a “collaborative leadership style” that will “move talk to action,” as she recently told the Wisconsin State Journal.
They emerged as the top two among five candidates in February’s primary. The runoff race is projected to be close.
In Kansas City, 11 candidates are vying to replace Sly James, who has been mayor for eight years and cannot run again due to term limits. He has endorsed Justus, who has been on the City Council since 2015. Before that she was a Missouri state senator, serving for a time as that chamber’s Democratic leader. She also manages pro bono services for a law firm.
As key accomplishments of her City Council term, she cites leading the effort for a new airport terminal and expansion of the downtown streetcar line. Of her time in the Senate, she mentions her work in overhauling Missouri’s criminal justice code.
A recent Kansas City Star poll found her favored by 13 percent of respondents; she was the only candidate with support in the double digits. Her closest opponent had 9 percent. But 44 percent of respondents were undecided, so the race is wide open. The top two finishers in Tuesday’s primary will face off June 18.
Tampa also has a mayoral vacancy due to term limits; Bob Buckthorn is retiring. He has endorsed Castor, his former police chief, over philanthropist and retired banker Straz. Castor and Straz emerged the two top finishers among eight candidates in March 5’s election, leading to the April 23 runoff.
Her record as police chief from 2009 to 2015 has come in for some criticism. Her tenure saw problems that included misconduct by some members of the DUI squad and “the disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists for minor infractions that has come to be known as ‘biking while black,’” notes the Tampa Bay Times. She has apologized for the excessive bike ticketing.
Castor, who once played basketball for the University of Tampa, used a sports analogy in discussing the other problems, telling the Times, “If you’re not going to get off the bench, you’re not going to make any mistakes. But you’re not going to have any success, either.”
The race has seen Straz avoiding most candidate forums while Castor has eagerly courted voters. She’s favored to win; in a March poll, 58 percent of respondents supported her, to 24 percent for Straz.
Only six out members of the LGBTQ community have been ever elected mayor in the nation’s 100 most populous cities, and just two are in office now — Jenny Durkan in Seattle and Robert Garcia in Long Beach, Calif. Adding in smaller cities, the total of openly LGBTQ mayors in the U.S. is 38, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund. But if Lightfoot, Rhodes-Conway, Justus, and Castor are successful, representation in the biggest cities will take a huge leap.
“We are well-positioned to make 2019 the year of the lesbian mayor — potentially tripling the number of lesbians elected major city mayors in just one cycle,” said Victory Fund President and CEO Annise Parker, who was mayor of Houston from 2010 to 2016, in a press release. The nation’s fourth-largest city, Houston is to date the largest ever to have a mayor from the LGBTQ population and specifically a lesbian mayor, but that would change with a Lightfoot win in Chicago.
“All four women are on a clear path to victory and together would control city budgets of nearly $10 billion — that’s real responsibility and real power,” Parker continued. “Mayors have a profound influence on the daily lives of their constituents, so it is vital that diverse leaders with unique perspectives and solutions are elected to these positions.”