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A Black Woman Will Make History This Week In Chicago's Mayoral Election

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tomorrow brings a watershed moment in Chicago politics. Voters will elect the city's first black female mayor. That description fits both candidates in the race, and both candidates say they have the background and skills to fix Chicago's persistent problems. From member station WBEZ, Natalie Moore has more.

NATALIE MOORE, BYLINE: Mayor Rahm Emanuel stunned political circles when he announced last fall that he wouldn't seek re-election to a third term. Underneath the veneer of a sparkling downtown, Chicago is coping with an array of challenges - ratio and equity, police accountability, declining school enrollment, pension payouts, a shrinking middle class and, of course, the unrelenting gun violence.

At one point, more than 20 candidates fought to get on the ballot. Now, two black women are left standing after February's nonpartisan primary. Lori Lightfoot is the former head of the Chicago Police Board.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: Not every day that a little black girl in a low-income family from a segregated steel town makes the runoff to be the next mayor of the third-largest city in the country.

MOORE: Toni Preckwinkle is her challenger and is president of the Cook County Board.

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TONI PRECKWINKLE: When I say I will fight for working families, you know I will because I've done it. I've built affordable housing, expanded access to health care.

MOORE: Neither woman won the black vote in the primary. Barbara Ransby teaches history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She says this election marks the defeat of a certain aspect of racist political culture in the city, specifically the opposition that Harold Washington endured when he became the first black mayor in 1983.

BARBARA RANSBY: That said, in the 21st century, in the era of the movement for black lives, that's not enough. Activists and voters are really asking the questions, what does Toni Preckwinkle stand for? What does Lori Lightfoot stand for?

MOORE: Lightfoot faces scrutiny as a corporate lawyer who some say hasn't done enough to hold police accountable. Preckwinkle is a career politician, and her critics say she's beholden to the Democratic machine here. In their campaigns, each candidate accuses the other of being entrenched in the system.

RANSBY: Each of them are leaning toward a progressive representation of themselves - gives us an opening to say, make that real. Let me see what that means. And I think that's what activists will be doing.

MOORE: Ransby and others say voters want answers about decades of neighborhood disinvestment. Both campaigns emphasize affordable housing, more community development spending and getting rid of a system where the mayor appoints school board members. If Lightfoot wins, she would also become Chicago's first openly gay mayor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Five, six, seven - right here.

MOORE: At a big, modern community center on Chicago's South Side, a couple of dozen black women are in the gym listening to instructions. They are in a line dancing class for seniors, learning the Mississippi hustle. Voter Morgan Reeves is retired from the city's public transit agency, where she ran the train yard, a rare position for a woman. She's excited about these two candidates and knows what they're up against.

MORGAN REEVES: Being in a male-dominated field, you'd always get the looks like, why are you here, or, do you know what you're doing? You're constantly proving yourself, for one because you're a woman, and then a black woman at that.

MOORE: Reeves says she sees a freshness and new possibilities with a black female mayor in city hall. After election day, Chicago will be the largest city in the country with that distinction. For NPR News, I'm Natalie Moore in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.