Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot during an election night party in Chicago, Illinois, the US, April 2 2019. Picture: KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP
Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot during an election night party in Chicago, Illinois, the US, April 2 2019. Picture: KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP

Chicago  —  Chicago, known for its "machine politics" and corruption, woke up on Wednesday to voters choosing an anti-establishment candidate who may shake up a city that made history by electing its first African-American openly lesbian woman for mayor.

Voters in the third-largest US city on Tuesday elected Lori Lightfoot, who has never held office, in a runoff election. She easily defeated long-time local politician and a fellow black woman, Toni Preckwinkle, 72, to become the city's 56th mayor.

Chicago has now become the largest American city to elect a black woman as its mayor, and an openly gay woman as well.

Lightfoot is also the latest in a wave of political newcomers to win major elections around the world as voters upend the status quo, propelling anti-establishment candidates to power. She will now take over a city where politics is a blood sport and where corruption has swirled in and around City Hall for generations.

Chicago is ready for a change, Lightfoot said on the campaign trail, promising to support mayoral term limits, reforms that would ban elected officials from profiting from their governmental positions and strengthen worker compensation oversight.

"They want a break from the corrupt political machine that has held back the aspirations of so many people," Lightfoot said during a debate last week. "They want a government that is responsive to them and that has integrity."

The city got its reputation as a well-oiled political machine from the way Richard J Daley, one of the last big-city "bosses", ran the city from 1955 to 1976 with help from armies of patronage workers and crooked city council members.

Thirteen years later, his son Richard M Daley became mayor and for the next 22 years, he ran the city.

"It's refreshing to see somebody who is different, hopefully," said Andrew Tabor, a consultant who has lived in Chicago his entire life.

Not progressive enough

Lightfoot has held several positions in and out of government. She was an assistant US attorney, a senior equity partner at Mayer Brown  and, most notably, the president of the Chicago Police Board, an independent civilian panel.

Some on the left, including Preckwinkle, criticised her as not being progressive enough, noting she made millions as a corporate lawyer representing corporate clients.

She and Preckwinckle earned spots on the runoff ballot after they garnered the most votes among 14 candidates, including  Daley's younger brother Bill, in a February election. Lightfoot will replace Rahm Emanuel, who announced in September he was not seeking a third term as mayor.

Voters saw Lightfoot as the anti-establishment choice compared with Preckwinkle, who was a city council member, or alderman, for almost 20 years before becoming Cook County board president in 2010.

"Lightfoot will bring more change because Preckwinkle is connected to the old-boys club, the establishment," said retired mailman Gary Muckle,  after voting for Lightfoot this weekend at a polling place on the city's north side.

"We will have to see what happens now. Lightfoot is not beholden to anyone," he said.

Lightfoot will also face a raft of thorny problems such as reforms to the police department, rampant gangs and violent crime and a spiralling budget deficit fuelled by escalating pensions.

Emanuel leaves as corruption continues to seep throughout city hall.  In 2019 Alderman Ed Burke, a long-time political powerhouse in Chicago, was charged with extortion, Alderman Willie Cochran pleaded guilty to wire fraud and it was revealed Alderman Danny Solis was recently under investigation for corruption.

Burke, who has been an alderman for 50 years, won re-election in February.

In all, federal prosecutors racked up 246 public corruption convictions in the Northern Illinois District, which includes Chicago, from 2010 to 2017. That is 80%  more than in the Southern District of New York, in Manhattan, according to a report from the department of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago.

"The race turned on reform of Chicago politics and moving towards a new Chicago," said Dick Simpson, a professor in the department, who studies Chicago politics, noting that 33 city council members have gone to jail over the past four decades.

"There seems to be a desire to make reforms so that the continuing pattern of corruption ... would change permanently," said Simpson, a former city council member.