CHICAGO — Chicagoans headed to the polls on Tuesday to vote in highly contested mayoral and City Council races that have largely focused on crime, policing and the performance of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is seeking a second term leading the nation’s third-largest city.
Ms. Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who ran as a change agent vowing to root out corruption and reform the Chicago Police Department, won 74 percent of the vote in the final balloting when elected four years ago, a favorite of progressives who hailed her historic victory as the city’s first Black, female mayor.
But she has faced widespread dissatisfaction from voters since, and many have thrown their support to other candidates: Eight challengers have lined up against her, and unless one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote — a highly unlikely scenario — the top two finishers on Tuesday will advance to a runoff on April 4.
Polls suggest that Ms. Lightfoot, whose rivals have positioned themselves to both her political left and right, is in a tight contest for one of those spots. Voters have said in surveys that issues driving the race include crime, the economy, education and immigration.
Perhaps most threatening to Ms. Lightfoot’s re-election chances is the spike in homicides and shootings in 2020 and 2021, and civil unrest and looting that scarred retailers, including those on the famed Magnificent Mile. In 2021, robberies, thefts and burglaries increased from the year before, leaving many Chicagoans unsettled about the direction of the city.
In the Beverly neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side on Tuesday, Megan Hayes, a 40-year-old mother and lifelong Chicagoan, said crime was the biggest issue facing the city. Although she voted for Ms. Lightfoot in the last election, she said she was disappointed in the mayor’s performance.
“I don’t think she managed the city very well,” she said.
Among the front-runners in the race is Paul Vallas, a Democrat with more conservative views on crime and education, who has portrayed Chicago as being in a state of disarray. Running with an endorsement from the local Fraternal Order of Police, he has called for expanding the police force, improving arrest rates for serious crimes and expanding charter schools.
Ms. Hayes was among those to cast a ballot for him. “I’m not a huge Vallas supporter,” she said, “but he seems to be the best of the lot.”
In making her final pitch to voters, Ms. Lightfoot has pointed to investments in long-neglected neighborhoods and made the case that the city had emerged from the coronavirus pandemic in a strong position.
On Tuesday morning, she greeted Chicagoans outside a grocery store and a sandwich shop on the city’s West Side, telling them she was best positioned to prevail in a runoff against Mr. Vallas, who has led in many polls.
“I’m the only person that can beat Paul Vallas,” Ms. Lightfoot said, adding that she was hearing from voters who were “fearful” of Mr. Vallas and his views.
Tina Marie, a West Side resident who had just finished buying groceries when she spotted Ms. Lightfoot, said she was impressed by the mayor’s leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.
“When the pandemic broke out, her and the governor shut Chicago down,” said Ms. Marie, a retired department store worker. She said there was “no telling where we would be if they hadn’t shut Chicago down.”
On the South Side, Lindsay Ramirez, a 47-year-old medical worker and a Lightfoot supporter, said crime would continue to be a problem for Chicago, no matter who won the election.
“There’s not much a mayor can do about all these guns,” she said. “You’d have to be Superman to solve it.”
But many voters appeared unsure of whether they were willing to give Ms. Lightfoot another chance. Chicago mayors have wide-ranging powers, even compared with mayors in New York City and Los Angeles: They oversee the sprawling public-transit system, Police and Fire Departments, schools, parks and other agencies. And when crime spikes or potholes go unfilled, Chicagoans tend to blame their mayor.
Ms. Lightfoot, 60, has faced a cascade of crises since taking office. In 2019, she clashed with the powerful teachers’ union, leading to an 11-day strike, the longest in decades. Then, in 2020, the pandemic hit, sending unemployment soaring and leaving skyscrapers in the Loop mostly empty of workers and Chicago businesses struggling to survive.
The economy has since rebounded, and downtown Chicago is attracting tourists and conventions again. But Ms. Lightfoot appears to have made far more enemies than friends as mayor, struggles to find support on the City Council and has gained a reputation as a pugilistic and mercurial leader.
Mr. Vallas, 69, has taken a lead in the polls, but has also been dogged by ideological inconsistencies. He said in a television interview in 2009 that he considered himself more of a Republican than a Democrat, a strike against Mr. Vallas in the eyes of many voters in overwhelmingly liberal Chicago. Last week, The Chicago Tribune reported that Mr. Vallas’s Twitter account had liked a series of tweets that used insulting and racist language; Mr. Vallas suggested that hackers were to blame.
Ms. Lightfoot is also fighting a challenge from Brandon Johnson, a Democratic county board commissioner who has been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union. Mr. Johnson staked out a position to the left of Ms. Lightfoot on policing, at one point suggesting that he agreed with the movement to reduce funding to police departments, though he later backtracked.
Another contender, Representative Jesús G. García, is also competing for votes from progressives: He traces his Chicago political experience back to the campaign to elect the city’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. Mr. García, who was born in Mexico, would be Chicago’s first Hispanic mayor. In 2015, he ran for mayor against the incumbent, Rahm Emanuel, winning enough votes to force a runoff.
At a campaign stop on the North Side, Mr. García said he was optimistic about qualifying for the runoff. “It’s down to turnout, and that’s what we’re focusing on today: door-knocking, phone calls, texts, everything we can,” Mr. García said. “It’ll be a tight race.”
Mr. García said he was hopeful that Chicago would know the election results on Tuesday night, but that he was bracing for the possibility that the race could remain uncalled.
While mail-in ballots received by elections officials before Tuesday were expected to be counted and reported on Election Day, late-arriving mail ballots will not be counted until Wednesday or later. About 100,000 mail-in ballots sent to voters had not been received by elections administrators as of Monday evening.
Polls suggest that Willie Wilson, a businessman with a base of support from working-class Black voters, is also within striking distance of the runoff.
With nine candidates to choose from, some voters remained unsure of who to back even as they approached the polls on Tuesday. Jimmy Cooks, 66, who voted for Ms. Lightfoot in the last election, said he would not do so again because of what he saw as her unsteady handling of both the pandemic and crime.
“She’s a suspect,” he said of the mayor. “She’s not a prospect anymore. We need prospects.”
Mr. Cooks, a retired Comcast contractor, said he hadn’t made up his mind about who to vote for, but he was against seasoned politicians like Ms. Lightfoot, Mr. Vallas and Mr. García.
“We need new blood, new ideas,” he said, adding that he “likes the look” of Mr. Johnson.
“Whoever wins is going to have a tough job,” he said.
Reporting was contributed by Mitch Smith, Robert Chiarito and Dan Simmons.