Elected to lead: Women of color hold top offices in Chicago and Cook County
For the first time in history, a large U.S. metropolitan area will be led by women of color.
Lori Lightfoot made national news when she was elected mayor of Chicago April 2. She is the first Black woman and first lesbian mayor-elect.
Lightfoot defeated Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County board president, in the April runoff. Lightfoot and Preckwinkle were the top vote getters in the Feb. 26 primary. Preckwinkle remains county board president and is the first Black woman and first woman to hold that office.
Chicago is the third largest city in the nation. Cook County, a Democratic stronghold, is the second largest county in the country. Black women are leading both governments.
But history doesn’t stop there. If you look at the city’s and county’s other top offices, they are almost all led by women of color.
(Chicago’s city council also made history by electing five socialist aldermen, representing ten percent of the city’s 50 wards. A record number of Latinos were elected to the council as well.)
The city’s treasurer-elect, Melissa Conyears-Ervin, a former Illinois state representative, is African American. She defeated the city’s first Asian American alderman Amaya Pawar in the April 2, 2019, runoff. City Clerk Anna Valencia, elected in 2016, is Mexican American. The city’s three top posts are held by women of color.
Cook County government has nine individual offices, a 17-member Board of Commissioners and a three-member Board of Review, all elected. Women hold five of the nine individual offices, four of whom are women of color, including Preckwinkle. Among its many services, Cook County runs the second-largest public health system in the country, the largest forest preserve district in the United States and one of the largest court and legal systems in the world.
The other offices held by women of color are State’s Attorney, Clerk and Circuit Court Clerk. Maria Pappas, who is white, is county treasurer.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is the first African American woman to hold that office. Foxx was elected in 2016 on the promise to conduct fair investigations into police shootings. Her primary opponent and incumbent, Anita Alvarez was implicated in the cover up of the murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police officer Jason VanDyke. Foxx was Preckwinkle’s chief of staff and is currently the target of police ire for the Jussie Smollett case. Foxx’s office declined to prosecute Smollett. The Fraternal Order of Police and a group of suburban police chiefs have demanded Foxx’s resignation. Foxx also made national news when her office indicted R. Kelly on four sexual abuse charges. Civil rights activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, spoke in her defense, criticizing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Chief Eddie Johnson.
“This hasn’t nothing to do with Jussie Smollett, this has something to do with a black woman having the power that every prosecutor has,” Sharpton said on March 30 during a visit to Chicago.
Black women have been continually underrepresented in positions of power. There has never been an African American woman governor, for example, and only two U.S. senators. The first was Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois from 1993 to 1999. Sen. Kamala Harris of California is the second. Because Black women face discrimination based on race and sex, and often class, when they are in positions of power, they can face blow back and double standards, to which Sharpton was alluding.
Other top elected county officials are Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough and Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Dorothy Brown, both of whom are Black.
The little-known but vitally important Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) is governed by an elected board of commissioners. The board’s president and vice-president, Kari Steele and Barbara McGowan, are African American women. The MWRD manages water quality, flood control and public health for Chicago and surrounding cities, towns and villages with a $1.2 billion budget and 2,000 employees.
In addition to the importance of women of color occupying positions of power, where previously they were kept out, seeing diverse representation and leadership can inspire girls and younger women of all backgrounds to speak up and lead.
It seems the historic gains made by women, including women of color, during the 2018 congressional and gubernatorial elections, are continuing into 2019 and with unity and organizing, hopefully into 2020.