Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks with the press after casting her ballot at an early voting location on February 20, 2023.
CNN  — 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, after years of battles with teachers’ and police unions, is seeking to survive the first round of voting Tuesday in her bid for a second term.

Lightfoot is facing eight challengers in the race. Since no candidate is expected to top the 50% necessary to avoid a runoff, the candidates are battling for a top-two finish to advance to an April 4 runoff.

Four contenders have emerged at the top of the race: Lightfoot, the incumbent; progressive Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia; Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson; and Paul Vallas, who was head of schools in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

Vallas has the backing of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. Johnson, meanwhile, is endorsed by the Chicago Teachers’ Union, a powerful organization that has repeatedly clashed with Lightfoot – including battles in 2019 over teachers’ pay and class sizes that led to an 11-day strike, and last year as Lightfoot pushed teachers to return to classrooms despite rising Covid-19 cases.

Lightfoot, the first Black woman and first out gay person to serve as mayor in a major city often pilloried by conservatives in national debates over violence and gun control, rose to prominence as a pugnacious reformer promising a break from the corruption and clubby governance that had long marked Chicago politics.

But years of contentious brawls over policing, teacher pay, Covid-19 public safety policies, as well as mounting complaints about long waits in Chicago’s public transit system, have left Lightfoot vulnerable, raising the stunning prospect of the Second City ousting its incumbent mayor in the first round of voting.

The race has largely revolved around crime, as concerns about public safety have rattled Chicago.

Violence in the city spiked in 2020 and 2021. And though shootings and murders have decreased since then, other crimes – including theft, car-jacking, robberies and burglaries – have increased since last year, according to the Chicago Police Department’s 2022 year-end report.

Lightfoot and her rivals have placed the issue at the forefront of their campaigns.

“We absolutely need to hire more officers,” Lightfoot said at a WTTW mayoral forum earlier this month. “This is one of the toughest times in the country to recruit and mayors all over the country are experiencing the difficulty.”

Vallas, however, has attracted support from conservatives, and has described the Democratic Party as moving away from him in recent years. Lightfoot, in an email to supporters, said Vallas “has so strongly aligned himself with Republican views that he can’t even be considered a moderate Democrat.”

“I have talked about the need to take our city back from the criminals that are preying on our residents and preying on our businesses,” Vallas told CNN in an interview.

Johnson, meanwhile, has floated the idea in the past of diverting some funds from the police budget to alternate sources, saying he wants to “invest in people.”

Garcia – who in 2015 forced then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff – has sounded similar themes.

“Hiring more civilians to free up more police officers with their guns and badges to walk the walk, to talk to people, rebuild trust is the most important. The other important element is investing in communities and investing in violence prevention programs,” he told CNN.

Vallas, whose message has revolved around a tough-on-crime message, said Chicago needs more police on “L” station platforms and on trains as part of a push to place more officers on local beats.

He said combatting violent crime is the “first, second and third priority” of his campaign.

“Everything becomes undermined if you can’t provide public security,” he told CNN.