Mayor Lori Lightfoot urged Black residents to support her campaign for reelection or risk losing the seat and told people who don’t support her not to vote in a vivid display of the city’s racial politics during appearances Saturday on the South and West sides.

After a swift social media backlash, Lightfoot’s campaign released a statement Sunday evening declaring that she “urges every Chicagoan to exercise their rights and get out to vote,” a reversal from her prior statement.

The controversy kicked off earlier in the day, when Lightfoot argued to Black voters that they shouldn’t vote for rival candidates.

“Any vote coming from the South Side for somebody not named Lightfoot is a vote for ‘Chuy’ Garcia or Paul Vallas,” Lightfoot said, naming the only Latino and white challengers in the race.

“If you want them controlling your destiny, then stay home. Then don’t vote. But we’ve got to do better.”

Lightfoot is facing eight opponents in the Feb. 28 election as she seeks a second term. Six of her rivals are Black, which has become a talking point for the mayor and her allies who worry about splitting the vote.

The remarks came at a rally that frequently tapped into the historic disinvestment that South Side neighborhoods have suffered, with the mayor once again saying the “destiny” of Black Chicago is on the ballot.

The comments also come as early voting, especially via mail, is far outpacing recent municipal election turnout. Voting authorities previous said they remain hopeful voter turnout reaches 40% of registered voters for the first time since 2011. With a little more than a week to go, some of the top spots for early voting were on the Northwest and Southwest sides, which are greater strongholds for Vallas and potentially Garcia.

Inside the brightly lit New Life Covenant Church Southeast , 7621 S. Greenwood Ave., in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on Saturday morning, Lightfoot invoked religious themes and quoted Bible verses before telling the story of City Council propping up Eugene Sawyer to replace Mayor Harold Washington after he died in office — before “dropping him like a bad habit” and ceding control back to the white Democratic establishment, a version of history that has been disputed by other Black candidates and historians.

“We need the South Side to come like a mighty roar to the polls,” Lightfoot said. “We don’t need to be the Israelites wandering in the desert for 30 years. We need to get to the promised land right now, right here, and we won’t get there if you don’t vote.”

Lightfoot was joined by former U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, who supported her opponent in 2019 and suggested at a rally that more Black people would be killed by police if she got elected mayor. This time, however, Rush is backing Lightfoot and working to give her a boost with Black voters as she attempts to remake her political base.

In the first round of the 2019 mayoral race, Lightfoot emerged from a historic 14-candidate field with roughly 18% of the vote. Much of it came from white lakefront residents on the North Side who backed her over more established politicians.

Many of those voters are now disenchanted with Lightfoot, and she has been working vigorously to lock in support from the Black community.

Lightfoot has recently made a series of comments urging Black residents to coalesce behind her candidacy or risk losing City Hall. Lightfoot recently stood with a group of ministers who criticized other Black candidates for being in the race and potentially dividing up community support on the South and West sides.

Rush made the same argument at Saturday’s rally, leading residents in chanting, “keep the seat” and “down with the wannabes and up with Lori.”

Chicago is a deeply segregated story with a long history of racially polarized politics, which Lightfoot has previously decried.

Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO who has been criticized for associating with the Fraternal Order of Police, recently told a Southwest Side crowd that his campaign is “about taking back our city,” a comment that rings of a dog whistle to some.

Garcia criticized the mayor’s comments on Twitter.

“This is disqualifying rhetoric for anyone hoping to lead a Chicago that is a multiracial and multiethnic city,” Garcia said. “We need unity not division.”

Cook County commissioner Brandon Johnson’s campaign also responded.

“We can do better than this, y’all,” the campaign tweeted. “Just on principle, Chicago can do so much better.”

Activist Ja’Mal Green condemned Lightfoot’s remarks in a statement, calling them “an affront to democratic process, where each person’s voice is heard at the ballot box.”

Another mayoral challenger, businessman Willie Wilson, also criticized Lightfoot for what he said were “race baiting” comments.

“Mayor Lightfoot’s comments are delusional, divisive, dangerous, and disappointing!” Wilson said in a statement. “Our city deserves a mayor that does not use race to divide us.”

Later, during an afternoon rally at a community center in West Garfield Park, more surrogates for Lightfoot’s campaign implored the audience not to split the Black vote as the mayor sat in the front row and looked on.

City treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin touted how in 2019, none of the several white candidate made the runoff. Then she warned that this time around, Black candidates are crowding the ballot list at seven candidates.

”You don’t have to be the treasurer to add up these numbers,” Conyears-Ervin said. “It would behoove us to coalesce behind one candidate.”

And Congressman Danny Davis used a metaphor to explain how to tap into the power of the Black vote, saying he has never seen chickens following a turtle.

”If a chicken got sense enough who to follow, and what to follow, birds of a feather flock together,” Davis said. “If you split up everything, it makes it look like you’re not getting the support because you’re going in all kind of different directions.”

This has been updated to correct the name of the church where Lightfoot appeared Saturday morning.

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