(Adds voter quotes, context)
By Brendan O'Brien and Karen Pierog
CHICAGO, April 2 (Reuters) - Lori Lightfoot, a political newcomer, was on track to be elected the first black female mayor of Chicago on Tuesday, with a massive lead over opponent Toni Preckwinkle in a city struggling with crime and poor finances.
With more than half of precincts counted, former president of independent civilian body the Chicago Police Board, Lightfoot, 56, had 74 percent of votes while Preckwinkle, 72, a long-time local politician had 26 percent in a runoff to become Chicago's 56th mayor.
Lightfoot, who will also become the first openly gay mayor of the third-largest U.S. city, appealed to voters who are tired of politics as usual. She has never held political office, while Preckwinkle was a city councilwoman for almost 20 years before becoming Cook County board president in 2010.
"I voted for Lori Lightfoot ... I think the other one, Preckwinkle, is in politics too long. You know, too much of a machine," said John Reyes, 71, speaking outside a polling place in the Albany Park neighborhood.
The runoff between two African-American women was a rarity in the United States, where only 6 percent of mayors in the 200 U.S. largest cities are women of color, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign.
Lightfoot and Preckwinkle earned spots on the ballot after they garnered the most votes among 14 candidates in a February election. The winner will replace Rahm Emanuel, who is not seeking a third term.
"Clearly, Lori offers us the best chance for real change," said Virginia McGathey, 60, who has been a broker at the world's largest agricultural exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade, for more than 35 years. "She (Lightfoot) has an opportunity to make enormous strides for women, for women of color, for women of all different backgrounds."
Lightfoot will inherit massive fiscal challenges including a $28 billion unfunded liability for the city's four retirement systems and escalating annual pension contributions that will top $2 billion in 2023.
A projected $252 million budget deficit for fiscal 2020, which begins Jan. 1, awaits the new mayor, along with expired or expiring labor contracts with police, firefighter and public school teacher unions.
Neither candidate disclosed detailed plans to shore up the city's sagging finances.
In debates, Lightfoot, a former corporate lawyer, said the city has to demonstrate it can be a "better fiscal steward" before it seeks more revenue.
Web designer Mary Farrelly, 30, in the city's north side said she did not like that Preckwinkle imposed a soda tax on Cook County in 2017 and supported Lightfoot.
"I feel like she (Lightfoot) has a better take on not taxing us," Farrelly said while walking her dog.
Lightfoot will take over a city ranked as one of the nation's most violent. Homicides in Chicago declined by more than a quarter in 2018 from its five-year high of 769 in 2016. But less than one out of five murders was solved in Chicago in the first half of 2018, according to local media.
The next mayor will be expected to deliver on a campaign promise to reform the police department currently under court-appointed oversight to address a 2017 Justice Department finding of widespread excessive force and racial bias by officers.
On day one, she will also have to find a way to ease tension between the police department and state's attorney after prosecutors decided to drop charges against actor Jussie Smollett, who was accused of staging a hate crime attack.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien and Karen Pierog in Chicago Additional reporting by Bob Chiarito, Karl Plume, Mark Weinraub, Julie Ingwersen and Tom Polansek in Chicago; Writing by Caroline Stauffer Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Matthew Lewis)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.