By now you should know there’s no such thing as a political off-season.
Sure, the midterms are over and the Presidential race has yet to fully ramp up, but some of America’s biggest cities – Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Houston and Philadelphia – are in the midst of mayoral primaries.
The largest metropolis of them all, Chicago, is also the first to vote. On February 28th, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is seeking a second term against a packed field of challengers. Should no candidate win a majority of the vote, then the top two finishers advance to an April 4th run-off.
You can bet I’ll be covering those contests, so to prepare for Election Night(s) I’ve compiled this run-down of the nine candidates vying to lead the Windy City in 2023.
It’s never a good sign when an incumbent starts off their re-election campaign on the defensive.
Mayor Lightfoot’s opening TV ad runs down a litany of complaints she’s faced, at one point conceding “I’m only human and I guess sometimes it shows.” On top of that, in another commercial she concedes “I’m not going to sit here and tell you we did everything perfectly. We haven’t.”
As you might expect given those admissions, Mayor Lightfoot’s approval ratings are abysmal and her standing in the 2023 primary polls is taking a nosedive. With the COVID pandemic and rising fears over crime, it’s been a tough few years for mayors everywhere, and Lightfoot’s iconoclastic nature has managed to alienate both moderates and progressives.
Lightfoot is still the incumbent, though, so she’s got the support of Senator Duckworth and several members of Congress. Nevertheless, at this rate, it’s getting harder to imagine how she’ll secure a second term.
Instead of Lightfoot, the front-runner in this contest is actually Congressman Chuy Garcia, the representative for the heavily Hispanic West Side of the city. Garcia, who also ran for Mayor in 2015 and advanced to the run-off against then-incumbent Rahm Emmanuel, finishes in the top two of every 2023 poll so far.
Therefore, Mayor Lightfoot is up on the airwaves attacking Garcia for his relationships with crypto-fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried and indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
In the racial politics of the Windy City, Garcia has the advantage of being the only Latino candidate in a field that includes six Black contenders. After all, the 2020 Census found for the first time that Hispanics surpassed African-Americans to become the second-largest group in Chicago (29.8% to 28.7%).
On top of that, while Garcia doesn’t have the support of any of his Congressional colleagues, he does lead the field in labor endorsements.
Possibly making a move to the top of the pack is Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who one survey found jumping from single digits to top contender status. Johnson is running with the backing of two of his colleagues on the Board of Commissioners as well as Congresswoman Delia Ramirez.
Johnson, a former teacher himself, also has the support of the city’s various teachers unions – as well as the local SEIU chapter. If Lightfoot is successfully able to hamper Garcia, that will leave an avenue for another candidate, like Johnson, to potentially make the April 4th run-off.
Another contender aiming to sneak into the run-off is former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Paul Vallas. Vallas is a bit of a perennial candidate, several times coming up just short of a career-altering victory.
Way back in 2002, for example, Vallas narrowly lost the Democratic Gubernatorial primary to the notorious Rod Blagojevich (nearly saving Illinois Democrats a ton of trouble in the process). Twelve years later, in 2014, he won the party’s nomination for Lt. Governor, only to lose in the general. Finally, in 2019, Vallas ran for Mayor but got lost amid the giant field of candidates and finished 9th.
Now, with the support of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, and a laser-like focus on crime, he has a possible path in this contest. Vallas is the only white candidate in the race, though, so this will involve walking a delicate tightrope.
Speaking of perennial candidates, there’s Willie Wilson. Wilson first ran for Mayor back in 2015, finishing a respectable third behind Emmanuel and Garcia. Yet he then decided to try for the White House in 2016, an experience that apparently left him bitter enough to cross party lines and vote for Trump.
Fast forward to 2019, when Wilson again ran for Mayor of Chicago, this time with the backing of the Cook County Republican Party. Wilson regressed a bit, coming in fourth place on this second try. He remained undeterred, however, challenging Sen. Richard Dubin in 2020 as an Independent – yet getting just 3.9% of the vote.
Now Wilson is betting the third time’s the charm, and perhaps thanks to support from Chicago Republicans, most surveys show him in double digits. It’s unclear, though, how Wilson can expand his ceiling past this mark.
We now reach the next tier of candidates, those just hoping to break through, win some attention and maybe set themselves up for a future race down the line. One such hopeful is Buckner, who in 2019 was appointed to a State House seat in the heart of the city.
King sits on the Chicago City Council, and serves as Chair of the Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus. She’s got friends in high places, including Barack and Michelle Obama as well as Mellody Hobson, yet none of them have stepped in to help her out in this race. So long as they stay on the sidelines, King won’t be considered a major contender.
A community activist, Green is running as a progressive outsider. A supporter of Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement, Green is running to the left of the rest of the field. Green briefly ran for Mayor four years ago before dropping out, but it looks like he’ll make the ballot this time.
Roderick Sawyer is the son of Eugene Sawyer, who took over as Mayor after the death of Harold Washington. Roderick first ran for office in 2011, getting elected to the Chicago City Council, where he’s served ever since. Despite his pedigree and experience, Sawyer hasn’t made much of an impact on the race.