Calling herself an agent of change and “the only rational choice” for Chicago voters, Mayor Lori Lightfoot filed her paperwork Monday for a reelection run.
But the end of the weeklong filing period only further highlighted the difficult race ahead of her, with the last of eight remaining major challengers — U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García and Ald. Roderick Sawyer — also petitioning to get onto the Feb. 28 ballot.
“With the filing today, one chapter in the campaign ends and another opens,” she said after submitting a stack of nominating papers that, sitting on the Board of Elections table, almost reached her shoulders.
Surrounded by supporters and Chicago first lady Amy Eshleman, Lightfoot quipped that her pile of more than 40,000 signatures “looks like enough to me” before expressing that the next focus is on telling voters “why the only rational choice is to return me to office.”
She touted her record, asserting she’s run the country’s “most equitable” vaccine program, made progress toward transforming Chicago into the “safest big city in the nation” and protected “workers and workers’ rights.” She also tried to evoke the energy of her first campaign in 2019 as one of insurgency and change — though this time she runs as the incumbent.
“What’s on the ballot is, do we return to the status quo that left huge swaths of our city, of our residents out of the equation, out of the future of Chicago? Or do we keep forging ahead on the path that we’ve been on?” Lightfoot said. “And the path that we’ve been on, folks, unapologetically, it’s about equity. It’s about inclusion. It’s about making sure that no part of our city is forgotten, that every part gets resources and gets dealt in to the prosperity of our city.”
Chicago’s nominating petition process is one of the most prominent holdovers of the old-school political machine. To run for mayor, a candidate must submit 12,500 signatures from voters, which can be disqualified on narrow technical grounds. Before Monday, six candidates had submitted signatures to run for mayor: Ald. Sophia King, activist Ja’Mal Green, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, businessman Willie Wilson and state Rep. Kam Buckner.
García, a later entry into the race as an announced candidate, also submitted his petitions late Monday.
Flanked by supporters and rolling in what he said was nearly 50,000 signatures wrapped in green cellophane and bound with a printout of his trademark mustache logo, García was first in line to file at the 4 p.m. lottery deadline. That ensures he’ll be the last name Chicago voters would see on the ballot, if he survives any petition challenges.
At García’s side Monday evening was labor fixture Clem Balanoff. In the crowd behind him were Ald. Mike Rodriguez, who holds García’s old 22nd Ward seat on the City Council, and Commissioner Alma Anaya, who replaced García on the Cook County Board.
“This is a demonstration of the type of power and grassroots campaign that I will engage in,” García said, noting he had only officially been in the race for three weeks and had already raised substantial funds. “We plan to deliver a sharp message to Chicagoans about how we get Chicago back on track, make it work for everyone, make Chicago a safe city, a clean city, a prosperous city that ensures that everyone has the ability to achieve their full potential.”
Though he did not name Lightfoot, García said Chicagoans were ready for a change, and that he would focus on being a “good listener,” a “collaborator” and “inclusive.”
Asked if he could galvanize progressive voters, Garcia said his 40 years of public service were a “testament” to his values. “I don’t change with the seasons, that is the record I will share and take to the people of Chicago. … The filing today demonstrates that in a very short amount of time, we connected with Chicagoans all over this city. And that’s what will lead us to victory.”
Besides García and Lightfoot, the only other major announced mayoral candidate who hadn’t filed going into Monday was Sawyer.
Sawyer would not say how many signatures he’d collected but told reporters he had “a sufficient number,” and “threw out a lot more than we do on a normal basis” to ensure they were all high quality.
Sawyer, son of former Mayor Eugene Sawyer, touted his status as a Chicagoan, “born and bred,” who will focus on “resetting what government really looks like to the average person” who is not being served. “We want safe schools, we want vibrant business districts, we want to be safe when we come and go from our homes … with a strong and effective but responsible police force … being engaged with businesses in the community, making sure that we grow.”
Lightfoot’s decision not to file on the first day drew scorn from rivals, who said it reflected organizational challenges as the mayor fights an uphill battle to win reelection. But Lightfoot has shrugged off the criticism.
She also went against conventional wisdom Monday by submitting her petitions first thing on the last day of filing rather than at the end of the day. That means she’s also forgoing the chance to be last on the ballot, which is often preferred if a candidate doesn’t appear first.
The incumbent mayor said her lack of interest in playing that game was because she isn’t worried about name recognition — and because “I actually got a city to run as well.”
“The position on the ballot is if you are an unknown, and people don’t know you. They know who I am,” Lightfoot said, to which a supporter added to reporters, “You better listen.”
The coalition of supporters flanking Lightfoot included the colorfully dressed activist Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a pardoned ex-gang enforcer who has been a frequent presence at Chicago City Hall, and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, a longtime member of the city’s Black political establishment who recently fended off a progressive primary challenger to win a 14th term in Congress.
With Monday’s deadline to file nominating signatures, Chicago’s election cycle now enters a bare-knuckle period where candidates for local office try to knock each other off the ballot. Candidates will have until Dec. 5 to challenge their rivals’ signatures.
In the 2019 election for mayor, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — who ultimately lost to Lightfoot in a runoff — succeeded in getting former Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown kicked off the ballot. That year, Green also withdrew while facing a stiff challenge from Wilson.
Election lawyers often encourage candidates to collect roughly three times the minimum number of signatures because challengers can use charges of forgery, fraud and more minor technicalities to invalidate signatures and knock opponents out of the race. Lightfoot on Monday said she amassed more than 40,000 signatures, more than three times the threshold.
García said challenging other candidates’ signatures is “not a priority for us.”
“We think everyone should have access to the ballot,” he said, adding that his own signatures were “challenge-proof.”
If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote Feb. 28, a runoff is scheduled for April 4.
The six candidates who filed first thing on Nov. 21 will be in a lottery to determine who’s first on the ballot.
Besides Lightfoot and her eight major challengers, two other candidates filed for mayor Monday too: Frederick Collins and Johnny Logalbo.
In closing remarks before walking out of the elections board room, Lightfoot sought to warn the media that though incumbents like her face a “tough environment,” her candidacy is not to be counted out.
“I know how to build coalitions. I know how to bring people together,” Lightfoot said. “Every single time there’s been a challenge and you all are speculating, ‘She can’t get it done because of this, that and the other and people don’t like her personality and whatnot,’ we deliver, every single time. So print that.”