Monday morning, the Chicago Board of Elections supersite downtown filled up with a motley collection of political power players, good government enthusiasts, wannabes, optimists, has-beens, never-wases and other characters looking to stamp their ticket to City Hall for the next four years.
Candidates who showed up on the first day to file petition signatures and got in line by 9 a.m. — and those included several for mayor but not incumbent Lori Lightfoot herself — earned a shot at appearing on the top of the ballot in their race, a spot that consultants say gives candidates a modest leg up in elections that sometimes come down to the very last vote.
With 10 announced candidates for mayor, this year’s petition kickoff also present a chance for candidates to show off their organizational might. That number has already been reduced by one, with Ald. Ray Lopez announcing early Monday he won’t seek the top job at City Hall but will instead be running for re-election.
Lightfoot declared last week that she wouldn’t be submitting her signatures on the first day and would, instead, wait until the last day to file as she did in 2018.
“There’s no magic to it, but we’ll wait till the 28th,” Lightfoot said.
The difference between then and now, however, is that Lightfoot in 2018 was a longshot candidate facing fierce headwinds against much better known opponents. This time, Lightfoot again is facing fierce headwinds from a crowded field of rivals, but she has the benefits of incumbency.
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Prior to the start of filing, one of her challengers, businessman Willie Wilson, called her out for not planning to file on the first day.
“We plan on being first. We have over 60-some-thousand petitions already,” Wilson said last week. “We will have people camping out overnight for us. … It’s obvious that she’s having a lot of problems getting petitions signed.”
Chicago’s petition nominating process is one of the most prominent holdovers of old-school machine politics. To run for mayor, a candidate must submit 12,500 signatures from voters, which can be disqualified on narrow technical grounds.
Fourth Ward Ald. Sophia King, another mayoral contender, said Monday she submitted upwards of 37,000 signatures. Without naming the mayor, she pointed out she was the only woman to file first-thing Monday and pointed out “most people file on the first day if they’ve got strong signatures.”
“I think that’s a strong message that people are hearing our message and that we are here to collaborate, not be combative, but to bring people together and make sure that our city is heading in the right direction,” she told reporters.
Among the top issues she said she’d address as mayor: crime.
“We’re talking about bringing in more officers on day one, sitting from the shifts to two shifts. We’re talking about putting $200 million towards violence prevention,” and hiring more detectives.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas touted having “north of 40,000″ signatures and said his supporters have “had no trouble at all” collecting them from all parts of the city, “so I’m heartened.” He also noting the absence of Lightfoot at Monday’s filing.
Vallas said he thinks Lopez’s departure from the race will help him, saying Lopez has “always been outspoken on public safety.”
Another mayoral contender who filed Monday, state Rep. Kam Buckner, boasted just shy of 25,000 signatures. Buckner, who appeared alongside his mother, a former CPS teacher, underscored his early entry into the race.
“We have not used conjecture and leveraging and pontificating on whether or not we want to be mayor of Chicago,” Buckner said, an apparent reference to relatively late comers to the race like U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García.
Asked about Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, another candidate trying to dominate the progressive wing of the field, Buckner said: Being the mayor of Chicago is about actually getting stuff done. … There is no ‘chosen’ coordination here. The people of Chicago are the people who are going to decide.”
For his part, Johnson said he had more than 300 volunteers who helped him gather more than 41,000 signatures.
“I think that the residents of Chicago are very clear that they want leadership that’s collaborative, that’s competent and compassionate. I possess all three,” Johnson told reporters.
He did not comment on Lopez’s decision to drop out or worries about a crowded field, focusing instead on what a “disappointment” Lightfoot has been to local progressives.
Nor would Johnson say whether Rep. Garcia’s apparent decision not to file Monday was a sign of weakness. “I think the focus for me is that me filing today expresses the strength of the progressive movement. It expresses the strength of the coalition that I’ve been building over the course of 20 years in this city.”
He added: “Look, the fact that we have unemployment in communities throughout the city of Chicago that have reached Great Depression era numbers, that’s what our fight has to be about.”
Community activist Ja’Mal Green touted his youth, as well as we his 30,000 signatures, in his second run for mayor.
“We need young leaders who are not tainted like the rest of these politicians who have failed us for so long,” he said. “Let me say, I know a lot of media, a lot of folks will underestimate us, but I want you all to please understand. Don’t underestimate those young people who are looking for someone to speak about their future.”
While she didn’t file Monday and was the subject of much criticism from her many challengers, Lightfoot was able to demonstrate the advantage of incumbency on another front. She was due to appear with a high-profile federal official, Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg, for an “infrastructure announcement” at O’Hare International Airport.
Candidates mostly declined to say if they would challenge others’ nominating petitions. Their submission begins a roughly monthlong period where candidates often challenge their rivals’ petitions in hopes of knocking people off the ballot.
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A young lawyer named Barack Obama famously won his first state senate seat by knocking the incumbent, Alice Palmer, off the ballot with a petition challenge.
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. Activist Ja’Mal Green also withdrew while facing a stiff challenge from Wilson.
This being Chicago, candidates sometimes file challenges in an effort to force opponents to waste time and money defending their signatures. Preckwinkle was unsuccessful in challenging signatures submitted by Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and Lightfoot.
Election lawyers often encourage candidates to collect roughly three times the minimum 12,500 number because challengers can use charges of forgery, fraud and more minor technicalities to invalidate signatures and knock opponents out of the race.
While candidates often submit their names on the first day of filing, there are strategic advantages to waiting. Filing at the end may give candidates more time to collect signatures and leave their opponents with one fewer week to sift through signatures and file a challenge.
The last day of filing this year is Nov. 28. The objection filing deadline is Dec. 5. The election takes place Feb. 28, and if no one gets at least half the vote, a runoff between the top two will be held April 4.