Race to Replace: 14 candidates vying for mayor’s seat


Race to Replace: 14 candidates vying for mayor’s seat

With the Feb. 26 mayoral election just  a day away, Chicago residents may need to brush up on their politics to figure out which of the 14 candidates they will vote for to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel announced he would not seek re-election Sept. 4 after two terms in office.Emanuel’s time as mayor was met with anger following school closings. But it was the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald that led to calls for his resignation.

Polling data has several candidates flip-flopping between the top spots as some come in with little political experience, while others have held local and statewide office.

For a candidate to win the election, they must gain more than 50 percent of the vote. If no candidate reaches that threshold, a runoff will be held April 2 between the top two vote-getters.

The Chronicle contacted the mayoral candidates to discuss the essential questions on voters’ minds, including how they will help college students in the city and what they would have done about the McDonald dashcam video. Plus, they were asked to share a fun fact about themselves.

THE CHRONICLE: Why are you the best candidate?

Gery Chico: I bring the most experience in terms of where I lived in the city, where I grew up and what I have done professionally in government and in the business sector. I am a lifelong Chicagoan. I grew up on the Southwest side, [and] I have lived in seven or eight neighborhoods in this city. I know this city and how it ticks, and that is very important for whoever the next mayor will be, so that you can relate to the issues that affect the people of this city. Secondly, on the professional side I have been a practicing attorney for 32 years, I basically ran the operations of the city of Chicago when I was chief of staff for Mayor Daley. I was chairman of the Chicago School Board where we turned it around and made it a model for the rest of the country according to Bill Clinton. I headed up the park district, I headed up the City Colleges of Chicago and I was chairman of the State Board of Education for Illinois. So I have had all these experiences and delivered results in each and every one of these places. That experience coupled with my vision for where the city should go— making it more affordable, making the streets safer and our schools better throughout the city—is what qualifies me as the best candidate.

Bob Fioretti: I have the experience and common sense, and I have been fighting for the people in Chicago, especially the working-class people, all my life. These candidates that are coming aboard now are finally adapting and embracing all the reforms that I have been talking about for the last 10 years. Half of them criticized me, and the other half sat silently in the weeds and said nothing. I am surprised that all of a sudden these people are reformers.

LaShawn Ford: It’s time we have someone that’s willing to fight for working men and women in the city of Chicago. That’s very important that we have someone that has the experience in government to tackle problems that the city of Chicago continues to have. As State Representative for the last twelve years, many of the problems that we see in Chicago, the solutions are in Springfield and there’s not one candidate with the ability to pass legislation in Springfield other than me. Which means that I have the ability to work with the speaker and other members to get the Chicago agenda passed.

John Kozlar: We have a tendency in Chicago of electing the same people over and over, and nothing ever changes. I am a candidate who is not tied to the past. I’m also the youngest person to ever run in the history of Chicago for mayor. It’s time we have the next generation get more involved in politics and actually have a seat at the table when it comes to making decisions. The future of Chicago is what we’re going to be accustomed to, and I’d rather have somebody who is a part of the next generation work with communities to make those decisions.

Susana Mendoza: I have the greatest wealth of experience [because] I’m someone who knows how to navigate Springfield better than any of the other candidates running for office, having been a state legislator for 10 years. I have held executive office at the city level as well, having run the city clerk’s office—which is the second largest office after the mayor’s office in Chicago. As comptroller of Illinois, I’ve had the unique experience of managing the state through the very worst fiscal crisis in our state’s history, and done so … in a way that accomplished what most people thought would be impossible. It’s important that the people of Chicago elect a mayor who is battle-tested on the financial side and from a legislative standpoint. Our ability to get things done in Springfield becomes so much more important, especially considering we live in a Donald-Trump America where we’re not getting much of anything from the federal government. A lot of the other candidates, frankly, represent the past [and] everything that’s wrong with Chicago. Many of the mistakes that were made in the past were influenced by some of the other candidates. I represent the future and leading Chicago forward, not just for the next four years but for the next generation.

Neal Sáles-Griffin: I see myself as someone who can contribute meaningfully and in a way that is distinct from a lot of the other candidates, given my background. I grew up on the South Side, and the experiences that I have been through and the things that I have struggled through are the same struggles that a lot of Chicagoans are facing right now. They are looking for someone to relate to that pain and those experiences. The perspective I bring is someone who went through CPS and struggled … and someone who, despite growing up without a lot of money or resources, … [has managed] to be successful by starting companies and running nonprofits, serving on boards, helping make change, being a teacher, being an entrepreneur and someone who was able to discover some innovative things in Chicago. People are looking for that kind of energy right now, and there is no other candidate in the race who has that kind of experience.

Paul Vallas: There is no candidate in the race with my breadth of experience in the Illinois State Legislature, where I worked for 12 years as the principle policy person to the Senate President Phil Rock and as director [of] the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission under the late Dawn Clark Netsch. My tenure at the city, [as budget director], saw the creation of the city’s first affordable housing program, community policing program, the restoration of 70 percent of the city’s streets and alleys, a community infrastructure program that benefited all 50 of the wards, a historic expansion of city social services and supports and a cap on local property taxes and fees. My tenure at the Chicago Public Schools saw the largest school expansion program in the country, the largest after-school and summer school programs in the country and the largest and most successful [Minority and Women-owned Business Procurement Program] in the nation.

Willie Wilson: I’m honest. I use my own money, so I am not bought by anyone. I’m not going to raise taxes. We’re going to open back up some of the schools and cut the violence down by putting resources into the community.

What will you do for college students?

Chico: We can’t have students visiting Columbia, or presently enrolled, worried about safety. We have to make our communities safe, especially for kids going to college who may not be from this city. Making the city safe around Columbia is critical. We have to keep this city affordable so students living in apartments, taking transportation or trying to get jobs have an ability to live here … without the taxes driving rent sky-high [and] the cost for a cab or a meal being so high. As we recruit talent from your ranks to join the government, I’d attract them … by paying some college debt if they work for city government. Students are walking around with debt. If the city government … can help, that’s a darn good recruiting tool.

Fioretti: When I was the alderman in the 2nd Ward, most of the 16 universities were in my ward. I made sure we had opportunities for everybody, and we even had job fairs. We had items that attracted young folks to come to our colleges. If it wasn’t for the university system here, I think the downtown area would never have survived. The universities [have] created this system that [has kept] a robust downtown area. We owe a debt of gratitude to the past students, and we need to keep attracting more of them here. We need to look at jobs and economic opportunity and good areas. I … was involved a lot with Roosevelt, same thing with Columbia. I will continue to make sure it happens.

Ford: The City of Chicago has … to expand free tuition at city colleges so college students can start and take their prerequisites at a free rate or make sure that when they take their FAFSA or Monetary Award Program grants that it will cover their tuition, books and fees at city colleges. That’s critical going into a successful college career. As mayor, [I would] work with Springfield to make sure that we increase MAP grants for city colleges. That would be very helpful in making sure that college students finish at a four-year university.

Kozlar: My strategy for City Colleges [of Chicago] will be that each college should have the same core of high-quality programs so that no area of the city is discriminated against. Each college will be granted broad autonomy and be encouraged to recruit students aggressively and establish relationships with potential feeder schools and business and industry partners. I also have a three-point plan for college and university student debt [which is] to help existing and former college and university students refinance their debt.

Mendoza: There are a couple things wrong that I want to fix. Number one: We’re losing a lot of college students to out-of-state universities … in the last couple [of] years. As comptroller, I’ve done my best to try to prioritize payments to our universities so that our kids can continue to get their MAP grant funding. Secondly, as candidate for mayor, what I’d like to do is leverage some of our own city’s finances and create an asset to capitalize on the ability for us to offer opportunities for students to refinance their student loan debt. We’d be able to potentially offer them an opportunity to refinance at a lower rate and that would hopefully be able to keep some of our students here in Chicago.

Sáles-Griffin: I have been working with college students for the better part of a decade, helping them make progress and figuring out what they want to do with their lives … and get great jobs. I plan to continue that at scale. My whole career has been helping people who are graduating from high school and college figure out how to live the most awesome life possible. That work will continue, just at a much larger level. Not only will there be additional vocational programs and more resources for educating students, … but on top of that, having someone that can relate to what they are experiencing more directly is going to be a very powerful opportunity for folks to have a greater say for how they want their city to run.

Vallas: My strategy for City Colleges [of Chicago] will be that each college should have the same core of high-quality programs so that no area of the city is discriminated against. Each college will be granted broad autonomy and be encouraged to recruit students aggressively and establish relationships with potential feeder schools and business and industry partners. I also have a three-point plan for college and university student debt, [which is] to help existing and former college and university students refinance their debt.

Wilson: Make sure that, number one, the City of Chicago [sets aside] “x” amount of dollars for those who cannot afford college and put it into a trust fund to help students get through school. Then, when they get out, they can have a low-interest loan to pay it back. Entrepreneurship is the spirit of making yourself able to afford to have a family, take a home and pay your way through college as well.

What is the first thing you’re going to do once you’re in office?

Chico: We are going to get ahold of the safety in our streets. We are going to make the city safer. We do not need to have this continuing string of homicides and shootings in our city. We have to bring back community policing. I am going to hire a new police superintendent to make sure of community policing. We are going to deal with guns in a forceful way. We are going to have a deputy superintendent for gun violence, who is going to work with other agencies—the federal government, our neighboring states, where a lot of the guns are coming form. I want to bring safety to the streets of Chicago so that our residents are comfortable.

Fioretti: I am going to have an open house for all the citizens of the city of Chicago to come through city hall and look at the mayor’s office. I want to make sure that it is always an open door to everybody. I am [also] going to add town hall meetings and schedule them and make sure people know the budget. I will have board meetings throughout the city that people will know of. I am going to fight for strong, tough ethics to change the culture of corruption, especially that is governed by the ‘Ed Burke Four.’ I will root out this corruption tax that is costing the citizens of this city a minimum of $50 million a year.

Ford: On day one we have to make sure that we open up the city government to the people. I will declare immediately a [state] of emergency for the south and west sides of Chicago, where unemployment, crime rates and vacant and abandoned properties have gone unattended for decades.

Kozlar: The biggest thing for me is reducing the crime, and right now, we have a big problem in Chicago where there’s a lot of tension between the police department and the community. My specific plan is to have a 60/40 plan where in order to police a given district, 60 percent of police officers have to live in that district, so we’ll be recruiting more individuals from their neighborhoods so they don’t have to move. What that will entail is then reducing the tension because the police officers will be seen as community members and not as outsiders. They’re going to know the neighborhood better, they’re going to know the residents better and they’re going to be growing their families there. They’re going to naturally want that district to be safe. What you’re doing is having cooperation between the police and the community, which will then lower the tension and then, in turn, lower the crime.

Mendoza: The very first thing I’m going to do after taking my oath is establish my Anti-Corruption, Ethics and Accountability Commission. That is the result of everything we see here happening in Chicago. This is nothing new, it [didn’t] happen overnight, but a lot of people, including myself, are very concerned with the corruption and the violence. One of the things I want to do besides the commission, which is part of my ethics plan, is to get rid of aldermanic prerogative—that’s the number one reason why most aldermen end up getting convicted. This unchecked, uncontrolled power that they have over zoning, licensing, parking zones, loading zones, even street signs, [and] it’s just unbelievable. The amount of unchecked power that aldermen have to either speed up or slow down projects with little to no community input—much of that centers around contributions that are made to campaigns. That’s going to be a priority of mine, as well as [working] on our education system, which will contribute to being able to reduce violence in our city. We have a huge achievement gap here in Chicago. I believe that when babies are born, white babies aren’t any smarter than black or brown babies, yet by the time they get to third or fourth grade you see a dramatic gap in terms of outcomes. That is, frankly, immoral. We need to close that achievement gap and we need to put policies in place in [Chicago Public Schools] that will focus on exactly that. Every decision that I make as mayor, starting on my very first day, regarding education is going to be centered around … helping to close the achievement gap.

Sáles-Griffin: It is part of what I am already doing, so I didn’t even wait to start as mayor to start behaving like one. I am conducting my own version of a forensic audit right now of our finances. If we want to make schools better, streets safer, [increase] resources and access to healthcare and all the major issues that drive people out of this city, we are going to have to fund those programs. That funding right now is the better part of $21.5 billion. I am spending all of my time making sure that everyone understands precisely how their money is being allocated because once we do that we can have a larger conversation about where it should be going.

Vallas: On day one, I will put into motion action to hire officers and detectives and to make the budget a stable, long-term investment vehicle. I have presented a very detailed, comprehensive plan to enable the city to meet its pension funding obligations, structurally balance the budget, re-prioritize the budget to ensure investment in the community and cap annual property tax increases on individual homeowners, landlords and businesses to the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is less. The plan also eliminates the speed and red-light cameras while capping fines to no more than the cost of the fees. As mayor, I will accomplish this by guaranteeing “beat integrity,” by ensuring there are enough police officers to serve every community, that police officers are known to the community and that the next generation of police officers come from the community. I will also ensure that all officers receive high-quality and redundant training. I will also hire retired police officers with investigatory experience to immediately provide investigative support to the [Bureau of Detectives] and create a Witness Protection Program to give detectives the ability to protect witnesses and victims. These tools will help the [Bureau of Detectives] clear cases faster and get more violent criminals off the streets. I will restore the [Specialized] Units to ensure that police can deploy resources to high-crime areas or special events without taking officers away from their individual districts. Finally, I will convert enough public school security positions to CPD positions to ensure that there’s a Chicago police officer in every school and to make available hundreds of police officers for deployment to parks and recreational areas where young people gather when school is out.

Wilson: The first thing that we would do is get a bill passed that would have equality in economic development, jobs and contracts that reflects all 77 communities, TIF dollars and tax dollars and everything. We are not just going to focus on downtown and some other areas, but all communities. We must put those programs together to get them taken care of, that’s the first thing I would do.

Emanuel got a lot of criticism for his handling of the Laquan McDonald case. What would you have done differently?

Chico: I would have released the video. I would have explained to the citizens what happened here. I would have told them it was wrong what happened to this young man, and just be honest and forthright with the citizens early on. Also, I would have immediately engaged in dialogue with all of the affected communities so we can figure out what to do longer term about this situation; about police overacting in some cases and how we vent our frustration and anger when these kinds of things happen. Frankly, I thought the people who were protesting after the McDonald shooting were pretty peaceful and did a good job of getting their message out without harming other people and that’s always very important.

Fioretti: I would have had a professional superintendent running the police department. Someone who knows the streets, knows good police tactics and is in tune with the future of how we [should] deal with our citizens. Chicago police officers have a minimum of 5,000 interactions with citizens a day, and we don’t hear about that. If we would have had a professional running the department … Laquan McDonald’s death would have never happened.

Ford: As mayor I would have made sure … that transparency was paramount. The police superintendent, who I would be responsible for hiring, [would] have to work hand in hand [with me] to make sure that this was transparent to the public. It would be my responsibility to be truthful and transparent to the people in the city of Chicago.

Kozlar: The big thing is just to be honest with people. If we have a bad apple in the police department, we have to hold that individual accountable. [Emanuel] told everybody that the police department is all bad, and I don’t think that helps because there are a lot of good men and women in our police department who have to go to work every day carrying a gun to protect us.

The other thing I would’ve done differently: I would not have covered up the video. Emanuel did that because it was an election year. That was wrong because he just showed that the city government is not credible. People lose trust in the police, and they lose trust in the city government. We have not met our obligation in City Hall, and a lot of people [now] simply don’t trust the government.

Mendoza: I would have immediately fired Garry McCarthy. So many people saw that video, and I have to believe the vast majority of people who saw that video were just disgusted and horrified by it. [McCarthy] wouldn’t have lasted five seconds longer than it took me to see that video and realize that any superintendent who would advise me [to cover it up] would have to go. Moving forward, it’s important that the mayor watch these videos. It should not have taken a court to say that the video had to be released for the mayor to actually look at that video. How do you settle a case for $5 million without actually looking at the video if you’re the mayor? As mayor, I’m going to take that responsibility.

Sáles-Griffin: [I would have] taken ownership right away and been a leader and not somebody that is trying to hedge information.There was an opportunity to step up and take ownership far more openly than what happened, [and] that was a huge misstep. I don’t assume malcontent completely, but I will say that the quiet payment to Laquan McDonald’s family through City Council was problematic and unfortunate in light of a lot of the details that came out afterward.

Vallas: I would have released the video immediately with no cover-up. There will be accountability and responsibility with me as mayor.

Wilson: I would not have covered [it] up like Rahm Emanuel did. I would not have covered it up to get elected, that’s the first thing. I would have had an independent review board made up of citizens to make sure that everything is done up front. We would integrate the Chicago Police Department with different nationalities, so they can be mixing cars together, riding in buses together … so that we can better communicate and understand people of different nationalities and different communities. But we would have made sure that they turned over all evidence … immediately.

What is a secret talent you have or fun fact about you?

Chico: I do fantastic impressions.

Fioretti: I am a really good cook.

Ford: I don’t have one. I can’t dance.

Kozlar: I just completed my first triathlon. I think that’s a secret talent. When you hit 30, things go downhill [in terms of] your talents.

Mendoza: I may be the only candidate, or elected official, to have ever crowd surfed at Lollapalooza.

Sáles-Griffin: I am torn between saying that I am a snowboarder or that I am an introvert, so I will give you both of those.

Vallas: I am a huge movie fan.

Wilson: I know how to balance my own budget. My other talent is that I am a gospel singer.

The following candidates did not take part in The Chronicle interviews:


Bill Daley, 70, was the chief of staff to former President Barack Obama from January 2011 to January 2012. Daley is the brother of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and son of former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Both Daleys served a combined 43 years as mayor. He was endorsed by the Chicago Tribune Feb. 13.


Amara Enyia, 35, is endorsed by Chance the Rapper. Enyia founded the Institute for Cooperative Economics & Economic Innovation. Enyia underreported her income on her taxes and failed to report $21,000 she received after consulting on Chris Kennedy’s governor campaign. She said it was an oversight.


Jerry Joyce, 49, served in the Cook County State Attorney’s office. He was a member of the school board at Marist High School and is part of the Knights of Columbus, a men’s organization through the Catholic Church. He was a key player in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s political strategy team.


Lori Lightfoot, 56, served as president of the Chicago Police Board. She was also the chief of staff and general counsel for the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communication. A lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney, she is the only openly-gay candidate and has been endorsed by the Chicago Sun-Times.


Garry McCarthy, 59, is the former Chicago Police Department superintendent who was fired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel due to his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting in 2015. Before working in the CPD, McCarthy was deputy commissioner for operations in the New York Police Department.


Toni Preckwinkle, 71,  has been the Cook County Board president since 2010. She spent five terms as alderman for the 4th Ward and has been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union. Preckwinkle came under fire for her 2016 soda tax, which was repealed by the Cook County Board the following year.


Visit ColumbiaChronicle.com for additional reporting, or listen to the Feb. 25 episode of “Chronicle Headlines” for biographies of every candidate.