Garcia likely front runner in 2023 race for mayor
by RUSS STEWART
Intimidation is a powerful political weapon. It’s defined as the capacity to scare, to deter with threats (of losing), and to make rivals too timid to challenge. After 4 years as mayor, Lori Lightfoot has intimidated nobody.
To be sure, the mayor postures as a bully, uses coarse language, and has delusions of grandeur, but the reality is that she is on her way to being a one-term mayor. It takes real effort for a Chicago mayor NOT to get re-elected. But Lightfoot has proven herself up to the task. She will follow Jane Byrne (1979-83) and William Dever (1923-27) into the history books.
Congressman Jesus (Chuy) Garcia (D-4) will be Chicago’s next mayor. Garcia is well-positioned to finish first in the Feb.28 primary, and then win the April 4 runoff. Paul Vallas will be the law-and-order candidate, Lightfoot will be lucky to get 25 percent, Willie Wilson has a shot; and Brandon Johnson cannot be discounted.
The upcoming 2023 municipal election will be about the proverbial P’s: Positioning, Personality, Policy/Performance, Petitions and Polling.
PETITIONS: You can’t run for mayor if you can’t get on the ballot. It requires a minimum of 12,500 petition signatures to do so, and at least 20,000 to withstand a challenge. Wilson submitted 60,000 signatures on Nov. 21, the first day to file.
Millionaire Wilson got just over 10 percent in losing 2015 and 2019 mayor bids, is a copious donor to African American churches and got headlines in 2022 for paying for free gasoline in several Chicago neighborhoods.
Vallas came in with about 22,000 signatures, and both Garcia and Lightfoot filed on Nov. 28, the last day. Lightfoot came in with nearly 40,000.
Garcia had volunteers at Nov. 8 polling places, so signatures from actual voting voters are unimpeachable; he came in with 25,000.
“There was no resistance” to signing for Garcia on the Southwest Side and in Hispanic areas, said political consultant Frank Calabrese. “I am told there was a lot of resistance” to signing Lightfoot’s petitions.
As an aside, ex-governor Pat Quinn (2009-14), who lives on the Northwest Side, folded his campaign as soon as Garcia announced. The two appeal to the same mainstream center-Left Democratic base. But the real reason is that he likely couldn’t get signatures. “He’s been gone too long,” said Calabrese.
PERSONALITY: Being nice and charming is not a trait characteristic of Chicago mayors. Rahm Emanuel was downright mean and nasty to some people. But he was competent.
Lightfoot seems angry, as if she’s doing Chicagoans a favor by being their mayor. Likeability matters. Rich Daley was no mental giant but he survived for 22 years because he fit into voters’ comfort zone. He was modest, not arrogant. And he liked to make up words, which was amusing sometimes. “Go scrutinize yourself! I get scrutined (sic) every day, don’t worry, from each and every one of you. It doesn’t bother me,” he famously once quipped about the press.
And now Lightfoot is running TV ads dripping with contrition. She claims the city’s problems were/are tough, that she’s tried her best, that she’s learned from her mistakes, and that she will do better next term.
POSITIONING: In a multi-candidate mayoral field the winner needs multiple niches – like gender, race, sexual orientation, ideology, geography, generational, name recognition – to put together a coalition. Chicago’s population is 2,695,598, and there are 1,540,621 registered voters. But turnout in the 2019 primary was 560,701 and in 2015 it was 592,624. The primary is a choice and in 2023 just 20-25 percent will be enough to make the 2-person runoff.
Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle both got under 20 percent in 2019 but made the runoff. Voters had to then choose, and Preckwinkle was the worst choice at the time. In 2015 Garcia got 33.6 percent in the primary, setting up a Garcia-Emanuel runoff which was a referendum on Emanuel. The mayor won with an unimpressive 56.2 percent, and the Garcia vote was primarily an anti-Emanuel protest vote.
Those runoff scenarios will replay in 2023, with the two most likely being Lightfoot-Garcia, a referendum on the mayor with the anti-Lightfoot vote a solid majority; or a Garcia-Vallas (or even Garcia-Wilson) choice, which Garcia would win.
Alderman Ray Lopez (15th) dropped out, saying that more candidates would only dilute the vote and favor Lightfoot. Lopez’s niches were Latino/gay/law-and-order/anti-Lightfoot. Quinn didn’t file so the Old White Guy/law-and-order niches now belong exclusively to Vallas, who got 5.4 percent in 2019. It should be remembered that the “White Guy” niche in 2019 was filled by Daley, Vallas, Joyce and McCarthy, who got a cumulative 30.1 percent. So there is a base for Vallas, the ex-CPS CEO. In cop-heavy areas like on the Far Northwest and Southwest sides, who else are conservatives going to vote for? Vallas was also FOP’s consultant on the recent police contract, which pleased rank-and-file.
Wilson’s niche is among older African American voters. There are other Black candidates running, including aldermen Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Sophia King (4th), along with Johnson, a county commissioner from the Austin-Oak Park area, plus Ja’Mal Green, and Lightfoot.
But Wilson’s 60,000 signatures is a whopping start, and he will win a plurality of the city’s Black vote, as he did in 2019 by beating Preckwinkle in most Black-majority wards, even the West Side. Wilson’s task is to bump up his 10 percent base to 15-20.
Johnson’s niche is on the “Woke Left” and he will be funded by the CTU (for whom he works as a paid operative) and SEIU Healthcare. He is unknown citywide and there isn’t much room on Lightfoot’s Left. Johnson’s only path is to piggyback on United Working Families (UWF), an organizational entity run by CTU/SEIU which has recruited 2023 aldermanic candidates in 18 wards and is backing Johnson thus far.
Lightfoot’s niches are female/Black/Leftmost. And Lopez’s exit leaves her as the only LGBTQ candidate, which gives her 5-8 percent.
King is the only other woman running. Lightfoot, never sought to build a base in Black wards by reaching out to committeepersons or churches. Johnson drains votes from her on the Left.
POLLING: Garcia would not be running unless he believed Lightfoot was beatable. He has what politicians enviously call a “free shot,” meaning he can run without forfeiting his congressional seat. An Oct. 27 Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey had it 22/14/12/8/3 for Lightfoot/Garcia/Wilson/Vallas/Johnson with undecided at 23 percent.
A Sept. 15 Bendixen & Amandi poll had it at 24/23/13/8 for Garcia/Lightfoot/Wilson/Vallas with undecided/others at 23 percent. So everybody has room for growth, even Lightfoot. But for an incumbent to be stuck at a quarter of the vote is absolutely horrific, beyond ominous. The usual yardstick for incumbent retention is to be around 44-48 percent in polls when 90 days out. But a stunning 75 percent of poll respondents either don’t want Lightfoot or don’t know.
Prediction: With a heavy media buy Lightfoot will likely finish first or second in February, inching closer to 30 percent. Garcia needs to do a breakout and poll around 30 percent, but his Latino/Southwest Side base is rock-solid. He must make inroads among White Lakefront liberals, who backed Emanuel in 2015.
Wilson, who is self-funding, will peak out at 15-18 percent. If the Lightfoot/Garcia/Wilson cumulative vote is around 75 percent, that leaves 25 percent for Vallas/Johnson and the other Black candidates. Vallas needs to climb into the 15-18 percent range by January or his money will dry up. Ditto for Johnson: CTU/SEIU won’t waste money on him if he’s mired around 5 percent. Expect a Garcia-Lightfoot runoff.
POLICY: Much to the Democrats’ and Left’s chagrin, 2023 will not be about Trump or abortion rights or a threat-to-democracy. It will be about quality of life, providing services, controlling or not controlling crime and property taxes.
It will come down to that ancient concept of accountability: Are you better off today than 4 years ago? And who’s to blame?