5 Things Chicago Mayoral Candidates Need To Make The Cut | WBEZ
Skip to main content


5 Things Chicago Mayoral Candidates Need To Make The Cut

With nine months to go before Chicago’s mayoral election, there are already nearly a dozen candidates lining up to unseat Rahm Emanuel.

But that’s no easy task. Before next February, candidates have to get on the ballot, survive debates and petition challenges, and get their messages out to voters. To quote one Chicago political consultant: Think of it like “Survivor: Election Edition.”

It’s unlikely that all of the 10 declared candidates will even make it to Election Day. So WBEZ talked to several Chicago political strategists who aren’t currently working on mayoral campaigns to find out what it will take for Emanuel’s challengers to hang on — or even win.

1. Lots of money — or not?

Campaigns cost money. So candidates who can raise cash to pay for pricey consultants or expensive broadcast airtime for their ads have an edge.

No one knows that better than Emanuel, who has more than $5 million in his campaign coffers, which gives him a significant advantage over his challengers. Campaign finance records show Willie Wilson is in a distant second place with $119,000, and former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy is right behind with more than $105,000.

The minimum amount needed “for credibility’s sake” is $5 million, said Tom Bowen, a Democratic strategist and former political director of Emanuel’s 2011 campaign. But to actually win? Think $10 million to $20 million, he said.

“This is the most difficult hurdle for any of these candidates to overcome, and I’m not sure any of them will even get remotely close to surpassing [Emanuel],” Bowen said.

But winning isn’t just about money, said Joanna Klonsky, a political consultant who’s worked on local progressive campaigns for the last decade, including Cook County Commissioner Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia’s failed bid to unseat Emanuel in 2015.

Klonsky points out Garcia had almost no money in the bank when he first jumped into the race. But Garcia still went on to force Emanuel into the first mayoral runoff in Chicago history — a scenario that could happen again with such a crowded field.

“There’s a misconception that you need to out-raise him to beat him,” she said.

2. A well-known brand — or a mustache

Candidates in a crowded race have a leg up if voters have actually heard of them before, especially if they have a recognizable political brand.

“The less brand you have, the more money you need. The stronger your brand, the less money you need,” said Xavier Nogueras, who worked on Miguel del Valle’s unsuccessful 2011 bid for mayor and, most recently, helped Fritz Kaegi win the Democratic primary for Cook County assessor.

Two candidates in the race already have high name recognition: McCarthy and Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, according to Nogueras. But it’s not clear whether that’s enough to unseat Emanuel, who’s a known quantity given his two terms as mayor, his time as chief of staff to President Barack Obama, and his service in Congress.

But failing that kind of resume, a candidate can build name recognition by doing media interviews, attending neighborhood events, and getting people with deep roots in the community to vouch for them, Klonsky said.

“Chuy started off with very low name ID,” she said, referring to Garcia’s challenge to Emanuel in 2015. “He was just one Cook County commissioner, and how many people even know their own Cook County commissioner?”

But by the runoff, she said, Garcia and his signature mustache were everywhere.

3. A voting base — and the ability to steal somebody else’s

But branding, after all, is only the opening act to the main event: getting people to vote for you.

“The mustache was a great part of the brand,” Nogueras said of Garcia’s mayoral run. “But his values, being seen as the leader of the progressive community, he was able to draw from a diverse crowd, and that’s something that plays heavily in Chicago — demographics and race.”

In a segregated city with a diverse electorate, a crowded field of candidates may make it difficult for challengers to build a strong coalition of supporters from different parts of Chicago.

“The challenge for all of these opponents is how to expand beyond what would be your natural base, take away some of Rahm’s, and then also not lose those other voters you’re trying to take from another candidate,” Bowen said.

Bowen noted that Emanuel has consistently won support from white, black, and Latino voters.

But there are some demographics — millennials, women, and Latinos — that are a toss up right now. There is currently no Latino candidate in the race, making that particular group one to watch, said Nogueras.

“There’s no question that not having a Latino candidate benefits Rahm, and so other candidates are going to have to try to figure out how they get the Latino vote,” he said.

4. A platform, and the ability to articulate it

Aside from the pomp and politics, how the city actually gets run has a big impact on the lives of everyday Chicagoans. Want your trash picked up? That’s city government. Want the trains to run on time? City government. Clean schools? City government.

Emanuel has his mayoral record to run on, for better or for worse. And other candidates will also likely have their prior public service scrutinized: former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas and former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, as well as McCarthy and Brown.

But they’ll also need to make strong policy proposals to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. The city’s top challenges include public safety and police accountability, schools, and — perhaps most of all — city finances.

“The fact is, there is no good financial plan alternative for anyone to promote,” Klonsky said. “We’re in a very bad situation. And so the question is: Are we able to level with people? Are we able to tell a clear story about how we got here and how we’re going to get out of it? And who’s to blame?”

She points out that no matter who gets elected, voters are likely to see taxes and fees continue to climb as the city slowly crawls out of its deep financial hole.

5. An emotional electorate

There’s one less tangible thing that can sway an election’s outcome: voter mood.

Big events can sway voters. Think: Alabama voters shunning Roy Moore following child sex abuse allegations, or Kim Foxx sweeping out then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in the wake of the Laquan McDonald video release. No doubt, the 2016 presidential election has agitated Democrats, and so in a blue city like Chicago, the electorate is jazzed.

“Trump is also inspiring many Latinos to come out and vote, and I think Trump is going to have, ironically, a big impact on the mayoral race,” Nogueras said.

This kind of environment can be a dangerous time for incumbents, Bowen said. But some of that pent-up energy might fade after the fall midterm elections, especially if Democrats win back the U.S. House and the Illinois governor’s mansion.

Still, Klonsky sees the two elections as fundamentally different to voters.

“People will not be sated by progressive victories or Democratic victories in November,” she said. “They still will be facing the same quality of life issues that they’re facing right now come February, and they’re still going to be pissed off if they’re pissed off now.”

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. You can follow her @beckyvevea

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.