Many Chicago progressives want to defeat Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Can they do it without hurting their movement?

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Last month, residents filed into a church in Logan Square to hear from three progressive mayoral candidates at the first forum of the 2023 election cycle.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, activist Ja’Mal Green, and state Rep. Kambium Buckner were eager to show off their bona fides and earn endorsements from the progressive organizations hosting the event. But before the mayoral hopefuls made their pitch, co-moderator Ken Barrios urged the candidates to focus their fire on Mayor Lori Lightfoot, not each other.

“If you wish to contrast yourself with someone, please contrast yourself to the current mayor,” quipped Barrios, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. “Nobody likes her.”

People in the audience laughed. But the comment underscored how dissatisfied many Chicago progressives are with Lightfoot as they seek an alternative to the first-term incumbent while also trying not to spark an internecine battle that harms their effort to elect one of their own.

Mayoral candidate Ja'Mal Green outside City Hall on Sept. 20, 2022.

Mayoral candidate Ja’Mal Green outside City Hall on Sept. 20, 2022. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

As progressives gear up for the 2023 election, it is not yet clear who will emerge as their top choice for mayor. In 2015, many prominent liberals and influential labor unions rallied behind then-Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Four years later, many of the same backed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in her unsuccessful runoff campaign versus Lightfoot. This time, some organizations are lining up to support Johnson, a longtime Chicago Teachers Union organizer who has not yet formally announced, while others are so far sitting it out or waiting to see if Garcia, now a congressman, mounts another run.

Chicago mayor’s race 2023 lineup: Who is in, who is out, who is undecided ]

Eight candidates have declared their intent to run for mayor, meaning challengers and Lightfoot alike will need to find a base of support to carry them into a likely runoff between the top two vote-getters in the February election. Businessman Willie Wilson, Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas are running to the right of Lightfoot. That leaves Buckner, Green and Johnson — if he runs — vying with Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, and Ald. Sophia King, 4th, for support from progressives.

Chicago progressives have tried to get a candidate into the mayor’s office on City Hall’s fifth floor for years. In 2015, they helped push Emanuel into the city’s first mayoral runoff but failed to unseat him. Lightfoot handily beat Preckwinkle in 2019, though the two campaigned on nearly identical platforms and claimed the progressive mantle.

Lightfoot’s political support from progressives has shrunk in recent years, however, as she has clashed with the CTU and reneged on promises to advocate for a hike to the real estate transfer tax and use the money for people who were without homes. She also has battled left-leaning groups over Chicago police spending and criticized criminal justice reforms, all of which has helped create an opening for progressive challengers.

“One of the key considerations here is that it’s not just what you say you want to enact when and if you become mayor. It’s not just what you say you want to do. It’s how you plan to do it and will you plan to do it with people who have been on the front lines of this struggle in the first place,” said Emma Tai, a Johnson supporter and executive director of United Working Families.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks at a gathering in support of Indigenous Peoples Day in Potawatomi Park in 2021.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks at a gathering in support of Indigenous Peoples Day in Potawatomi Park in 2021. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

Still, there’s no guarantee progressive support can carry a candidate to City Hall over Lightfoot. Progressives could also harm each other or the broader effort to unseat Lightfoot if they fracture their coalition before the runoff. Rebecca Williams, a veteran political strategist who has advised progressive candidates, said the campaign will be “a delicate thing.”

“Progressives are going to need to get into the runoff and beat each other at the same time without beating each other to a pulp,” Williams said. “That finesse, not going for the jugular but getting through the finish line, is not always a strong suit among progressives.”

Lightfoot also will try to argue that she is a progressive mayor. Though she abandoned some high-profile promises supported by progressives, such as the elected school board plan that passed in Springfield, she has quietly built a strong relationship with some labor leaders who appreciate her record on worker issues.

Chicago will get elected school board over opposition from Mayor Lori Lightfoot ]

In her first few months as mayor in 2019, Lightfoot pushed through the fair workweek ordinance that requires large Chicago employers to give workers at least two weeks notice of their schedules and compensate them for last-minute changes. Later that year, Lightfoot passed her first budget, which set the stage for a $15 minimum wage long sought by local unions.

She reached a compromise with aldermen to create an elected civilian police oversight agency — albeit with far weaker powers than she campaigned on — and closed loopholes in Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance to prohibit police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities to deport immigrants living in the country without legal permission who have criminal backgrounds.

Despite Lightfoot’s efforts, she is not popular with many grassroots progressives. Last month’s forum was hosted by several Northwest Side progressive groups, including 33rd Ward Working Families and United Neighbors of the 35th Ward. The groups are politically powerful and have run up a string of electoral victories, including in a race for Congress in which state Rep. Delia Ramirez scored an overwhelming victory in the Democratic primary over her more moderate opponent, Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th.

Lightfoot was not invited to the event at Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church, just blocks from her home, though outside the church her campaign workers handed out literature hailing “Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Progressive Accomplishments.”

In addition to Johnson, Green and Buckner, organizers invited Garcia, King and Sawyer but the latter three did not attend. After brief introductions, Johnson got to the point and declared to the crowd: “This is our moment.”

State Rep. Kam Buckner, right, greets people on Oct. 6, 2022, at the Palmer House Hilton during the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting.

State Rep. Kam Buckner, right, greets people on Oct. 6, 2022, at the Palmer House Hilton during the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

“There will be individuals that will try to break us. They will try to divide us. We need a uniter. Someone who understands what real coalition building is,” he said. “Let’s go into every single neighborhood, and let’s bring a revival.”

Green drew on his background as a South Sider who grew up on the front lines of the city’s gun violence epidemic to warn against politicians who don’t “understand what’s really going on.”

“This is the time that we can elect someone that is fresh,” Green said. “That’s an outsider. That’s a true progressive.”

Buckner cast himself as a political promise keeper and cited legislative victories he helped orchestrate in Springfield, including assisting with the passage of the Chicago elected school board.

“You don’t have to wonder or question or pontificate about who I am, what I’m going to do,” Buckner said. “I’m showing you who I am.”

The first question at the forum focused on the national reckoning on racism and police brutality that unfolded more than two years ago: “Will you commit to not raising the (police) budget any further and instead invest in data-proven crime reduction strategies?”

Johnson and Green both said, “Absolutely yes” while Buckner referenced his public safety plan that called for investments in both police and community resources.

Though no one in the room uttered the phrase “defund the police,” the conversation was a nod to the “defund” movement that gained traction during the 2020 marches against racial violence following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.

The debate over whether law enforcement budgets should be reallocated toward other investments became a litmus test in progressive circles that year, though it was rejected by President Joe Biden, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Lightfoot, who largely dismissed the movement as a “nice hashtag.”

Johnson, who sponsored a nonbinding resolution that said Cook County should “redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement,” said at the forum that law enforcement, prisons and jails are “wicked” tools “of violence executed against Black and brown people.”

“I know that there are individuals that believe that we can police our way out of this,” Johnson said. “It’s just not true, y’all.”

Later, when asked to address Chicago’s shrinking Black population, Johnson invoked Mayor Richard J. Daley’s orders that police “shoot to kill” arsonists and others protesting after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Johnson put Daley’s orders in the same breath as Lightfoot’s decision in 2020 to raise the bridges downtown that prevented protesters from marching through much of the Loop.

“Let’s just name it y’all: It’s the ‘Negro Removal Act,’ ” Johnson said, to the loudest applause of the night. “Can we just be honest? They don’t want Black people here. And every administration has been willing to do that, whether it’s calling for ‘shoot to kill’ or raising bridges. It’s a wicked, unjust system.”

While Johnson made the forum’s boldest remarks, Buckner tried to shift focus to his legislative feats. He noted that in addition to his elected school board efforts, he was an architect behind state laws that prohibit making, selling or owning untraceable “ghost guns” and ending cash bail in Illinois.

The day after the forum, Buckner stood before columns of boarded-up windows at the former Ward Elementary School that was shuttered during 2013′s mass school closings. He called for a sweeping agenda for Chicago Public Schools that included working with Springfield to shift the school funding model and installing one nurse, one social worker and one librarian at each campus.

“I just hope that people don’t get too bogged down into conversations about what ideologically we’ll do without, once again, having a track record of doing it,” Buckner told the Tribune. “There’s talk, and then there’s proof that’s in the pudding.”

Green attempted to set himself apart at the forum as an anti-establishment crusader, seeking to spin his lack of public office experience as a positive by highlighting his time putting up reward money for gun violence victims and protesting the Chicago police murder of Laquan McDonald.

Green argued the CTA should be free and promised to establish a public bank to rebuild Black Chicago’s wealth and undo the effects of decades of redlining.

“I know many other candidates may not say it,” Green said regarding his CTA plans, though he did not elaborate on how he’d pay. “Folks say ‘affordable,’ and I say ‘free.’ ”

In a news conference earlier that week, Green rolled out his “Bank of Chicago” proposal that would be governed by a nine-member voting board to determine where the funds will go. Three will hail from banking backgrounds, three will be community members and three will be elected. The bank will start with $250 million from the city’s reserves, $250 million from the state and more would come from federal relief dollars.

“You now have a decision on the type of leader that you want,” Green said during the forum. “Do you want someone who may have ties due to their position or affiliation to interests that might not represent you, or do you want somebody that’s actually from you?”

Sawyer, a member of City Council’s progressive caucus and son of the late Mayor Eugene Sawyer, has criticized Lightfoot about the mayor’s campaign promises on police oversight and more.

On the other hand, he did not shy from working with Emanuel’s administration, with the former mayor thanking him for supporting his agenda by writing a $20,000 campaign check that Sawyer ended up donating to community groups.

In an interview, Sawyer said he would resonate with progressives, noting he was a lead sponsor of the ordinance to implement a citizen panel to oversee Chicago police and that he co-led a fight to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $15.

He added he wasn’t worried about vote-splitting among progressives either — or about a darling among the left, such as Garcia, stepping into the race.

“If he gets in the race, God bless him,” Sawyer said. “He will resonate with some people that have a more extreme progressive view. I don’t think that’s the entirety of the city of Chicago.”

Asked about how he’d pitch to progressive voters, Sawyer espoused a pragmatist approach of returning City Hall to its bread-and-butter: constituent services. He said, as mayor, he would restructure government “from top to bottom” to restore trust in elected officials.

“That’s my number one progressive policy,” Sawyer said. “That’s a policy that resonates with pretty much everyone. Shouldn’t you want to know what is available to you?”

Ald. Sophia King, 4th, marches in the Bud Billiken Parade on South King Drive on Aug. 13, 2022.

Ald. Sophia King, 4th, marches in the Bud Billiken Parade on South King Drive on Aug. 13, 2022. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

King said if she were elected mayor, she would bring “the power of ‘and’ ” to approaching issues such as crime.

“We can have safety and justice,” King said. “We can uplift the police and hold them accountable. So safety will definitely be my top priority, but we will bring a progressive approach to that.”

One example King pointed to as proof of her two-pronged approach to public safety was her plan to allocate the $100,000 microgrant given to each alderman to spend on their ward as part of this year’s city budget. She is in the process of securing both unarmed private security patrols and street outreach workers aimed at preventing gun violence.

Other progressive accomplishments King touted include, like Sawyer, helping to usher in the $15 minimum wage in Chicago and the civilian police oversight board. She also took credit for the upcoming $3.8 billion Bronzeville Lakefront housing and commercial project on the site of the former Michael Reese Hospital, a megadevelopment that she said will “uplift” the community.

King suggested Lightfoot was not a true progressive, pointing back to the Northwest Side candidate forum that snubbed the mayor.

“I think that her not being invited spoke to how the people feel about her in the progressive space, which is really what’s important: what the people think,” King said. “And they invited everybody they thought was in the progressive space.”

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

ayin@chicagotribune.com

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October 16, 2022 at 08:49AM

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