When Julia Ramirez learned in November what date retiring Ald. George Cardenas was exiting office, she made the calculated risk to not ask Mayor Lori Lightfoot to appoint her to fill the vacancy.
Though Ramirez had already announced her intention to run for the Southwest Side 12th Ward seat and knew being appointed would give her a three-month head start, Ramirez said she didn’t want Lightfoot’s political baggage.
“The mayor is deeply unpopular here in the area,” Ramirez said. “I’m glad that we were not appointed. I’m glad that we’re not affiliated with somebody like the mayor. I know that people want change all throughout the city.”
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Indeed, even Anabel Abarca, the woman Lightfoot did appoint, has not endorsed the mayor for reelection. And neither have the other three Chicagoans the mayor picked last year to fill vacancies on the City Council.
As the four appointed aldermen are now running for a full term, they find themselves walking the political tightrope of being undeniably tied to Lightfoot yet trying to explain their independence from her to voters.
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From the 12th Ward on the Southwest Side to the 24th Ward on the West Side, the 43rd Ward on the North Side to the 11th Ward on the South Side, what used to be considered the advantage of appointed incumbency has become less so as many of the nearly two dozen opponents running against the four have used Lightfoot’s perceived unpopularity against them.
Attempts by political challengers to tie opponents to an embattled figure such as Lightfoot are nothing new, but in these four wards the thirst for such messaging has grown while urgency for incumbents to distance themselves from her has ramped up.
None of the four candidates has turned their backs entirely on Lightfoot. When asked their position on the mayor’s race, they often cite the need to focus on their own ward races — even though about half of the 50 members of the City Council have made mayoral endorsements.
During an aldermanic candidate forum earlier this month for the West Side’s 24th Ward, which includes the Lawndale neighborhood, some rivals of appointed incumbent Ald. Monique Scott said that Lightfoot, if she’s reelected mayor, shouldn’t automatically expect a smooth working relationship with them.
In the North Side’s 43rd Ward, which includes Lincoln Park, appointed Ald. Timmy Knudsen has at least twice publicly dodged questions on whether he would endorse Lightfoot for reelection. And in the South Side’s 11th Ward, which includes Bridgeport and Chinatown, challengers to Ald. Nicole Lee — Lightfoot’s first appointee to the City Council — are accusing her of serving as a rubber stamp to the mayor.
“Usually the appointed aldermen do endorse and support the mayor that appointed them,” said Dick Simpson, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “So it is a little bit unusual. It’s partly fueled by the fact that there are nine mayoral candidates.”
Lightfoot, however, said she understands.
“Look, the aldermen have to figure out how they can win,” she said recently when asked about the topic at an unrelated news conference. “I appointed people that I wanted to win and come back and serve with me on City Council when I win a new term. … It does me no good if they don’t win.”
Ramirez acknowledged her choice to not apply for the appointment by Lightfoot was a gamble given that incumbents, even the newly minted, usually receive a modest advantage when running to retain their seats. Additionally, the 12th Ward has historically had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the city, further complicating her plans to oust Abarca, Cardenas’ former chief-of-staff.
But Abarca didn’t see the appointment by Lightfoot the same way. She said while she’s out on the campaign trail she makes a point to explain the appointment process to constituents and that should she be elected to a full term, her head start in City Council won’t be wasted.
[ Mayor Lori Lightfoot picks Anabel Abarca, former chief of staff to ex-Ald. George Cardenas, as his replacement ]
“I took this very seriously, and I thought that if I wanted the position, I had to apply for it, and so I did,” Abarca said. “What my challenger may try to attribute me being chosen to, that is certainly their prerogative, but voters have overwhelmingly responded in a positive way. … I’m the only person in my race that chose to do that (apply).”
Abarca cited her everyday work planning workshops on property tax appeals and preventing catalytic converter thefts as proof of her record as an effective alderman.
Seeing some aldermen assume the council seats before even running for office is nothing new in Chicago, one of the few city governments where the mayor has the power to appoint replacements for city council vacancies that occur midterm rather than hold a special election, thanks to a 1978 state law. Mayors before Lightfoot have often wielded that tool for allies on the council to time their exits strategically so that they can be replaced with another friendly face, Simpson said. At one point, more than 30% of Chicago’s City Council members were aldermen appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley while he was in office.
[ Mayor Lightfoot’s pick for new alderman has deep roots in Chinatown, would be 1st Asian American woman on City Council: ‘The 11th Ward is Chicago’ ]
In the 11th Ward, the use of Lightfoot’s appointment powers is just one undercurrent. There also is the historic nature of Lee’s appointment as Chicago’s first Chinese American and first female Asian American alderman in a ward poised to be the first Asian-majority one in the city’s history, thanks to a once-a-decade remapping process.
When Lightfoot named Lee, a director with United Airlines, as the replacement for Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, who got booted from his seat following a federal tax fraud conviction, it was hailed by the mayor as “a new day for our city.” The 11th Ward was long the inner sanctum of the Chicago Democratic machine and produced five mayors: Edward Kelly, Martin Kennelly and Michael Bilandic, as well as the two longest-serving mayors in city history, Richard J. Daley and his son, Richard M. Daley.
But Lee’s arrival did not close the door on Daley influence in the 11th completely, with Richard M. Daley and his brother, Cook County Commissioner John Daley, being named as supporters on invitations and attending a fundraiser for her last week.
“I know that some people will look at that a certain way,” Lee said. “Whatever people are gonna think, they’re gonna think. What I know is that I’ve enjoyed a good working relationship. I was welcomed in and that meant really good things for the ward because there was a smooth transition.”
[ Chicago City Council passes new ward map after bitter fight, avoiding a voter referendum ]
And though Lee promised to “move the 11th Ward in a new direction,” she still attracted six challengers who say in the nearly 11 months Lee’s been in office they haven’t seen much evidence that change is going to come. One of them, Chicago Public Schools substitute teacher Ambria Taylor, said the incumbent is much too agreeable with Lightfoot, likely because she owes her job to the mayor.
“Obviously, elections are the most democratic way to choose who’s going to represent a ward and the game of appointments, I think, is really detrimental to democracy for that reason,” Taylor said.
Asked about the insinuation that she hasn’t done enough to distance herself from Lightfoot, Lee shrugged and noted that “fair or not … everybody will say that.” She pointed out many challengers also applied when the process to replace Daley Thompson opened and that she has proven she is putting her constituents first by voting for the mayor’s budget that increases police spending as well as for a controversial land swap deal with the Chicago Housing Authority in order to build a new Near South Side high school for Chicago Public Schools students, including in Chinatown.
“Certainly it can be a double-edged sword,” Lee said about being appointed. “Because people will make all sorts of assumptions about being beholden to the mayor. … But people have to judge me for my actions, and the people do have my actions to judge me on.”
Also running against Lee are Anthony “Tony” Ciaravino, Don Don, Elvira “Vida” Jimenez, Froylan “Froy” Jimenez and Steve Demitro.
In the 43rd Ward, Knudsen was asked twice this month at candidate forums why he wasn’t disclosing his pick in the mayor’s race. In answering, he repeated the word “independent.”
“I’m staying independent on this race,” Knudsen, who donated to Lightfoot in 2019 and was her choice to lead the Zoning Board of Appeals before joining the City Council after Ald. Michele Smith, who was first elected in 2011, retired early. “When an alderman says who they’re voting for, that comes off as an endorsement. I’m truly staying independent because the ward asked me to.”
[ Chicago zoning board chair Timmy Knudsen named to City Council to replace former Ald. Michele Smith ]
But Knudsen points out that he’s bucked Lightfoot’s agenda before, and he’ll do it again. For one, he cosponsored a resolution requiring Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter to show up to quarterly hearings despite Lightfoot allies opposing it. That, he argued, is the kind of independence wanted by the 43rd Ward, which fought the political machine during the 1980s Council Wars.
“I’ve got a pretty good history here of independence and leadership, and I think that stands totally on its own,” Knudsen said in a phone interview.
Challenger Wendi Taylor Nations, who is endorsed by Smith, also hasn’t publicly stated her mayoral endorsement. But she isn’t shy about her disapproval of Lightfoot.
“(Lightfoot appointees are) facing really tough headwinds,” Nations said. “The mayor, make no mistake, is ruining the 43rd Ward. And I think that’s probably the expectation in those other wards. … I don’t believe that this ward wants to be run by Lori Lightfoot.”
Meanwhile, the 43rd Ward race has generated another significant development as one of Knudsen’s challengers, Rebecca Janowitz, has lent her campaign $750,000, which is more money than several mayoral candidates have in the bank.
Janowitz, a former member of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, has blanketed the 43rd Ward with mailers and even TV commercials and is outspending every mayoral candidate, except Lightfoot, on Facebook ads. Janowitz, who has gotten very few outside donations, said her self-funding is a sign that she is “independent.”
“I am as independent as you can get because I put my own money into the campaign, so I don’t have to do anything in order to please anyone who gave me money,” Janowitz told the Tribune. “I’d like to win. I certainly don’t want to be sitting around six months from now saying, ‘Gosh, I wish I had pushed that out here or I should have tried to get on television.’”
Other candidates in the 43rd Ward include Brian Comer, Steve Botsford and Steven McClellan.
In the 24th Ward, Scott, the sister of her predecessor, Michael Scott Jr., said that she gets some attacks for the Lightfoot appointment on top of criticism that she’s benefiting from nepotism. In addition to replacing her brother as alderman, Scott is the daughter of former Chicago Board of Education president and political insider, Michael Scott Sr.
[ Mayor Lori Lightfoot defends appointing ex-alderman’s sister to replace him on City Council, calls criticism over nepotism ‘lazy’ ]
“They call it nepotism, and I keep trying to tell them that I’m not related to Lori Lightfoot, so it’s not nepotism,” Scott said. “She chose me because I was the most qualified.”
Besides Scott, candidates running for the 24th Ward seat are Creative Scott, Drewone Goldsmith, Edward Ward, Larry Nelson, Luther Woodruff Jr., Traci Treasure Johnson and Vetress Boyce. While some of them might be critical of Lightfoot, Scott said, she didn’t think consistently criticizing the mayor would pay off for any of them.
“That’s really not how you do things,” Scott said. “Whatever administration is in place, that’s our boss. Correct, essentially? That’s our boss. So I wouldn’t bash any person, any candidate that is in the race for mayor.”
But her challenger Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully against Scott’s brother when he was vying to retain his seat in 2019, said the new incumbent is only saying that because she is benefiting from what Johnson described as “nepotism.”
“You can’t continue to go on and on and just agree with the mayor,” Johnson said. “We need someone that’s going to be in City Council that’s gonna speak for the people and not just go and vote and be 100% behind the mayor.”