The Soul Street Collective band was tearing up the Black Fire Brigade’s fundraiser on Chicago’s South Side Sunday when Mayor Lori Lightfoot walked in the door.
Dozens of Black women who’d been enjoying a cover of “In My House” by the Mary Jane Girls quickly turned their attention to Lightfoot, who slowly made her way through the tightly packed lounge, giving hugs and taking selfies with anyone who asked.
“Have you all seen that beautiful young lady running around, the boss lady of the city of Chicago?” said Terri Winston of the Black Fire Brigade as she introduced the mayor.
Once Lightfoot took the microphone, she ripped two of her main rivals, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, as she asked for the crowd’s support ahead of election day.
“I need your help,” Lightfoot said. “Don’t stand on the sidelines, because if you stand on the sidelines, somebody else in a different part of the city is in control of your destiny.”
Lightfoot’s stop at the event was just one scene from the final appearances by nine rivals for mayor ahead of an unpredictable Chicago election. Candidates fanned out to churches, diners, house parties and rallies, aiming to make it past Tuesday and to the anticipated April 4 runoff.
On the other side of the city earlier in the weekend, Johnson stood along the wall at the Little Corner Restaurant in Edgewater as servers passed out heavy plates of hash browns, rye toast and omelets.
Johnson, who needs to win white liberals, progressives and Black support to make the runoff, stood with Nick Ward, the democratic socialist 48th Ward aldermanic candidate. The mayoral contender said he recently received a social media message from a resident who’d planned to vote for him until they heard he and Ward are allies.
“And I was like, ‘Well, hold on a second, I need Nick Ward to support me because we’re about to pass a budget that’s gonna tax the rich!’” Johnson told the crowd, drawing laughter and applause. “So just take that and shove it, whoever you are, random fake account.”
Also on the North Side, Vallas joined retiring Ald. Tom Tunney for breakfast at Tunney’s restaurant, Ann Sather, as they worked their way around tables filled with college students, families, and recent Chicago transplants. One woman yelled, “Tell me everything I need to know!” But a campaign advisor stopped the famously loquacious candidate with a joke: “You don’t want to do that!”
Afterward, Vallas pitched himself as a “pragmatic problem solver” who can address crime and schools.
U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, meanwhile, held a rally for supporters in Little Village, visited a Mexican birria restaurant on the Southeast Side and spoke to reporters outside the Kit Kat Lounge in Uptown as music from a drag brunch floated outside.
“I feel good,” Garcia said. “We said we’d be in a runoff if we could raise $3.5 million. As of Friday, we hit the $4 million mark. We’re making calls, we’re texting, we’re on social media as well.”
Early voting turnouts suggest interest in the race is relatively high, exceeding both the 2019 and 2015 races. Early vote turnout is the highest in wards known for dense populations of city workers: the 19th Ward on the far South Side, the 41st and 38th on the far Northwest, the 13th on the Southwest Side, and the 11th, centered around Bridgeport and Chinatown.
Of the nearly 178,000 ballots cast through Friday, those aged 65 to 74 led the pack, casting roughly 23%. Those 55 to 64, and people 75 and older, each made up 19%, while only 2% of those voters are 18 to 24.
Aside from the Black Fire Brigade fundraiser, Lightfoot had only appeared at one weekend event that was open to the press, a women’s rally.
Her supporters there told a mix of stories emphasizing her toughness but also her softer side. Perri Irmer, president and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History who also attended law school with Lightfoot at the University of Chicago, recalled how the future mayor exposed racism at the world’s biggest law firm.
Zenobia Black, the widow of civil rights activist Timuel Black, sought to portray a more nurturing side of Lightfoot by sharing how Lightfoot rubbed her late husband’s feet and brought him a record player while he was ailing.
“Yes, our combative mayor, confrontational, tough mayor, is kind, caring and compassionate,” Black said.
City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin stepped up to the mic and ramped up the mood by accusing Lightfoot’s critics of sexism.
“Now, what’s being asked of this woman has not been asked of any man before her,” she said, emphasizing the word “woman.” “So please know that it does not go unnoticed for me that outside of one other woman, there are seven men — seven men — in this race for mayor, that is saying she’s not good enough.
“Simply, no,” Conyears-Ervin continued. “You cannot have this seat.”
When it was Lightfoot’s turn to speak, the mayor similarly took blistering shots at Johnson and Vallas, again calling them “false prophets.”
“There’s this guy named Brandon Johnson,” Lightfoot began. “Smooth guy. You can tell that he’s the child of a pastor. Very good at convincing people that he is on your side. But I’m gonna give you 800 million reasons not to vote for Brandon Johnson.”
Lightfoot was talking about Johnson’s economic development plan, claiming that the bulk of his tax plans would add an $800 million burden on residents and “kill businesses.”
The mayor also ripped into Johnson on his past comments favorable to the “defund the police” movement, an enthusiasm Johnson has watered down since entering the mayor’s race.
Vallas, meanwhile, took flak for the remarks he made Friday that unspecified hackers were responsible for his Twitter account liking offensive posts.
“And then there’s Paul Vallas. Oh no, I got to talk about Mr. Vallas for a minute,” Lightfoot said, as the crowd perked up. “… That Twitter account, first, it was: ‘The intern did it. That must have been what happened.’ And then last night he said, ‘Oh no, no, no, no. I was hacked.’ By who, the Russians, Paul? Come on now. You got to own this.”
Johnson spent Sunday morning hitting a string of Black churches on the West Side. One notable house of worship was the Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, where the Rev. Ira Acree said he was making a rare exception to his rule of staying out of this mayoral race because he found Johnson to “embody what we look for in our Black men.” Acree was a supporter of Lightfoot in 2019.
In his remarks, Johnson repeated his typical stump speech channeling progressive promises for the city. He also joked about his wife’s influence, which also appeared to hit back at a message amplified at a Lightfoot Saturday rally, that her male opponents were encroaching on a Black female mayor’s moment.
“I understand it’s important for Black women to be in charge; I’m married to one,” Johnson said. “So just know this: When you vote for me, a Black woman will still be in charge.”
Garcia walked into La Antigua, a Mexican sports bar in the Little Village-North Lawndale area, and posed for photos with Black and brown children. He was joined by top leaders of his Southwest Side political organization, including state Sen. Celina Villanueva, state Rep. Edgar Gonzalez, Ald. Mike Rodriguez and Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya. He was also joined by longtime allies including Ronell Mustin, a Black organizer he was worked alongside since his days supporting Harold Washington.
“The only way that I’ll want to be mayor of Chicago is with a robust vote from African Americans. The only way that I want to be mayor of Chicago is a big vote from the lakefront, from the Northwest Side, and the Southwest Side as well. I want to win the East Side. I want the vote of the LGBTQ community. I want everybody’s vote because my government will be committed to the inclusiveness of every group in Chicago that wants to progress,” Garcia said, to applause from a couple dozen residents gathered. “That’s the only way. If we’ve learned anything from the lessons of the last several years, it’s that we cannot afford to leave anyone behind.”
While Garcia invoked the 1983 coalition that helped elect Harold Washington, Johnson attended several events with Latino officials supporting his campaign. Dozens of progressive activists packed the Honeycomb network, a collective coworking space in Humboldt Park, to hear from prominent Northwest Side Latinos about their support for Garcia.
“We are here today because we are building a multiracial, multigenerational, multifaceted working class political movement,” Cook County Commissioner Anthony Quezada said. “Brandon’s campaign is a rubric, it is a framework for the future of our city. If we are gonna tackle poverty, if we are gonna combat corporate greed and corporate dictatorship over our City Council, we need to elect a working-class champion to the fifth floor.”
U.S. Rep. Delia Ramirez criticized Lightfoot and past mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley, saying Johnson would bring Chicago together and “help heal this city.”
Johnson spoke for several minutes, outlining a series of progressive goals including treatment-not-trauma policies and proposals to help fund support for the homeless. He defended his platform from Lightfoot, who has said he’s out of Chicago’s political mainstream.
“Here’s the part that’s really jacked up. The mayor called me an extremist. She called me a radical. She finally gave somebody a compliment,” Johnson quipped. “Because if guaranteeing Black and brown and working people and poor folks in this city a fully funded neighborhood school is radical, then we’re just gonna be radical. If reopening our mental health centers so people have access to healthcare, particularly mental healthcare, is an extreme idea, then welcome to the fifth floor, y’all, because we’re about to be real extreme.”
Johnson compared the past few days of the campaign to the last two minutes of a basketball game, which is “like 30 minutes because they just keep fouling the team that’s winning? They just keep fouling us, don’t they? They’re just hacking away. But let’s keep knocking down those free throws because the city of Chicago deserves to win.”
While Johnson had an energetic showing there, he had a far less successful event at the swanky Park Supper Club restaurant and lounge in Washington Park, where only five supporters showed up to see Johnson at a get-out-the-vote rally in the afternoon. The candidate ultimately canceled at the last minute, with his campaign citing that he had too many overlapping events.
Candidate Willie Wilson visited a string of South Side churches on Sunday, leading choirs in song and preaching to the hundreds of people who came out for service.
“Ain’t but one real person in this race that really cares about people,” Wilson said. “Ain’t but one person in this race don’t want nothing for himself.”
Before each speech, the 74-year-old businessman reached his hand into his brown khaki pants and pulled out a check. He said he never stepped foot in a church without donating, and Sunday at all three stops he left five-figure sums as a tithe. Wilson stayed mostly on the topic of faith rather than policy and avoided comments about his opponents. His main political issue concerned weed.
“Are you willing to give up the drugs, the marijuana?” Wilson asked, a reference to his overarching question of what people are willing to do to get into heaven.
Wilson is a proven vote-getter in the Black community, though it’s unclear whether he can replicate his 2015 and 2019 successes. He worked to shore up his Black support on Saturday when he rolled up to a West Side rally, where flamboyant former state Sen. “Hollywood” Rickey Hendon introduced him as “the next mayor of the city of Chicago!”
“I know if I’m in hell, going through hell, and the devil steals my water, I know Willie Wilson will buy me some water!” Hendon said. “I know if I’m hungry and lost my food on the road through hell, Willie Wilson will buy me some food!”
When Wilson took the podium, he quipped, “We’re not going to hell. We’re going to heaven, all right.”
Wilson held his rally on a block with multiple vacant lots and promised to bring economic investment and opportunity to a neighborhood he said has looked the same since the 1960s.
“We don’t have to live like this,” Wilson said. “When we become mayor of city of Chicago we’re going to have equal opportunity for all citizens.”
As he spoke, Pastor Calvin Williams said he recalled Wilson from his time owning a McDonald’s nearby, where he would work the register and sweep floors. “He went in there and he worked,” Williams said, as a woman chimed in, “He’d feed anybody who came in hungry.”
Other candidates, including Lightfoot, visited churches. So did Vallas, who later told supporters at an afternoon stop at the Greek restaurant Barba Yianni Grecian Taverna in Lincoln Square about visiting three houses of worship.
“So my mother is very happy,” he beamed.
For the team supporting state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner, the last weekend’s stress was compounded when the candidate was taken out of all public events on Saturday after falling ill. Buckner’s wife, Bernadette Salgado-Buckner, hunkered down in their campaign headquarters with allies to make the final phone calls.
When he “began feeling alive again” as Salgado-Buckner described it, the candidate joined a roundtable with women who had lost family members to gun violence. While each person told their uniquely devastating story, one commonality was shared: a feeling the mayor has failed families of gun violence victims.
Lightfoot “led me on like she was going to meet with me and then cold-blooded declined me,” said Octavia Mitchell, who lost her son in 2010. “I’m fighting against the biggest gang in Chicago, which is the city CPD (and) the mayor.”
While Buckner mostly listened, he also explained things he would do including unlocking city funding for trauma and fighting violence at the community level rather than the city level.
“No one needs to come in and tell us what our communities need,” Buckner said. “Give us the tools to do it.”
Vallas entered the weekend in a strong position as turnout has been particularly high in areas where he’s expected to do well, including conservative Northwest and Southwest side wards drawn to his law-and-order platform. He has also tried to appeal to white voters downtown and on the North Side.
But over the weekend, Vallas also made a stop at ABLA Homes, a public housing complex in the Near West community. Vallas sat hunched over a dining room table talking to a dozen Black undecided voters about how he plans to build a more community focused police force, create opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, and invest in education
“We got to keep these high school kids in school graduating with work study, introduced to the workforce,” Vallas said.
A resident wondered how Vallas, the only white candidate on the ballot, would address employment for people of color in the city. Vallas responded by referring to his own hiring track record.
“When you talk about diversity, the overwhelming vast majority of my administrators have actually been Black and Latino,” Vallas explained. “If I see somebody who’s talented, I’m going to hire them, no matter what. If I see someone in the minority community who’s talented, I’m going to double down and hire them.”
Vallas also flashed impatience and irritation. The candidate bristled when asked about his latest remarks alleging his Twitter liked offensive and racist posts because of unspecified hackers.
“I think I’ve said all I need to say on the issue right now,” Vallas said before pivoting to “the violent crime rate” and truancy in CPS. “… The bottom line is I’m a lifelong Democrat. It’s as simple as that.”
He showed the strains of the race when he revealed that the pressure of being a leading candidate had been wearing on him lately. He shared a story of a recent conversation with his wife in which he complained, “People are attacking me here, attacking me there.”
According to Vallas, his wife responded, “You’re in first place. What do you expect at the end of the day? Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it.”