Chicago mayoral election candidates: Voter guide for city's highest office

Nine candidates are squaring off in a contentious race to become Chicago's next mayor.

The group of entrants is as follows:

Mayor Lori Lightfoot | Congressman Jesus "Chuy" Garcia | Community activist Ja'Mal Green | Ald. Sophia King (4th) | Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas | Businessman Willie Wilson | Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) | State Rep. Kam Buckner | Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson

The first round of voting will take place Feb. 28. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the total vote, the two top finishers compete in a runoff election on April 4th.

Early voting is already available at two downtown locations: the supersite at 191 N. Clark St. and the Chicago Board of Election Offices at 69 W. Washington St. on the 6th floor.

Chicago mayor candidates

Ja'Mal Green – community activist

Ja'Mal Green, 28, is the youngest mayoral candidate to appear on the ballot. The community activist joined the race on June 14.

Chief among his platform is a $5 billion public safety plan that addresses violence, affordable housing, the local economy and police reform. The plan includes $500 million for a Chicago Public Bank run by politicians and City Hall appointees.

The proposal also includes increasing access to mental health services and mentoring programs for youth. Police officers would also have to carry liability insurance.

"When we talk about public safety, we're not talking about overworking police to get the results that we want," Green said. "We're talking about investing into neighborhoods, creating tens of thousands of homeowners, creating affordable housing, giving a thousand dollars a month to 10,000 families to help push them out of poverty, economic prosperity in neighborhoods, … reopening up mental health facilities and actually tackling the root causes of public safety holistically."

When detractors point to his lack of political experience, Green said his connection with local communities remains his biggest strength.

"I would tell them to look at the experience the other politicians have had, every person in this race is at every level of government and we haven't seen any tangible results. Do people feel safe today? Do we want to continue to allow politicians to use seats as ego projects or do we want somebody who's really only there to make an impact on the next generation of Chicago? That's why I'm here and if you look at my track record, I'm more experienced than everybody in this race in regards to being in the community and being on the right side of the truth and speaking up for everyday people," Green said.

Green also ran for mayor in 2019 as a write-in candidate.

Read more on Green's platform here.

Sophia King – 4th Ward alderman

Ald. Sophia King has represented the 4th Ward since 2016. She is the only other female candidate challenging Lightfoot.

She announced her candidacy on Aug. 10 with a thinly veiled shot at the management style of Lightfoot, saying "I’m running for mayor because we need more collaboration, not confrontation."

Born in Colorado and raised in north suburban Evanston, King was appointed to the City Council by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. King and her husband are longtime friends of Barack and Michelle Obama, who endorsed her in 2019.

The 4th Ward stretches along the lakefront from downtown to Hyde Park, including Bronzeville and some of the city's most recognizable landmarks such as Soldier Field and the Museum Campus.

King said the most common concern she hears from constituents is about public safety.

"Because of the unwieldy crime, no matter where I am, the number one request I get is for more police presence, but I also understand that police aren't the only answer we have to get to root causes and so because of all of that, I said let me stand up, I think I can help."


King has proposed putting Chicago police onto a two-shift system where officers work a 40-hour week in four days and are off for the remaining three days. She said that could result in the availability of 50 percent more officers. 

"The mayor should be stealing this idea right now … Officers can get the rest, the mental care they need and people, our residents can get officers where they're needed in the community so that if there's a festival or an incident, you're not pulling officers out of the community, we'll have enough," King said.

King also wants to bring back retired officers in a similar model to New York City, which has 4,000 retired police that fill in during surge times.

King said her role as head of City Council's Progressive Caucus has prepared her for managing different perspectives at a citywide level.

"This administration had $85 million to spend on violence intervention and they didn't even spend $5 million of it," King said. "So we need somebody who understands that it's not law and order, it's not defund the police. We can uplift the police and hold them accountable. We can have safety and justice. We can build downtown and our neighborhoods. These false narratives are what's really tearing us apart." 

Find more information about King's campaign here.

Kam Buckner

Illinois State Rep. Kam Buckner threw his hat in the ring on May 12.

"I'm running for mayor because we cannot wait a day longer for a safe and just Chicago for all of us. Now is the time to invest in Chicago's schools and its future to give our children more pathways to success," Buckner said at his announcement.

Buckner graduated from Morgan Park High School. His resume includes serving as Executive Director of World Sport Chicago, the nonprofit that stems from Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Buckner also worked for the Cubs, U.S. Sen. Durbin and served on the Chicago State University Board.

Buckner, the son of a Chicago police officer and a CPS teacher, said his background gives him crucial perspective on the interplay between law enforcement and the community.

He has pledged to eliminate the 1,600 vacancies in the Chicago Police Department during his first two years in office, according to his campaign website.

Other points of emphasis for his campaign are directing state funding to Chicago schools based on need; streamlining the business permitting process to reduce red tape; shifting tax-increment-financing dollars to neighborhoods in need of revitalization; and re-amortizing the city's pension debt to lessen the annual obligation.

Buckner spoke to the City Club of Chicago on Jan. 26 about bringing more economic activity downtown and fixing the CTA, once extremely reliable, now plagued by dysfunction.

"Solving crimes is what we must do but preventing crimes before they happen is what we are capable of doing. We cannot spend $1.9 billion on CPD every year and not see the results," Buckner said.

For more on Buckner's policies, visit his website.

Willie Wilson

Millionaire businessman Willie Wilson was the first candidate of the remaining nine to announce his entry into the Chicago mayoral race last April.

Wilson, 74, worked his way up from a sharecropper to become the owner of several McDonald's franchises. He sold them to launch Omar Medical Supples named after his late son, who was shot dead in a gang drug deal gone bad.

Wilson previously ran for the same office in 2015 and 2019 although he failed to reach the runoff in both attempts.

Four years ago, Wilson won 13 of 18 Black wards on the strength of his charitable giving. In the runoff that followed, Lightfoot won all of those wards — and all 50 wards citywide — after Wilson endorsed her over County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Wilson's early candidacy was buoyed by his million-dollar gas giveaways across the city during a time when fuel prices were through the roof. Critics have derided Wilson's giveaways as a tool to gain political favor. Lightfoot used millions of tax dollars in a similar giveaway.

"We give away our own money, not taxpayer dollars," Wilson said. "After we give away our own particular money, the politicians continue to give themselves raises. It's wrong. Politicians, as far as I'm concerned, should be run out of Chicago." 

Wilson said his two main focuses as mayor would be addressing crime and taxes.

"If you don't get crime under control, there is no Chicago that anybody would want to live in and raise their family and bring their kids and things of that nature," Wilson said. "The next thing is taxes. Taxes will drive you out of Chicago, residents, businesses and everybody else. We have to deal with crime first and taxes would be next if we're going to have a wonderful city."

WIlson said his 20-year old-son, Omar, who was shot and killed in the south suburbs, is a main motivation for him to hold violent criminals accountable.

"These particular people who are committing crime get away and they are still walking around. The next day they go around and rob somebody else or kill someone else. We're going to have to take care and make sure we bring this thing to closure. We must be hard on people who commit these crimes," Wilson said.

Wilson said he would allow police to pursue suspects on foot and in vehicles.

One of the ways Chicago can reverse the trend of street-level violence is by investing more in trade schools, according to Wilson. He said he would use his power as mayor to incorporate trade schools into city departments such as the CTA and the Chicago Housing Authority, giving an outlet for young Chicagoans to launch a career in the city.

Wilson has been endorsed by former mayoral candidate Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th). 

Click here for more on Wilson's campaign.

Brandon Johnson

Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson entered the mayoral race on Oct. 27.

Johnson, who lives in Austin, served for years as a Chicago Public Schools teacher and is now paid as an organizer by the Chicago Teachers Union.

When he joined the race, Johnson accused Lightfoot on "breaking every single promise she made" to progressive voters.

"The hopes and desires of working families have been ignored. … This is what happens when you are not legitimately connected to the progressive movement," Johnson told the Sun-Times after his announcement.

According to his campaign, Johnson wants to reopen shuttered mental health clinics; increase school funding and student health care access; revitalize neighborhood businesses and harness the power of the city's tax-increment-financing (TIF).

In January, Johnson released a policy plan pushing for a city income tax and a long laundry list of other taxes and fees to pay for unfunded public employee pensions and to hire more of government workers to provide social services.

He seeks to create $800 million in new government revenue to help pay for his proposed $1 billion in new spending. 

"A $1 billion investment into our schools, into jobs, health care, safety, and transportation. And I’m doing all this without raising property taxes," Johnson said.

Johnson would raise taxes, including a first-ever Chicago income tax on those making $100,000 a year; a new $98 million jet fuel tax on airlines; a "mansion tax" on home sales; a $100 million tax on banks and securities trading; another $30 million tax added to Chicago’s highest-in-the-nation hotel tax; and a $40 million surcharge on Metra commuter rail tickets.

Last September, the CTU voted to endorse Johnson and encouraged him to get in the race. He was also endorsed by a progressive group, United Working Families, which is funded by the CTU.

Johnson said the city's crime prevention strategy has to be more focused.

"Right now over 40% of the violent crimes that take place in the city of Chicago take place in 6% percent of the entire [city]," Johnson said. "We know where the proclivities are so let's invest in the spaces that have been disinvested in and let's make sure we're freeing up law enforcement to actually tackle the more severe violent crimes."

Johnson said his emphasis would be on first responders treating people who are suffering from mental health episodes while police focus on solving and preventing violent crime.

"Families across the city do not have time to wait on this mayor to figure it out that's why I'm supporting policies like Treatment Not Trauma that will provide 24-hour access to individuals who are experiencing mental health crises," Johnson said.

Read more about Johnson's campaign here.

Paul Vallas

Recent surveys have found Paul Vallas as an emerging frontrunner in the Chicago mayoral race.

A mid-January voter opinion survey from the political consulting firm M3 found Vallas and Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia to be leading the field of mayoral candidates with 26% and 19% of the votes, respectively. 

The 69-year-old joined the race on June 1 and has traded barbs with Lightfoot who has called him out for being endorsed by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. Similar to all eight of Lightfoot's challengers, Vallas has promised to oust CPD Supt. David Brown, if elected.

"They've only arrested 15 percent of the murderers. They've only 5 percent of those who have shot somebody this year. There were 35 murders downtown last year, in 2019 there were seven," Vallas told FOX 32 Political Editor Mike Flannery.

Other changes Vallas said he hopes to install in CPD are creating a city-operated witness protection program, ending nepotistic promotions inside the department and launching a case review unit that would review state's attorney's and judges' decisions on chargings and sentencings. 

The former Chicago Public Schools CEO is not a stranger to mayoral campaigns, garnering 5% of the vote when he ran in 2019.

Vallas led CPS from 1995 to 2001 before serving as schools superintendent for Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

"The schools are in a freefall," Vallas said last June. "They've lost 25,000 students the last two years. They've lost enrollment now for 18 consecutive years yet we have the biggest school budget ever and then of course we are now the highest property taxed, sales taxed, feed and fined city among large American cities."

Vallas has called school choice "the unfinished business of the American civil rights movement." 

His campaign website touts Vallas' ability to balance massive budgets and negotiate collective bargaining agreements.

Visit Vallas' campaign website for additional information.

Lori Lightfoot

As the incumbent mayor, Lori Lightfoot has taken the lion's share of attacks from her fellow challengers in the months leading up to the election.

Lightfoot was first elected in 2019. After getting just 17% in the first round, the former federal prosecutor swept all 50 of Chicago’s wards as a political outsider and reform candidate.

She broke barriers when she was sworn in as the first Black woman and openly gay person to lead Chicago's highest office.

Lightfoot said her administration has made concrete progress on critical issues, from putting money into neighborhoods that have seen decades of disinvestment to taking illegal guns off the streets. But she notes that the last four years haven’t been easy, with a global pandemic and protests over police violence that she said represented "some of the toughest times that we’ve ever faced" in Chicago.

Lightfoot has taken the most heat for increased crime, with homicides hitting a 25-year high in 2021 with roughly 800. Lightfoot said she has a plan that is working, noting that homicides decreased last year. But they are still higher than when she took office, and concerns have grown about other violent crime in the city, including carjackings.

"We’ve made progress year-over-year," Lightfoot said. "But I recognize that people in the city don’t feel safe."

Lightfoot's campaign website touts the expansion of the Vehicular Hijacking Task Force, the launch of CPD's Gun Investigations Team and the addition of nearly 1,000 new police officers in 2022.

Among Lightfoot's efforts since taking office has been her INVEST South/West community development initiative, which has garnered $2.2 billion in investment commitments to revitalize historically underserved communities.

Her re-election efforts were criticized after a staffer sent an email to public school teachers looking for students to volunteer for the campaign in exchange for class credit. Lightfoot later apologized, calling it a mistake. Inspectors general are reviewing for possible policy violations

Lightfoot has also had highly publicized scuffles with the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police.

However, she has increased her support in some areas of the city. Former Rep. Bobby Rush, a major critic during her first campaign turned prominent booster this year, joined Reps. Danny Davis and Robin Kelly - whose districts include predominantly Black neighborhoods - in praising her commitment to investing in the areas. 

Head over to Lightfoot's campaign website for more information.

Roderick Sawyer

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) is trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, Eugene Sawyer, who served as the 53rd mayor of Chicago.

The 59-year-old threw his hat into the ring on June 2.

Sawyer's South Side ward includes parts of Greater Grand Crossing, Englewood, Chatham and Auburn Gresham. He said one of his goals is to create an even playing field for every party of the city.

"Every neighborhood should be self-sustaining, all 77 of them," Sawyer said. "We want to make sure we are investing proper resources so that every neighborhood has places to shop, to get professional services, to entertain. Every neighborhood should have all those basic services, all those basic amenities if we are really talking about true equity in the city and that's the kind of city I want to see and that's what I'll be working towards every day of the four years that I'm there under the Sawyer administration."

Among his priorities is replacing CPD Supt. David Brown.

"You have to have effective policing and you have to have supportive services, mental health, job opportunities, everything in place to give people an opportunity to get a life out of crime. So of course it starts at the beginning, it starts at the top. So we would want to have a new superintendent. I'm proud to say I've been an architect of public safety reform in the city, where we're resulting in having new community officers that we will be voting for in this next election. In turn, they will assist me in picking a new superintendent." 

Sawyer, 59, is Lightfoot’s hand-picked chair of the City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations and former chair of the council’s Black Caucus.

Sawyer said he saw firsthand how Chicago needs to bolster its six main mental health clinics before expanding to new facilities.

"When I visited them, there were a few things I found out. One, they were underutilized. We weren't using them properly. Two, they weren't servicing people they need to service and their hours were not where people can go for example if they're working. Because of that we've changed all of those things in the city over the last three years. We've included children for the first time ever. We've expanded our time. We've expanded the services," Sawyer said.

The alderperson was equally critical of Lightfoot’s seemingly endless string of pre-election freebies — gas cards, Ventra cards, bicycles, surveillance cameras, motion detectors and a pilot program for a guaranteed minimum income, sending $500-a-month to 5,000 Chicagoans.

"I don’t approve of giveaways. It demeans our office. It’s a good thing for charities and philanthropists to do. But the role of government is to protect everyone. Once you start doing that, then it becomes a dependency. … what are we gonna give them next?" he said.

Learn more about Sawyer's campaign here.

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia

Congressman Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia was the final candidate to announce he was joining the race.

The 66-year-old Little Village resident made his announcement on Nov. 10, the 40th anniversary of the day Harold Washington began his history-making run for the same office.

Garcia — a longtime local politician and community organizer — represents the state’s 4th district at the federal level.

In the 2015 elections, Garcia forced then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff.

Garcia unveiled his public safety plan in January, delivering an indictment of Lightfoot’s leadership on the issue that was supposed to be her greatest strength as a former Police Board president.

"She turned her back on reform. She fired the people who were its biggest champions. She installed a police chief who lost the faith of everyone around him. She was supposed to be tough and results-oriented. I know. I endorsed her. But when she failed, instead of doing what a leader does — taking responsibility and solving problems — she dug in," Garcia said.

"While she was … pointing fingers and hurling insults, Chicagoans were dying. There are no words for … the shattered families, for the children senselessly shot as they walk out of school, for the people dealing with the trauma of carjackings and armed robberies. A mayor who cannot keep us safe is a mayor we cannot afford to keep."

Like several other candidates, Garcia has promised to replace CPD Supt. David Brown with a new superintendent who can lead the department through "a cultural and professional transformation," according to his website. He also said he hopes to promote a new leader from within the department.

"The difference between my plan and the mayor's plan is that it recognizes that we need new leadership in the police department," Garcia said at a Jan. 27 mayoral forum. "She's hanging on to the leadership that's proved to fail in Chicago."

Garcia said he wants to direct more resources to the 15 neighborhoods most impacted by violence.

"Modern effective policing begins on the streets and in our communities, yet less than half of CPD staff is assigned to patrol, often not in the parts of the city where they are most needed. I will insist that the Department move resources back into patrol from city-wide teams," Garcia's campaign website reads.

For more on Garcia's campaign click here.

The Associated Press and the Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.