When Willie Wilson finished his remarks before the Illinois Polish American Congress in November, the lull in the room lasted long enough for the audience to begin awkwardly fidgeting.
But then Wilson clapped his hands to the blues classic “Sweet Home Chicago,” and a row of people behind him matched his beat and swayed, producing faint ripples in a giant flag of Chicago hanging onstage. The crowd of about 100 mostly white Chicagoans danced along with Wilson, who beamed.
“Aye, you going to sing to this?” Wilson teased Michael Niedzinski, president of the local Polish organization that had just announced its endorsement of Wilson’s third bid for Chicago mayor.
The scene at the Copernicus Center on the Far Northwest Side would’ve been unfamiliar territory for Wilson, a 74-year-old Black businessman and minister, during his last two runs for mayor, when he mostly focused on campaigning in the city’s African American neighborhoods.
But with incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot and others vying for the Black vote, and the North Side up for grabs, Wilson is among the candidates looking to expand his base.
Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th, whose ward includes Portage Park and Dunning, said Wilson’s attempt to make inroads is working.
“I’ll tell you who’s gonna do well on the Northwest Side: Willie Wilson. People associate him with them, that he’s a genuine, nice man, hardworking guy, who’s made sacrifices,” Sposato said.
Sposato, a Lightfoot ally who has not endorsed her for reelection, said Wilson frequently shows up to events in the area, even when he isn’t invited. Once Wilson arrives, Sposato said, “Everybody wants to take a picture, shake his hand.”
In 2019′s historic 14-candidate field, then-newcomer Lightfoot punched her ticket to the runoff against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle by winning most of the city’s white lakefront wards and progressives enclaves such as the 35th Ward. Wilson won the most Black wards but finished fourth, in part due to his failure to broaden his appeal to white or Latino voters.
That election cycle featured a series of serious candidates with strong bases of support on the Southwest and Northwest sides, where city workers and blue-collar whites fill the Bungalow Belt. Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, meanwhile, led the fight for many white progressives in Logan Square and along the lakefront.
By a slim margin, non-Latino white residents make up the largest racial group in the city at about 31%, with Latinos comprising nearly 30% of the population and Black residents, whose numbers have been in decline, about 29%. The neighborhoods where whites are the biggest group by race are almost exclusively concentrated along the northern lakefront and Far Northwest and Southwest sides, with some exceptions including Hyde Park.
But white voters are by no means a monolith, said University of Chicago professor Robert Vargas, a social scientist whose research focuses on cities, law and race.
Besides “chunks” of the far Northwest and Southwest sides where former President Donald Trump drew votes, “you have lakefront liberals, weird academics like myself in Hyde Park (and) socialist strongholds,” Vargas said.
The question for candidates is which constituencies they can cobble together.
“I feel like it is one of the more unique mayoral races we’re coming into: coming off of the pandemic, the policing crisis, then Trump. I haven’t seen a more politically fragmented state of affairs in the city ever before,” Vargas said. “So I think what that means is that there’s potential for new coalitions to emerge from unexpected allies.”
Many white voters appear to be seeking an alternative to Lightfoot in the Feb. 28 election. All along the ideological spectrum, people are upset with crime and the mayor’s combative attitude, while some on the left believe she hasn’t kept key progressive promises. So far, those key bases of support are wide open for candidates.
“The lakefront is up in the air. There’s no front-runner candidate,” said Lucy Moog, the Democratic committeeman for the 43rd Ward, which covers Lincoln Park. Top of mind for lakefront voters, she said, are “safer streets” and “well-supported schools.”
“People are super-frustrated post-COVID,” Moog said. “Public school parents are still mad about their kid being on Zoom for a year-and-a-half. It’s just crime and schools. Frustration generally.”
In 2019, Lightfoot campaigned as a progressive reformer, and will have to make the case to lakefront liberals who voted for her then that she’s followed through on her promises — and potentially explain the ones she broke — said Rebecca Williams, a political strategist who has advised progressive candidates.
That might include Lightfoot’s so-far unfulfilled vow to raise tax on high-end real estate sales to help address homelessness, and her opposition to the bill that created an elected school board for Chicago. Likewise, Williams said, the mayor’s faceoffs with progressive stalwarts on the council such as Byron Sigcho-Lopez during the casino debate and Jeanette Taylor over the treatment of social worker Anjanette Young “didn’t look mayoral, looked out of control.”
Valerie Martin, a top consultant on the Lightfoot’s campaign, said the mayor has a “good story to tell” and will “compete for every vote.”
”It starts with her strong, successful leadership during COVID. Chicagoans recognize she handled the pandemic with toughness, and strength, and data-driven, and that helped get the city through an incredibly tough time,” Martin said.
The campaign will also emphasize that Lightfoot has worked to pay down the city’s pension debt, created a fund to support abortions for people in neighboring states who come to Chicago, pushed a $15 minimum wage increase and created the city’s first elected civilian police oversight body.
Although crime remains higher than it was when Lightfoot first took office, Martin noted shootings and homicides are down year over year, an argument her team hopes will resonate.
“We’re happy to run on her accomplishments and put her record up against everyone else’s in the race,” Martin said.
But the mayor will face fierce challenges to regain her old base of support.
Voter turnout could also be a factor. “White economic elites” in the West Loop, Gold Coast and Lincoln Park have consistently high turnout, Vargas noted. “But I don’t think people should underestimate” the city’s socialists, who have “a pretty strong, growing capacity to get out the vote,” Vargas said, particularly in areas with a concentration of white service-sector workers.
One recent evening in Lincoln Park, candidate Paul Vallas made his rounds in a room bursting with chatty aldermen and real estate figures.
“All I got to say, Joe, is we need a Greek mayor,” developer Michael Chioros said to former-alderman-turned-lobbyist Joe Moore, who was standing next to Vallas at the Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance political action committee fundraiser.
Chioros, former president of the Union League Club of Chicago, praised Vallas, the grandson of Greek immigrants, as the best candidate to run the city. But Chioros also asked a question that’s critical to Vallas’ political future: “How do we get you past the runoff?”
“Public safety, quality schools and affordability,” Vallas responded, before fist-bumping Moore and heading off to his next stop, a Gold Coast fundraiser for 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins.
After Hopkins introduced Vallas, saying he’s “giving him an A+,” Vallas smiled and thanked the downtown alderman for not running for mayor himself.
”When the city is shrinking, its tax base is contracting,” Vallas told the room of Hopkins supporters. “So I’m running because there is no reason on God’s green earth that we can’t get back on track … that we can’t restore public safety in every community. Public safety is a human right.”
Despite his quick answer to Chioros about whether he can make the runoff, the question looms large. In the first round of the 2019 election, residents on the Northwest and Southwest sides largely split their vote between attorney Jerry Joyce and Bill Daley.
As the only major white candidate in the race this time, Vallas has some potential advantages.
In an interview, Vallas told the Tribune his approach in white neighborhoods is the same as anywhere else.
“I’m running for mayor of all Chicago, not for the mayor of one single or a couple constituencies,” Vallas said. “People across the city are frustrated, so the same reasons that (Lightfoot’s) support has been undermined in those formative communities (along the lakefront) … are the same reasons why there’s so many Black candidates running against her. Those communities are equally dissatisfied.”
Still, Vallas argued he is the candidate of choice among city workers, who are more concentrated along the Bungalow Belt. Last year, he volunteered to help Chicago Fraternal Order of Police negotiate a new contract and worked well with the teachers union when he led Chicago Public Schools in the late 1990s, though that was a far different leadership team than today’s.
But Vallas faces other challenges too. Moore, who represented Far North Side Rogers Park in the City Council for more than two decades and has not endorsed a candidate, told the Tribune Vallas faces real hurdles.
“A lot of lakefront voters may be reluctant to vote for a white male against a Black female incumbent mayor,” Moore said.
Aside from Vallas and Wilson, Lightfoot has six other major challengers. Ald. Sophia King, 4th, is the only other woman in the race, and she already represents more of the lakefront than any other alderman. King, who’s also chair of the City Council progressive caucus, helped push through the $15 minimum wage increase in 2019 under Lightfoot.
“I think I have a natural base with the liberal lakefront,” King said.
In October, King unveiled a plan to reinvigorate the city’s Police Department by enticing retired officers to return, expanding surveillance technology and overhauling work schedules to allow for more time off. King said public safety requires a “nuanced approach,” which she’s attempting to use to build a base.
“It’s saying we can both uplift and respect our police, but we expect our police to respect our community,” King said. “It speaks to their misgivings, I think, about this administration and not feeling appreciated but it also seeks to uplift the consent decree and hold police accountable.”
Like King, state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner represents a large swath of the lakefront, including parts of downtown and the North Side, which he said will help him with progressive and liberal voters. His pitch to residents, Buckner said, is “rhetoric versus results.”
Buckner helped lead the fight for an elected Chicago school board and was a key proponent of the SAFE-T Act, the broad criminal justice reform bill that led to criticism from conservatives and some law enforcement groups, which he has had to rebut on the campaign trail.
During a November forum on the SAFE-T Act, for instance, Buckner sat before an audience of nearly all white people inside a Gold Coast hotel. At one point, tensions flared after he asked, “Where are we putting our resources? Are we putting it into petty crimes that’s not making anybody safer?”
One man stood up and asked, “Do you think that it is a good thing that these alleged quote-unquote low level crimes — shoplifting … resisting arrest, everything else — let me ask you a very direct question: Do you think it’s a good thing that that has happened?”
Buckner’s voice kept the same tone and volume, though his words grew sharper.
“Please don’t put words in my mouth. I’ll be very clear. I’m not saying let people walk away from their responsibilities,” Buckner said. “Where we’re focusing … not on people who are killing people, we’re doing it wrong. And there’s nothing that you can look to say that can make me think that it’s wrong.”
One issue candidates face is balancing the needs of wealthier areas, which are facing an increase in crime, with neighborhoods that have long experienced gun violence on a daily basis. Candidate Roderick Sawyer, the 6th Ward alderman, said the South and West sides have felt a “disconnect” for a long time over lack of resources to combat crime, and now with that concern hitting more affluent neighborhoods, leaders must approach safety from a citywide lens.
“When you have people that are experiencing criminal activity that they did not experience before in their respective neighborhoods, you have to acknowledge that,” Sawyer told the Tribune. “If you don’t feel safe, we have to make you feel safe.”
Since losing the 2015 mayoral race to Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García has built a reputation as one of the city’s top power brokers and has been a frequently sought-after endorser for candidates. In an interview, García campaign manager Gisel Aceves noted he has been able to win support from white primary voters in his district.
Union official and former state Rep. Clem Balanoff, a top García adviser, said the campaign was able to get a sizable number of signatures in the 19th, 39th and 41st wards on the Southwest and Northwest sides, where people were enthusiastic, and predicted he will be able to expand his traditional Southwest Side Latino base.
“People knew who he was, and they said he’s a person who can bring people together,” Balanoff said.
Although crime is a major concern animating voters, there are candidates running to the left of Lightfoot, particularly on the issue of policing, who say they can resonate with white voters.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a frequent critic of what he calls the “wicked” system of police violence and incarceration, said last month he was speaking with a white woman in Lincoln Square about the fear Johnson feels when watching his 15-year-old Black son ride his bike away from their home in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side.
“What she said to me was: ‘I don’t know what it’s like to live with the experiences that you talk about … (but) I can relate to being in a constant state of worry about my children,’” Johnson told the Tribune. “I think it may surprise people how connected we really are.”
He then made the case that political interests no longer neatly fall along racial lines, even with divisive issues such as policing: “This is the hope … that voters in Chicago — Black, white, brown, Asian — want to put an end to the structural inequality that has plagued our city for too long.”
Like Johnson, community activist Ja’Mal Green vowed at a progressive mayoral candidates forum in September not to increase the Chicago police budget and to focus money on social services. That message, he told the Tribune, shouldn’t turn off pro-law enforcement white voters because only by shifting the burden of mental health and homelessness away from police can officers be freed up to solve crime.
Green also challenged the assumption that Chicago voters relate more to candidates of their race, pointing to Lightfoot, a Black woman, winning the first round of the 2019 election with mostly support from white wards.
“It’s been the case Chicago doesn’t really care about the skin color,” Green said. “It’s more about who has the ability to make me feel safe, to make sure that there’s opportunity for my children.”
After losing the 2019 election, Wilson broke with Lightfoot and pursued a series of measures aimed at the city’s Black community. Most notably, Wilson pushed legislation offering reparations to Black residents.
Over the past year, Wilson has been giving away millions of dollars at gas stations and grocery stores, which he insists are not campaign events. Many of them have been in white communities where he has made inroads, like with the Polish group endorsement.
In a recent interview, Wilson said he sensed an opportunity this time with white voters and compared his candidacy in 2023 to a baby shark.
“If you take a baby shark and put them in (a small tank) … they don’t grow,” Wilson said. “But put them in an ocean, they grew like that. They expand. Human beings is the same way. My ocean was in a certain community. Now my ocean will expand.”
While campaigning, Wilson said his strategy with such groups is to speak a “language” that everyone understands.
“I’m African American, but I’m also Polish American, all right?” Wilson said during his Copernicus Center speech, to laughter from the crowd. “I’m one of you. I’m all different types of nationality. I may not speak your language, but our blood is still the same, all right?”
Even when nodding to his upbringing as the son of a Louisiana sharecropper who grew up working in a cotton field, Wilson circled back to an ethos of shared humanity transcending race.
“We come from a very, very humble class of people who was poor,” Wilson said. “We didn’t have much at all. But Mama gave us love, and Mom and Dad taught us about people, that we are all alike.”