State Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) launched a bid for Chicago mayor on Thursday, presenting Mayor Lori Lightfoot with a challenge from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Buckner told WTTW News in an interview hours before he made his campaign official that he decided to run for mayor because Chicago needs a leader who is “fearless and compassionate.”
“What I’m hearing from folks is that they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel seen or heard and they don’t think there is a plan for their safety,” said Buckner, adding that business leaders feel “neglected” and residents are concerned about the future of the Chicago Public Schools.
“We need a leader who can talk to all of them,” Buckner said.
During a 20-speech in front of a crowd of several dozen supporters in the parking lot behind the TeaPotBrew Bakery in the South Loop, Buckner said he wanted to lead the city that gave his family — fleeing Jim Crow laws and oppression in the South — a second chance.
“We need a mayor who can bring Chicago together,” Buckner told the crowd. “A mayor’s job is not just to fight for the sake of fighting. It’s time to bring the people together.”
Buckner said he was hopeful when Lightfoot took office three years ago that she could turn the page after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s eight years in office.
“It really just feels like we haven’t gotten moving,” Buckner, 37, said. “What I’ve been hearing is that the work is not finished. But for many communities, they haven’t seen the work started. For many of us, it feels like we are three-and-a-half years into the first 100 days plan.”
Although Mayor Lori Lightfoot is expected to run for a second term, she has not yet made it official.
Buckner acknowledged that Lightfoot’s job was complicated not only by the COVID-19 pandemic that swept Chicago in March 2020 but also the protests and unrest that followed the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
“We have a lot of opportunities to grow and move Chicago forward, and for many of us, it feels like we aren’t taking them,” he said.
Lightfoot's political operation responded to Buckner's announcement by releasing statements of support from Alds. Michelle Harris (8th Ward) and Emma Mitts (37th Ward) and linking him to indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan has pleaded not guilty.
“Being mayor of Chicago requires the sort of toughness that Kam Buckner hasn't shown in his public life," said Christina Freundlich, a spokesperson for Lightfoot's campaign. "When others stood up to Madigan and told him it was time to go, Buckner voted to keep him in power. You can’t take on the machine when you’re part of it.”
However, Buckner never voted for Madigan to retain his position as speaker, according to his campaign. Instead, the only vote he cast for speaker was for current House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch.
Appointed to the Illinois House in 2019 and elected to a full term in 2020, Buckner represents a Lakefront district that stretches from the Gold Coast south to Greater Grand Crossing.
Buckner said he would run for mayor based on his record in Springfield, where he said he has worked to build relationships and reach compromises “to get stuff done,” including on the energy bill and a bill that increased penalties for organized retail thefts.
That desire for compromise has not been the “tenor or the tone” that Lightfoot has brought to Springfield — or any other conflict since she took office, Buckner said.
Buckner told the Sun-Times on March 11 that Lightfoot has a “personality that a lot of folks don’t like” and that has gotten in the way of progress in Chicago and Illinois.
Those comments brought a stinging rebuke from Lightfoot on March 15.
“Representative Buckner is the choice of the [Chicago Teachers Union],” Lightfoot said. “God Bless him.”
Buckner, who has been endorsed by the teachers’ union, said it was “disheartening” to be criticized for being able to work with a group like the Chicago Teachers Union, which has nearly 25,000 members.
During his announcement speech, Buckner vowed to personally renegotiate the contract with the teachers’ union, which is set to expire in 2024, “not by proxy, not from the podium and not by press release.”
Buckner is running unopposed for re-election in June’s Democratic primary, and will be unopposed in November’s general election. Records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections show he had more than $173,800 in his campaign account as of March 31.
Lightfoot had $1.7 million in her campaign account at the end of March , according to state records. Since Willie Wilson contributed $5 million to his own campaign, state-imposed limits on the amount of contributions have been lifted.
Buckner, who has a 5-month-old son, said that running for mayor while serving in the Illinois General Assembly and as the chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in the House will be a challenge.
“I’ve got big shoulders, I can carry it,” said Buckner, who played football for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign before earning his law degree at DePaul University.
Buckner acknowledged that he will face questions about the fact that he has twice been convicted of driving under the influence, once in March 2010 and again in March 2019.
Buckner pleaded guilty in March to resolve the most recent charge, and was sentenced to 12 months of conditional discharge, according to Sangamon County court records. In both cases, Buckner was found asleep behind the wheel of a running car.
Buckner said he does not have a problem with alcohol.
“I’ve made mistakes, I’ve made missteps,” said Buckner, who said he sought counseling from his pastor in the wake of the most recent incident. “I’ve learned from those.”
Buckner said he has not concluded whether a casino should be built in River West, but is “confused” about how the site was selected by Lightfoot.
Buckner is the third major candidate to announce a bid to oust Lightfoot from her 5th floor suite of offices, joining businessman and philanthropist Willie Wilson and Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th Ward) in the contest. Both Wilson and Lopez have consistently criticized Lightfoot as insufficiently supportive of the police and ineffective in office.