After advancing to the run-off election in the 2011 race for the 6th Ward City Council seat, Roderick Sawyer took his young challenger Brian Sleet out to lunch, to “see where his head was at.”
Among the more than a dozen campaigns Sleet would work on, that race to represent his native Chatham neighborhood was his first and only foray as the main political attraction — and one of his few defeats.
His natural place was behind the scenes, pulling the levers, friends said.
Sleet and Sawyer hit it off immediately, and before long Sleet was advising Sawyer’s winning run-off campaign. Sleet later became his former opponent’s chief of staff.
“It wasn’t all about winning with him. He wanted to play a role in improving his community,” Sawyer said. “And he wanted to inspire the next wave of young black leaders.”
Sleet was found dead of a brain hemorrhage inside his Chatham apartment Wednesday evening at age 41, authorities said.
A fixture in Chicago’s political circles, Sleet landed his biggest victory as a campaign manager in 2016 when his deft political touch helped elect Kim Foxx as Cook County’s first African-American state’s attorney by knocking off incumbent Anita Alvarez.
“There are no words to describe the loss that I and so many throughout Chicagoland are feeling right now by the passing of Brian Sleet,” Foxx said in a statement. “He was instrumental in my ability to serve as State’s Attorney and I am eternally grateful. I would not be where I am without Brian’s guidance while I began my first run for public office.”
In 1997, the Whitney Young graduate was studying sociology at Dartmouth College when he walked into longtime Chicago political consultant Delmarie Cobb’s Loop office looking for an internship.
“He wasn’t shy about asking for things,” said Cobb, who assigned Sleet to Roland Burris’ campaign for governor. “He learned it wasn’t all glamor — there’s work behind the scenes, and he embraced that. … He was bitten by the political bug.”
After earning a law degree from the University of Illinois, Sleet went on to work for the U.S. Census and as a staffer for ex-Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Among other city campaigns, he served as a senior adviser to Ald. Sophia King (4th).
His keen political mind, speechwriting savvy and a mastery of social media meant “anybody that was running for elected office wanted Brian’s advice,” Sawyer said, calling his close confidant “a quiet leader, devoted to the people and the cause of democracy.”
Cobb cited an even-keeled personality as the key to Sleet’s success as a consultant.
“You never saw him upset about anything. He was always methodical,” Cobb said. “He was the kind of young man that we need to be a mentor and a role model. … There aren’t a lot of African-American political consultants in Chicago who aren’t part of the machine.”
Since after the 2017 aldermanic election, Sleet had worked as a public affairs consultant with the firm Kivvit, where he was a spokesman for the Obama Foundation as it sought City Council approval for the planned presidential library in Jackson Park.
“He was especially passionate about the impact the [Obama Presidential Center] will have on children, particularly South Siders, who would know that the Obamas walked their same streets and had so much in common with them, inspiring them to reach great heights,” said Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s chief engagement officer. “We know we wouldn’t be where we are today without his counsel.”
Kivvit managing partner Eric Sedler said Sleet’s “wisdom and thoughtfulness allowed him to work with a wide cross-section of people.
“Those of us who were privileged to work with Brian will always cherish his genuine heart, big smile and deep laugh,” Sedler said.
In the massive wave of condolences on social media, Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker called Sleet a “beloved figure in local politics, a good friend, and a mentor to many.” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he “embodied the best of politics and public service in a career that ended far too soon.”
Sleet’s “pride and joy” was serving on the board of Chicago Votes, a grassroots political organization that trains and mentors young black organizers, Sawyer said.
Outside his City Hall work, Sleet enjoyed long conversations over a glass of bourbon and a fine cigar, according to the alderman.
He had just celebrated his 41st birthday last weekend, and on Christmas Eve, Sleet posted on Facebook: “I appreciate all of the people I have met on this crazy journey called life.”
Sleet is survived by his fiancee Nathalie Essex, his parents, brother and a large extended family.