Duncan won’t dive into 2023 mayor’s race, so more challengers may test waters

“Anytime someone with a lot of name recognition ... leaves, there’s a hole. I’m sure there are a number of people today who are saying, ‘There’s more room for me,’” said former Obama adviser David Axelrod.

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Arne Duncan, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and co-founder of the anti-gun violence organization Chicago CRED, speaks during a news conference at Breakthrough FamilyPlex on the West Side before Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs an executive order declaring gun violence a public health crisis in the state, Monday, Nov, 1, 2021.

Arne Duncan has decided not to run for mayor of Chicago, he announced Tuesday. Duncan, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, CEO of Chicago Public Schools and co-founder of the anti-gun violence organization Chicago CRED, is shown here at a news conference in November.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times (file)

U.S. Education Arne Duncan’s surprise decision not to run for mayor means it’ll take longer for mounting opposition to coalesce around a challenger to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but it’s not a boon to the embattled incumbent.

Duncan took a pass — even as his own polling showed Lightfoot was eminently beatable — because he didn’t have the fire in the belly to pursue elected office and abandon the crime-fighting organization he loves.

“It was never about the polling — whether it was favorable or unfavorable. I just really wrestled with it and I absolutely love what I do. It breaks my heart, some days. But I had a hard time getting my head around walking away from that,” Duncan told the Sun-Times.

Analysis bug


“I had someone telling me that I’d have to spend the next year talking about the work and not doing the work. Given how tough things are now, that felt really difficult.”

Duncan’s exit doesn’t mean Lightfoot gets a pass — just that the field is wide open for other major challengers to emerge.

“Anytime someone with a lot of name recognition — positive name recognition — leaves, there’s a hole. I’m sure there are a number of people today who are saying, ‘There’s more room for me,’” said David Axelrod, a former Obama presidential adviser and longtime friend and basketball buddy of Duncan.

“I don’t know what the calculus is just yet as to who benefits from it. But I know that a lot of people will be more encouraged to run now than they were yesterday.”

Arne Duncan, speaking during a news conference in Chicago in December 2008 with President-elect Barack Obama.

Arne Duncan, speaking during a news conference in Chicago in December 2008. At the time, Barack Obama was president-elect, and Duncan was his pick as education secretary. Duncan would serve in that role through the end of 2015.

Associated Press

Veteran political strategist Peter Giangreco, who advised Susana Mendoza’s 2019 mayoral campaign, predicted Chicago’s next mayor will be a new name, someone yet to emerge.

“You’re gonna see a whole new generation kind of step up here because a lot of the old stand-bys are just not there anymore,” Giangreco said.

“Is it somebody like a [Illinois state Rep.] Kam Buckner? Is it somebody who’s been around the block like [U.S. Rep.] Mike Quigley? Those are two names that are gonna get a lot of talk because they’re both people who are focused on getting things done and not so much on getting their name in the paper.”

Buckner told the Sun-Times he is “strongly considering” a 2023 mayoral run.

“Being the mayor of Chicago is the greatest job in American politics. It requires some real intentional thought for those of us who are undertaking that process,” Buckner said.

“Arne did that. Arne arrived at his decision. I’m going through the same process that he did. He would have made a formidable candidate, and so there may be a lane there. … I don’t know that it makes me more likely to run, but it does change the political calculations for many folks.”

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO and Mayoral Candidate Paul Vallas wants to use excess TIF funds to help homeowners get water filtration devices. | Sun-Times file photo

Paul Vallas, shown in 2018, is a former Chicago Public Schools CEO who has run for mayor before, and could again. Vallaas is among those who could be helped by Arne Duncan’s decision not to run for mayor in 2023.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Quigley could not be reached for comment. Nor could other possible contenders, such as Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), vanquished mayoral challenger Paul Vallas, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates or Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a longtime CTU ally and member.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said his own mayoral ambitions would not be impacted by Duncan’s exit.

“Regardless of whether or not I enter the field, it’s going to be a crowded field. That’s clear, even if only half of those people who are currently being mentioned jump in,” Hopkins said.

“There are so many just real challenges this city is facing. If you’re going to run for mayor, you need to have clear solutions you can present to the voters.”

Duncan runs a non-profit for at risk-youth, Chicago CRED, which stands for Creating Real Economic Destiny. It operates in 15 of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

Chicago CRED is working with roughly 500 young men, ages 17 to 24, disconnected from work and school and most in danger of being victims — or perpetrators — of gun violence.

Duncan offered Tuesday to “work with anyone who’s really serious and really committed to making the city safer. Our kids deserve better. Our families deserve better. Our neighborhoods deserve better. Our city deserves better.”

He added, “This is not about any one person. You have a stake in this. I have a stake in this. Our families have a stake in this. We have to get to a better place.”

Lightfoot obviously viewed Duncan as a potential political threat.

She prepared for what she thought would be Duncan’s entry into the race by saying his approach to stopping a crime wave that left Chicago with 836 homicides in 2021 was nothing short of “insanity.”

On Tuesday, Lightfoot ditched the tough talk and poured on the praise for Duncan’s crime-fighting work in an apparent attempt to garner his support.

“The work he’s doing now to build community-based solutions to violence is important, and I look forward to continuing to collaborate with Chicago CRED and the other street outreach and intervention organizations and initiatives across our city,” she said.

“We all agree that the priority is to make sure every resident, regardless of ZIP code, experiences safe and peaceful neighborhoods, and I will work with all people of good will focused on that objective. We must all work together to combat gang and gun violence, and to continue our work of investing in historically neglected neighborhoods.”

Duncan was asked Tuesday whether he opted out because he feared being branded a “de-funder” of the police at a time when violent crime is poised to become the overriding issue in the mayoral campaign.

“You know that’s never been honest,” he said.

Duncan likely would have had formidable financial support from a business community disenchanted with Lightfoot. His decision not to run leaves business leaders searching for another candidate. They might even get behind someone totally new like former Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, or a familiar face, like two-time mayoral challenger Gery Chico.

Jackson now runs Hope Chicago, a non-profit founded by Pete Kadens and Ted Koenig to fully-fund post-secondary educations for 4,000 inner-city students.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago police Supt. David Brown at a July 2021 news conference in Lawndale.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown at a press conference outside the 11th District headquarters, 3151 W. Harrison St. in Lawndale, in July 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Giangreco argued the only politician Duncan’s exit does not benefit is Lightfoot.

“She’s in enough trouble with voters and that part doesn’t really change. It just means that it’s gonna take longer for people to coalesce behind a primary challenger,” he said.

“She had a golden opportunity with 76% of the vote the last time around to really bring this city together. Instead, she tore it apart. There’s one thing the police and the teachers can both agree on — that she’s the wrong mayor. There’s one thing that business and labor can agree on is she’s the wrong mayor. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a South Side alderman or a North Side alderman. Everybody agrees that she’s not the right mayor right now.”

Axelrod disagreed, slightly.

“If you believe that Arne Duncan was a very, very formidable candidate, then you would say that the mayor should be happy he’s not running. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be other formidable candidates.”

Duncan’s decision is not all that surprising, given the way he has waffled in recent months.

Just last week, Axelrod told the Sun-Times Duncan was “basically a shy person.” So even as he claimed Duncan’s “consensus-building” strengths were Lightfoot’s greatest weakness, Axelrod also had said he would not be surprised if his friend decided elected office was not for him.

“Arne’s never been a politician. It’s never been his ambition to run for public office. And not everybody wants that for their lives and is cut out for that,” Axelrod said Tuesday.

“He made the decision that this wasn’t the right thing for him and his family. There’s some wisdom in that — knowing that about yourself.”

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