Mayoral campaigning 101 — or why most of those names will never be on the ballot

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A candidate for Cook County office files 25,000 signatures at 69 W. Washington in 2015. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

For those who are serious about replacing Rahm Emanuel as mayor of Chicago, and not just floating their names out there to massage their egos, this has been a hectic week — especially for those just now eyeing the race.

From the moment the words came out of Emanuel’s mouth Tuesday that he would not be seeking re-election, possibly sooner for a select few insiders, the clock started ticking NOW.

How does someone put together an undertaking as vast as a mayoral campaign with so much to do in so little time? Where does one even start?

Obviously, the path is different for a major elected officeholder with an existing political infrastructure such as County Board President Toni Preckwinkle or state Comptroller Susana Mendoza than it would be for 2011 mayoral candidate Gery Chico, who in effect must put the band back together.


But the essentials are the same: assemble a team, raise money, pass petitions to get on the ballot, formulate a message, assemble a field operation that can identify supporters and get out the vote, and develop a media strategy that includes television advertising, direct mail and making connections via social media.

As far as that team goes, minimum needs are a professional fundraiser, a scheduler, a campaign manager, a press secretary, a media consultant, a direct mail consultant, a social media consultant and maybe an additional fundraiser to pay for the above.

Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board president. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board president. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Oh, yeah. You’ll need a logo and a top notch election lawyer (you can count the best ones on two hands, so hurry), and don’t forget that YouTube page.

“It’s every tiny little thing you can imagine,” said one local campaign consultant.

Plus, it really helps if you can formulate decent answers to these two questions: Why do you want to be mayor? Why should people vote for you?

Still, first things first.

“If you’ve got the resources, you take a poll,” said one Democratic political operative.

Not surprisingly, that’s what Preckwinkle is doing.

A poll can help a candidate more clearly understand how they are perceived by the voters and identify their strengths and weaknesses. It can also let them know how they stack up against the competition and test possible messaging strategies.

Preckwinkle has the advantage of being able to repurpose much of the same campaign team that just helped her win the Democratic nomination for County Board president on her way to an uncontested re-election in November.

As the newly installed chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, she also has plenty of other seasoned political professionals at least nominally in her corner.

For Chico, a lawyer in private practice who has none of that, the first step was more basic.

“You first talk to your family because these are grueling affairs and you want everyone on board,” he said.

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico tours Chinatown during his 2011 mayoral campaign. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico tours Chinatown during his 2011 mayoral campaign. | Sun-Times file photo

With his wife strongly in his corner, Chico said he quickly moved to the next step, contacting his key advisers from past campaigns to begin assembling a team and to seek fundraising commitments.

“I spent two days getting commitments for over $1 million,” Chico said.

That’s a nice start, but any serious candidate is expected to need to collect multiples of that $1 million to have a chance.

Chico, who isn’t bothering with a poll, said he’s already identified a team of people to circulate his petitions, the threshold task that trips up many an aspiring politician.

Candidates can hire people to do their petitions, if they have the money, or they can use volunteers. Either way, they’d better have somebody running the operation who knows what they’re doing because the other campaigns will try to knock them off the ballot.

It takes 12,500 good signatures to get on the ballot. The rule of thumb is that it takes at least twice that many to survive a challenge. The petitions have to be notarized. The more notaries the better, because if a notary’s work is challenged, all the sheets they signed can be thrown out.

Are you getting the idea this is more complicated than it looks?

That’s why professional politicians usually have the advantage, and that’s why current officeholders are regarded as the more serious challengers.


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