She took a leave of absence from her six-figure job at Aon, assembled a campaign staff — including a new fundraiser to replace the one lured away by mayoral allies — and commissioned a poll she claimed showed that Mayor Rahm Emanuel “can’t win.”
Then suddenly, Bridget Gainer pulled the plug on her race for mayor with a claim that she could have a bigger impact continuing her economic development work on the Cook County Land Bank.
What is the real reason behind Gainer’s about-face? And who does it help the most in the crowded race for mayor of Chicago?
Sources who have spoken to her said she has alluded to yet another negative that was about to drop that might damage her political reputation out of the gate.
The upcoming story reportedly centers around “Off the Sidelines Chicago” — a civic-impact-organization-turned-political-action-committee for women that Gainer created in 2015 with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Sources said Gainer recently received a Freedom of Information request about, among other things, work that several of her County Board employees may have done for the Off the Sidelines Chicago PAC on county time.
Gainer, who has dreamed of becoming mayor of Chicago almost since childhood, did not respond to requests for an interview on Monday. Instead, she released a statement.
“I’m always looking for the best way to serve Chicago,” Gainer said. “Running for Mayor is one way. After exploring, I’ve determined that it’s not the only way. I have big ambitious ideas for Chicago — to continue to serve the 10th district, revitalize neighborhoods through the landbank, and create job opportunities through apprenticeships. This is the best way for me to move Chicago forward.”
Already, Gainer had two recent strikes against her.
Earlier this year, the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC 7 disclosed that Gainer had the worst attendance record on the Cook County Board. Gainer made that story worse by using a “working mother” defense.
The second strike occurred when the Sun-Times disclosed that, since 2013, the three vehicles registered to Gainer’s Lakeview home have been ticketed nearly 200 times for speed-camera, red-light-camera and parking violations.
“With the absenteeism answer and with the city ticket thing, she didn’t really acquit herself very well. Those two little episodes are like a mosquito bite compared to the bruising you take in a real mayoral campaign with the dirty politics and the klieg lights of the Chicago media on you,” said a source familiar with the political intrigue.
Gainer’s gilded path through Chicago government and politics was paved by her father, a former longtime AT&T lobbyist who was a close friend of former Mayors Richard M. Daley and Richard J. Daley.
Bridget Gainer worked for Daley and rose to become director of lakefront services for the Chicago Park District.
When Mike Quigley resigned from the County Board after winning a special election to fill the congressional seat Emanuel relinquished to become then-President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff, Democratic ward committeemen chose Gainer to replace Quigley.
“Bridget comes from a background where there isn’t a ton of political risk that is really taken. The system is worked. People are appointed, announced,” said an Emanuel ally, noting that there are “no free passes” to the fifth floor of City Hall.
A longtime Gainer ally rejected the characterization of the county commissioner as someone who wasn’t willing to fight for the mayor’s job.
In fact, Gainer had already replaced her longtime fundraiser Katelynd Duncan after Duncan was lured away by, what one Gainer ally called a “ridiculous salary” offered by the nonprofit that calls itself “Progress Chicago.”
The same nonprofit has been running ads starring Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson.
But, in recent meetings with allies, sources said Gainer was strangely unable to articulate why she was running for mayor and what exactly she would do differently.
“It was all negative on Rahm, but nothing about her. She had no energy. … I could tell when she walked out that she wasn’t going to run because she didn’t have the passion for it. She didn’t have a story,” the Democratic operative said.
A Gainer ally said she was “showing signs of having second thoughts” in recent days, apparently tied to the fact that she has a “couple of kids going into high school.”
After assessing “quality of life stuff,” Gainer ultimately decided that she “wasn’t willing to do it,” the source said.
“She got to the point where she felt that doing that job was something she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy,” the Gainer ally said.
Yet another source pointed to Gainer’s miniscule showing in polls conducted by the Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot camps. Both polls showed fired Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy as Emanuel’s most likely runoff opponent.
Although Gainer ended the quarterly fundraising period with $843,265 in the bank, she would likely have needed to raise at least $5 million more, minimum, to raise her profile.
That’s a task would have been difficult, given the considerable “overlap” between her donors in labor and big business and Emanuel’s, sources said.
“In a multi-candidate race, it’s hard to get traction. She had money in the bank. But, she would have needed to raise a lot more to get into second poll position,” one political observer said.
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Now that Gainer is out of the race, the question is who has the most to gain from her exit.
Emanuel’s camp makes the argument that the mayor stands to benefit because he and Gainer have “overlapping bases and she would have chiseled a little from him” if she had run.
That was particularly true in Emanuel’s old North Side congressional district, along the lakefront and among women’s groups that were likely to line up behind Gainer.
“This allows him to keep his ideological and political base in tact. It’s also $1 million off the table that won’t be spent against him,” an Emanuel adviser said.
Yet another Emanuel adviser added, “Lakefront liberals from his old congressional district may account for a few [percentage] points. At the end of the day, that might matter. And a runoff with her might have been tougher.”
Other sources argued that former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and former Police Board President Lori Lightfoot have the most to gain from Gainer’s exit.
Gainer grew up in Beverly and might have made inroads in tax-weary Northwest and Southwest Side neighborhoods dominated by disgruntled police officers and firefighters who may now vote for Vallas, a former Beverly resident.
And Lightfoot can stake a claim to women’s groups and lakefront liberals who may otherwise have gone to Gainer.