Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign spending outpacing how much she’s raising

CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has lost the financial advantage her campaign had over most opponents as her campaign spent twice as much as she raised during the last three months of 2022 while she launched expensive television ads aimed at rebuilding momentum in her bid for reelection.

With a little more than a month to go before the Feb. 28 mayoral election, the first-term mayor remains locked in a tight race against eight rivals looking to unseat her, several of whom now have nearly as much cash — or more — on hand to sell their messages to voters, according to newly filed campaign disclosure records.

Lightfoot began the quarter with $2.9 million in the bank and raised nearly $1.5 million between October and December of 2022. But during that same time frame, she spent roughly $3 million — $2 million of it on advertising, according to the filing with the Illinois State Board of Elections. She’s raised another $109,000 since the beginning of the year, leaving her with about $1.5 million in the bank for the stretch run.

Several of the mayor’s rivals have similar amounts of money on hand.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson raised more than any other candidate during the final quarter of the year — more than $1.8 million, much of it from progressives and the unions that support him, including the powerful Chicago Teachers Union. With additional fundraising since the beginning of the year, Johnson has more than $1.7 million in the bank. Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas has about $1.8 million on hand and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia has about $1.3 million in the bank after being the last big-name candidate to announce plans to run, the filings show.

With more than $4.1 million, Willie Wilson has more money than any of the candidates for mayor but nearly all of it is cash the business owner loaned himself.

Lightfoot is facing public concerns about crime, dissatisfaction with her leadership style and anger over some broken promises. Last week, she tried to stem the tide of another brewing scandal when it was revealed her campaign asked Chicago Public Schools teachers to help recruit their students for her reelection campaign in exchange for class credit — a practice Lightfoot later vowed to stop after her challengers blasted it as crossing ethical boundaries.

She launched her first TV ads in November and spent more than $1.9 million on advertising in the final two months of the year, according to the state elections board filings.

“It’s campaign season. We’re about 40 days out from an election. Of course we’re spending money,” Lightfoot said Wednesday at an unrelated news conference.

“We’re spending money to be on TV, we’re spending money on our field operation, we’re spending money on voter engagement. I’m not one who thinks that the thing to do is continue to hoard money,” she said. “We feel very good about where we are, we feel very good about the amount of money that we’re raising, and we’re going to have plenty of money to make sure we communicate and we stay up on TV.”

Lightfoot’s initial TV commercials attempted to address crime in Chicago and soften her image of combativeness as it showed clips from her inaugural address nearly four years ago talking about her upbringing and her parents, including her mother who attended the event.

More recently, Lightfoot has used her ads to go on the attack against García, criticizing him for ties to indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and alleged crypto fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried in an attempt to bloody up a top rival.

But as the TV commercials have aired, Lightfoot’s expenses have outpaced how much money her campaign has been bringing in, a practice that has been seen before. Last year, the Tribune reported Lightfoot spent campaign cash faster than she had been raising it, leaving her with less political cash than she had shortly after winning office in April 2019.

Lightfoot’s financial footing is a contrast to her two predecessors, Mayor Richard M. Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who tapped the advantage of incumbency to build massive campaign war chests aimed at discouraging challengers from entering the race, and then used that cash to quickly define those who did through attack ads. She has not been able to match their fundraising pace.

The newly filed campaign reports also show Lightfoot’s political allies struggling to raise money. Her former political director, Dave Mellet, helped launch an independent expenditure campaign fund to support the mayor. The fund is not bound by restrictions Lightfoot must abide by, including how much money contributors can give or who they are, including city contractors.

But the 77 Committee raised only $100,000 in the final quarter of 2022, a paltry sum compared to a similar effort led by Emanuel supporters in 2014 to back his reelection campaign. That fund raised more than $5 million in one year to help Emanuel win a second term.

The next-highest fundraising total came from Johnson, who while raising $1.8 million spent only $578.000. Johnson recently launched commercials on broadcast TV aimed at introducing him to voters, a prerequisite if he is going to leapfrog bigger-name candidates.

Vallas raised $1.1 million and spent $840,000 during the final quarter of the year. Since the end of the year, he’s raised another $669,000, leaving him with $1.8 million on hand. Vallas, who finished a distant seventh in the last election, has also launched television ads focused on crime.

García is the only other candidate who raised more than $1 million. He raised $1.4 million and spent $151,000, leaving him with $1.3 million. Unlike Lightfoot, Vallas and Johnson, García hasn’t yet launched TV ads or spent much campaign cash. Instead, he has been relying on his higher-name recognition due to his 2015 campaign against Emanuel and long career in public life. But he is expected to spend significantly more as Election Day draws near.

If none of the nine candidates in the Feb. 28 election receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will move to the runoff election, which is April 4.

Ald. Sophia King of the 4th Ward, who represents parts of the downtown lakefront and the Hyde Park neighborhood in the City Council, took in $231,000 and spent $219,000, leaving her with nearly $230,000.

State Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner of Chicago raised nearly $127,000 but spent $106,000, leaving him with only $28,000 in the bank.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer of the 6th Ward raised $42,500 and spent $25,000. He’s raised another $28,000 since the start of the year, leaving him with $64,000 on hand.

Wilson raised less than $3,000 and spent $587,000.

Activist Ja’Mal Green raised $22,000 and spent $23,000. He’s raised another $53,500 since the start of the year, leaving him with more than $66,000 in the bank.