State Rep. Kam Buckner kicked off his mayoral campaign Thursday, proclaiming “we cannot wait a day longer for a safe and just Chicago for all of us.”
Buckner pledged a more collaborative Chicago with “a mayor who brings people together,” an apparent reference to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reputation for combativeness with critics.
The third major challenger to officially enter the race against Lightfoot, Buckner didn’t mention the incumbent by name at his announcement. But he returned repeatedly during his nearly 20-minute speech to themes of overcoming differences, something Lightfoot opponents have contended she is unable or unwilling to do.
Failing to find solutions prevents progress, Buckner said.
“A mayor’s job is not just to fight for the sake of fighting,” Buckner told a crowd of several dozen supporters outside a South Loop tea shop on a sweltering afternoon. “It’s time to bring people together, find a way to ‘yes’ instead of being stuck at ‘no.’”
And he pointed to Chicago’s “best mayors” as those who “made our common values and common purpose our focus, not our differences.”
Buckner, 37, said Chicagoans “aren’t afraid of a strong mayor,” or one who, like the unnamed Lightfoot, uses “cuss words.”
“But we want our mayor to be both fearless and compassionate to get things done for the city,” he said.
In particular, Buckner said if elected he would personally negotiate the 2024 Chicago Teachers Union contract “hands-on, not by proxy, not from behind a podium,” following several years of labor unrest with the union during Lightfoot’s first term.
Buckner has been discussing the possibility of running against Lightfoot for months.
in a pre-announcement interview earlier Thursday, the lawmaker asserted he could do better than the current occupant of City Hall’s 5th floor when it comes to cooperating with residents and officials to tackle violent crime.
“If I thought we were doing a good job (in working together to combat violence), I probably wouldn’t be here right now talking to you,” Buckner said.
But mostly, he demurred rather than directly criticizing Lightfoot, an initial high road approach that serves to keep the focus on him rather than on the conflict inherent in his bid to unseat the sitting mayor.
“I know there will be a lot of folks who are going to try to create these ad hominem issues between candidates and the incumbent. I’m not interested in that,” Buckner said. “My race is not about being anti-Lori Lightfoot. It’s about being pro-Chicago.”
The Lightfoot campaign responded to news of Buckner’s announcement by trying to link him to disgraced former state House Speaker Michael Madigan.
“Being Mayor of Chicago requires the sort of toughness that Kam Buckner hasn’t shown in his public life,” Lightfoot campaign spokeswoman Christina Freundlich said in a statement. “When others stood up to Madigan and told him it was time to go, Buckner voted to keep him in power. You can’t take on the machine when you’re part of it.”
Buckner joins Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, and businessman Willie Wilson as challengers who’ve officially announced they are running for mayor.
Lightfoot hasn’t formally declared her candidacy for a second term but is expected to announce her bid in the coming weeks.
If elected, Buckner wouldn’t be the first Chicago mayor to have served in the Illinois General Assembly. Both Richard M. Daley and his father served in the legislature, as did Harold Washington.
Asked why he initially backed Madigan in an informal vote of the Legislative Black Caucus, for which he is House chair, Buckner said at that point he had not had conversations with other Democrats who expressed interest in replacing the nation’s longest serving House speaker. Meanwhile, Madigan had told legislators “what he would plan to do moving forward,” Buckner recalled.
“I know that the majority of members of the Black Caucus … did not know what the next step was going to be,” Buckner said. “You don’t replace someone with no one.”
He also said the Black Caucus informally voted to endorse Madigan’s re-election and the only official vote cast for speaker in 2021 was for Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who succeeded Madigan.
While a move from serving as one of 118 Illinois state representatives to the Chicago mayor’s office might strike some as an overly ambitious leap for a 37-year-old, Buckner said his background has prepared him well for tackling Chicago’s seemingly intractable problems.
“My experience really speaks for itself,” he said. “I am, right now, the only person who will have announced who has experience at the highest levels of state, federal and local government. I’ve worked in the public sector obviously, the private sector and the non-profit sector as well.”
Buckner grew up on the Far South Side, attended Chicago Public Schools and graduated from Morgan Park High School. Buckner’s mother was a longtime CPS teacher at Louisa May Alcott Elementary School on the North Side and his father, who died last year of cancer and complications from COVID-19, was a corrections sergeant at the Cook County Jail.
In high school, Buckner played on the offensive and defensive lines on football teams under renowned head coach Lexie Spurlock, who also coached Buckner on the track team when he competed in shot put and discus events.
At the University of Illinois, Buckner played defensive end and defensive tackle during what he recalls as the “days and nights of toil,” an era when the Fighting Illini football team had repeated losing seasons, despite producing NFL players like running backs Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall.
After graduating from Illinois, Buckner earned a law degree from DePaul University. He worked for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin as a constituent service and outreach worker and also served as press secretary for former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is now President Joe Biden’s infrastructure advisor.
He also worked as manager of neighborhood and government relations for the Chicago Cubs and executive director of World Sport Chicago, a nonprofit that assists underserved youths in sports programs.
Chicago’s rampant gun violence has affected the Buckner family. His uncle, John Bucker, a civilian Chicago Police Department employee, was shot and killed in 2015 outside his Morgan Park home when he began unloading groceries. His mother’s uncle, Frankie Aldridge, was fatally shot in 1994 near 64th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in the Woodlawn community.
As a lawmaker, Buckner supported spending roughly $240 million on violence prevention groups that employ ex-felons to mediate street conflicts and connect those most prone to violence with therapy and other social services.
He also sponsored a measure this spring to combat so-called ghost guns that can be made with a 3-D printer or from kits and have no identification numbers for tracing. Possession of such a gun would be a felony, according to legislation that passed through the General Assembly and awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature.
Buckner also sponsored legislation in the House to address organized retail crime, when goods are stolen through smash-and-grab burglaries and through other means before being resold online. The measure, in its original form, ignited some controversy from civil libertarian groups concerned about it targeting women who could be coerced into these crimes either through abusive relationships or human trafficking.
But before it passed through the House and Senate, proponents of the bill stressed that its aim was to go after ringleaders of these crimes. It now awaits the governor’s signature.
Pritzker also signed into law last year a bill Buckner helped sponsor allowing college athletes to sign endorsement deals, making Illinois among about two dozen states to enact policies permitting student-athletes to profit off the use of their names and likenesses.
Buckner was also one of the key House members behind legislation signed into law by Pritzker last year that would put a fully elected school board in place in Chicago, despite unsuccessful resistance from Lightfoot. The legislation included an immediate moratorium on school closings until 2025, when a hybrid board would be implemented before a fully elected board is in place by January 2027.
His three years as a state representative have not come without controversy.
In 2019, Buckner was arrested for a DUI about a block from the Illinois Capitol. He pleaded guilty in that case earlier this year and was sentenced to a year of conditional discharge, court records show. The Tribune also reported earlier this month that Buckner had received a prior DUI in 2010 in Urbana, a case in which he received two years of court supervision and was ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.
Buckner has said he learned from the incidents and attributed his 2019 arrest in part on stress from some family health problems.
“I learned kind of about … how to really handle stress and if you ever have to ask yourself if you should be behind the wheel the answer is just you shouldn’t,” Buckner told the Tribune. “Just straight up like that.”
In the summer of 2020, Buckner spent nearly $5,400 combined from his campaign fund on stays at luxury hotels in Las Vegas and Miami Beach. He said the hotel stays were for gatherings in those cities for a group he helped form that year called the “Alliance of Black Male Electeds” following the police-custody death of George Floyd, which Buckner said was aimed at brainstorming ways to help Black communities around the country.