The top two challengers to Mayor Rahm Emanuel filed their petitions Monday to appear on the ballot, marking the start of a three-month campaign during which each is likely to be outspent overwhelmingly by the incumbent.
But Ald. Bob Fioretti, 2nd, and Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia insisted that Chicagoans' desire for change would outweigh Emanuel's hefty campaign fund, which now nears $9 million.
"Money's a factor," Fioretti said, before suggesting the most important factor was voter dissatisfaction with Emanuel. "We're going to raise certain dollars and cents in this campaign to be competitive, to make sure we get our votes out, but people want change in this city."
Fioretti said he turned in more than 55,000 signatures to appear on the ballot. Garcia said he collected more than 63,000. Emanuel turned in 43,000 signatures last week. All numbers are far in excess of the 12,500 signatures needed to appear on the ballot.
"I believe the city is not headed in the right direction," Garcia said. "We've heard from people all over the city of Chicago, and the fact that we submitted the highest number of nominating petitions underscores the change that people in the city's neighborhoods would like to see Chicago take a new set of priorities."
While Fioretti and Garcia took turns talking to the cameras at the Chicago Board of Elections, Emanuel held a news conference to underscore what he called improvements to the city's graffiti removal program.
Emanuel insisted he wasn't focused on who was running against him but the re-election message he would deliver to voters.
"I look at it as running for the city's future, not whether they are running against me," he said. "The real point is to make sure you have an agenda, very specific, for the future of the city of Chicago. Now, when I came to office, we had to make some tough decisions, because the city of Chicago was in a tough place."
The upcoming campaign likely will include challenges from Emanuel's campaign against his opponents' petition signatures, a time-honored Chicago hardball political tactic meant to invalidate enough of candidates' signatures to drop them below the threshold number needed to appear on the ballot.
Emanuel himself faced a similar election tactic in 2011, when his candidacy was challenged on the grounds he was not a resident of Chicago.
On Monday, the mayor said petition challenges are part of the process to establish the "legitimacy" of candidacies, while seeking to distance himself from that down-and-dirty political maneuvering by saying he will be concentrating on his mayoral duties.
"You have to have legitimacy, but I'm not, see, here's my thing: You guys will look at signatures, I'm going to be focused on the numbers I know the residents of the city of Chicago are focused on," Emanuel said, before returning to talking points on how many kids were enrolling in after-school and arts programs.
Garcia said he believed his 63,000 signatures were "challenge-proof," before saying he would campaign on reducing gangs and gun violence, hiring more police officers, improving schools, creating jobs, reducing the city's deficit and addressing its looming unfunded pension obligations.
The Cook County commissioner, however, offered no specifics on how he'd achieve those improvements and would not take questions from reporters, even as they followed him through the Dunne Cook County office building, into the city's underground pedway and through another nearby office building.
Fioretti, too, has railed against Emanuel's school closings, the city's crime and what he's described as the mayor's neglect of the city's neighborhoods. While taking questions after filing his petitions, Fioretti was asked why he was a better candidate to challenge Emanuel than Garcia.
"I've been standing up on the issues across the board," he said. "This isn't the first time. It's interesting that people like to parrot, mimic my campaign. I'm glad of that, I'm proud of that."
At least nine candidates filed to run against Emanuel.
In addition to Garcia and Fioretti, they include: municipal consultant Amara Enyia, former Ald. Robert Shaw, Chicago police Officer Frederick Collins, businessman Willie Wilson, Fenton C. Patterson, Gerald Sconyers and perennial candidate William "Dock" Walls.
Asked whether he would be willing to hold debates with his opponents, Emanuel said "there will be a time for debate" but did not say how many debates he would be willing to take part in.
Instead, he said he won't wait for a debate but will lay out his case for another term in specific areas. The mayor's campaign has said he will deliver five policy speeches on job creation, infrastructure, education, public safety, and financial and political reform.
"You have to have a specific plan for the future," Emanuel said. "That's my responsibility, not only to have specific ideas for the future but then be held accountable."
Emanuel had nearly $8.7 million in his campaign fund through the end of September and has raised at least $328,000 since then, according to state campaign finance records. Fioretti had $258,000 in his fund at the end of September and has raised about $52,000 since, records show. Garcia, a late entrant to the race, did not open a mayoral campaign fund until Nov. 6 and has collected $214,000 since, almost all of it from unions representing teachers and Chicago Transit Authority workers.
The bottom line on those numbers: Right now, Emanuel could spend 17 times more money on the race than Fioretti and Garcia combined.
That wide gap gives Emanuel a significant advantage in airing TV ads in the expensive Chicago market and allows him the opportunity to define his opponents before they can themselves — if he chooses the attack ad route. Emanuel began airing his first TV ad last week, two days after filing his petitions to get on the ballot.
In aldermanic races, at least 252 candidates filed to run in the city's 50 wards.
Ald. Toni Foulkes filed her petitions Monday to run in the 16th Ward, after the 15th Ward she serves now was redistricted to be one of the new majority Hispanic wards starting in 2015. Foulkes, a member of the City Council's progressive caucus who has been one of the aldermen more likely to vote against Emanuel's agenda in recent years, will face off against Ald. JoAnn Thompson, a mayoral supporter.
On Monday, Foulkes said she will concentrate on standing up for her ward's interests but acknowledged the possibility the mayor and an Emanuel-aligned super political action committee would support City Council candidates he favors.
"I hope he's too busy with his own campaign to get involved in ours," Foulkes said of Emanuel with a laugh as she left the Board of Elections office.