In contentious 45th Ward race, Ald. Jim Gardiner tries to secure reelection over attorney Megan Mathias – Chicago Tribune

Ald. Jim Gardiner nearly shook off four years of scandals and controversy and five opponents to secure an outright victory in the February election in the Northwest Side 45th Ward. But he fell short.

Now he’s trying to find a few hundred more votes to win a second term in the runoff, while opponent Megan Mathias is joining with other candidates who challenged Gardiner to try to convince residents they don’t want another four years of someone with his temperament and policies representing their interests at City Hall.

The race has hinged in significant part on questions about Gardiner’s fitness. The last four years have been marked by allegations he used his power as alderman to target political opponents, including a reported federal investigation into whether he sought to withhold ward services from some residents who opposed his agenda.

Gardiner got 48% of the vote in the first round, 320 votes shy of the majority he needed to win outright. He’s one of three incumbents who won City Council seats in 2019 who are now forced into the second round of elections on April 4.

Mathias, an attorney, led among the challengers with 16.9%, but trailed Gardiner by nearly 5,000 votes. Still, she said the 52% who voted for someone other than the incumbent represents a bloc of ward residents who are tired of Gardiner.

Megan Mathias, center, a 45th Ward aldermanic candidate, waves at Liz McChesney as she talks with her husband, Steve McChesney, outside their home while passing out flyers on March 15, 2023.

“Because Gardiner is in a runoff, he also has work to do,” she said. “We believe that people who supported other campaigns are consolidating behind me, and so we basically have to continue our voter contact efforts so people know what we’re about.”

James Suh and Susanna Ernst — the third and fourth place finishers in the 45th Ward race in February — released a statement Thursday pledging to help take Gardiner down.

“Susanna Ernst and James Suh decided to run for alderperson with a common goal: new leadership for the 45th Ward,” the statement reads in part. “Megan Mathias shares that goal, and the three remain committed to achieving it.”

Gardiner did not respond to requests for comment about the race. Overcoming his near-win in February won’t be east for Mathias.

The new map approved by the City Council in 2022 seems to play to Gardiner’s strengths by shifting the ward north into more conservative areas, while excising some precincts where progressive former 45th Ward Ald. John Arena had fared well.

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas got 52.3% of the vote in the new 45th Ward in February in a field of nine candidates, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. Gardiner could benefit in the runoff if lots of Vallas supporters cast ballots in the ward.

Mathias lives in a part of the Old Irving Park neighborhood that was cut out of the new ward. It was a change Mathias said didn’t surprise her since she had already announced she was running against Gardiner when the council approved the boundaries and Chicago has a long tradition of incumbent aldermen carving their opponents’ homes out of their wards. She will move back into the new 45th if she wins.

But she said she’s making inroads with voters in the Wildwood and Edgebrook neighborhoods that are new to the ward when she knocks on their doors and tells them about herself and Gardiner.

“There’s a significant portion of the ward that doesn’t know him and wouldn’t be looking out for news on him, because he wasn’t their alderperson,” Mathias said. “Those people need the true information about both candidates, and that’s, at the end of the day, when I win out.”

Gardiner’s reported vindictiveness toward people who disagree with him and his inability to effectively administer ward services strike a chord with residents who expect their alderman to be responsive to everyone who lives within the borders, Mathias said.

Ald. Jim Gardiner listens during a City Council meeting on March 15, 2023, at City Hall. The last four years have been marked by allegations he used his power as alderman to target political opponents.

Gardiner’s ward superintendent, Charles Sikanich, was arrested last year on charges he tried to sell an antique machine gun to an undercover ATF agent while he was on the clock for his Streets and Sanitation job.

A sworn deposition was made public in January in a federal lawsuit against Gardiner that detailed how a former aide last autumn said the alderman obsessed over Facebook criticism and pledged to rid the ward of his detractors, who he referred to as “rats.”

“He’s struggled even with the basics of the job, constituent services,” Mathias said. “I want to bring a fresh perspective to innovate how we do those things and be accountable to people. Give quarterly updates, like ‘Hey, we answered a couple thousand calls this month, 80% of them were dealt with, 10% of them are stuck here, and this is where we’re at.’ And then people can see if we’re doing a good job. Right now, he’s hoping people just don’t know.”

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