Ald. Timmy Knudsen sits in his 43rd Ward City Council seat thanks to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
If it’s pulled out from under him in next week’s runoff, it’ll likely be thanks to his connection to her.
Five months after Lightfoot appointed him to replace retiring former Ald. Michele Smith, Knudsen came out on top in the Feb. 28 election. But he did so with just about a quarter of the vote across Lincoln Park, Old Town and the Gold Coast — and by less than three percentage points over the upstart, runner-up challenge from consultant Brian Comer.
On that same February day, voters in the 43rd summarily rejected Lightfoot, who finished a distant third in the affluent ward behind Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas — whose vote total was more than five times greater than the outgoing mayor’s.
Now, Knudsen — at 32 the Council’s youngest member, and the first openly gay person to represent his ward — finds himself defending his brief record in a race that, like so many others across Chicago, has largely emerged as a referendum on which candidate is better equipped to address public safety concerns.
“Since I was appointed back in September, we’ve gotten right to work on crime,” Knudsen said during a debate with Comer last week at Lincoln Park High School. “We’ve added more funding for cameras in our ward that the police commanders feel is a good way to deter crime and put eyes on the beat. … I believe in community policing, and we will keep fighting for it.”
Comer, 48, has tried to position himself as a bigger thinker on police strategy, in opposition to an incumbent “appointed by a lame-duck mayor,” whom Comer claims “is not engaging, listening or collaborating with the residents of this community.”
“Public safety is issue one, two and three right now,” Comer said at the debate. “Cameras are great, but that doesn’t actually rebuild the 2,000-officer deficit that we have in the city right now. That’s an acute problem that needs an innovative solution,” he said, offering up a plan to recruit and incentivize college students to join the ranks.
Knudsen, a corporate lawyer by trade who previously directed the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals, led the field of six candidates in the general election with 26.8% of the vote.
Comer is the president of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association president, and he says his consulting clients mostly come from the renewable energy and financial services sectors. He advanced to the runoff with 24.1% of the vote.
The only other two challengers to crack double digits in the first round of voting — Rebecca Janowitz with 19.8% and Wendi Taylor Nations with 13.5% — have both endorsed Knudsen in the runoff.
Knudsen took a plurality of votes in 13 of the ward’s 23 precincts last month, compared to five where Comer led the pack.
Overall, Knudsen outpaced Comer head-to-head in 16 precincts, with the incumbent sweeping most areas closer to Old Town and the lakefront north to Diversey Parkway, while the challenger racked up sizable margins over Knudsen in seven polling places, mostly west of Halsted Street.
In the mayor’s race, Vallas swept the ward with 55.2% of the vote, compared to 17% for Johnson and 10.8% for Lightfoot, whose ties to Knudsen have been downplayed by the appointed alderperson even though the mayor gave him the job.
It’s a story of unrequited political boosts across the board. Comer, who also applied for Lightfoot’s appointment, has endorsed Vallas throughout his campaign, but Vallas is endorsing Knudsen — who says he’s not taking sides in the mayor’s race. But Knudsen says he does “support the crime plan of Paul Vallas.”
Knudsen — who worked on past campaigns for Democrats including Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Gov. J.B. Pritzker — has lined up establishment support from the highest ranks of the state party, including U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, on down to the 43rd Ward, where Michele Smith and all five other living former alderpersons are endorsing Knudsen.
Knudsen also served as a “bag boy” for Barack Obama — carrying the president’s luggage — when Obama came to town to raise money for Giannoulias’ ill-fated 2010 Senate bid, a gig that put Knudsen behind the scenes with the president and his then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
“It was very like storybook-like, one of the cooler days of my early life,” Knudsen told the Sun-Times during an interview at his campaign office near Halsted and Armitage.
Those connections help explain how a City Council neophyte has managed to raise money like a seasoned political veteran, collecting more than $367,000 in donations since launching a campaign committee last summer.
Knudsen’s lengthy roster of contributors includes familiar deep-pocketed Chicago investors such as Elzie Higginbottom and Fred Eychaner, as well as Matthew Pritzker, a cousin of the billionaire governor.
Knudsen’s campaign has also cashed checks from Grubhub, DoorDash and the Illinois Restaurant Association, in addition to several unions and the Realtor PAC.
Comer calls them all troubling examples of how the incumbent is “funded and supported by a political machine that is trying to take your vote.”
The challenger has worked with a much smaller financial war chest, raising a little over $50,000 since last August. That includes $7,400 of Comer’s own money, plus campaign contributions from a relative and a handful of city law firms and other businesses.
Comer said the connections he’s made and the problems he’s solved entering his fourth term as president for 10,000 residents in the Sheffield Neighborhood Association will translate well to City Hall.
“Not only are you engaging with your community, you’re collaborating with your neighbors and residents, and you need to listen to them,” Comer told the Sun-Times before a fundraiser at a Lincoln Park gym.
“At the end of the day, you’re gonna have 52,000 bosses, and they’re gonna let you know what they think.”