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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Allison Novelo

Scandal-prone Ald. Gardiner mum about reelection bid against rival who feels ‘great about going into the runoff’

Ald. Jim Gardiner (left) and runoff challenger Megan Mathias (right) participate in a forum in early February. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times-file)

Fighting a whirlwind of scandals, embattled Ald. Jim Gardiner failed to win enough votes to secure his reelection in the Northwest Side’s 45th Ward last month, forcing the freshman incumbent into an April 4 runoff against lawyer Megan Mathias. 

Despite the storm of controversy, Gardiner still managed to capture 48% of the vote in the six-candidate race in February. But failing to win a majority, he now faces Mathias, 46, who came in second with just under 17%. 

A year and a half ago, Gardiner, who turns 47 next month, issued a rare public apology on the City Council floor for a series of profane, threatening and misogynistic text messages, some of which reportedly caught the attention of the FBI, because they seemed to indicate Gardiner intended to withhold city services from residents he deemed enemies.

Gardiner did not respond to the Sun-Times’ requests for an interview about his runoff campaign.

Mathias, 46, said many residents complained to her about Gardiner’s inaccessibility but hesitated to donate to her campaign because they “feared retaliation.” Some supporters asked how much they could donate, while still remaining anonymous.

Controversy aside, she said, “people in the ward don’t feel heard, and they want to move forward with someone who listens.” 

“I feel great about going into the runoff,” Mathias said.

45th Ward aldermanic candidate Megan Mathias participates in a candidate forum at the Copernicus Center in February. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file)

Even with Gardiner’s embarrassing headlines, policing and public safety are the top campaign issues in the ward.

Stretching across all or parts of the Old Irving Park, Portage Park, Jefferson Park, Gladstone Park, Edgebrook, Wildwood and Norwood Park neighborhoods, the ward is home to a substantial number of police officers and firefighters.

In early February, Gardiner, a former Chicago firefighter, told an audience at the Copernicus Center that he created a healthier bond between police officers and residents through public meetings.

“I’m a first responder. I know exactly what it means to be on the streets,” Gardiner said, vowing more community involvement in policing efforts.

Mathias, a small business owner and chair of local school council at Belding Elementary, said she wants to focus on providing mental health services and support for police officers.

“There’s a lot of first responders that live here, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours interviewing them,” Mathias said. “How are we going to overwork our police officers, give them a weapon and then expect them to go save our lives?”

Mathias said she also wants to bring back retired officers to lighten some of the workload for officers on patrol.

Despite voter criticism, Gardiner continues to tout economic success in the Northwest Side ward, citing more than $400 million in developments and construction.

“When was the last time you heard of the 45th Ward leading anything on economic development?” he said at the Copernicus Center in early February.

45th Ward candidates (from left) Ald. Jim Gardiner, James Suh, Megan Mathias, Marija Tomic, Susanna Ernst and Ana Santoyo participate in a forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park in February. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file)

Mathias said Gardiner should get little credit, contending “those developments were in the works for years, even under the prior alderman.”

Mathias also criticized Gardiner’s “beautification” plan to attract business owners.

“That was not an economic plan,” Mathias said. “We need to spur economic growth in the ward by creating a small business development center, where small business owners can get funding and support.”

The single mother of three said she launched her campaign because she felt indebted to the community members in the 45th ward after losing her spouse to Esophageal cancer in 2019.

In September of 2021, Gardiner apologized to the City Council for a series of profane and abusive text messages disparaging mayoral aides, fellow alderpersons or their aides. The audience included his wife, Samantha Fields, a former city budget director and director of legislative and government affairs.

Ald. Jim Gardiner sits back down after addressing his City Council colleagues in 2021 and apologizing for text messages he sent. (Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file)

“I stand before this body to offer my sincerest apologies for the pain and insult that anyone has endured as a result. I take full responsibility for my offensive words in those messages,” Gardiner said at the time.

“Unfortunately those comments do not reflect my values or the efforts of our team who work to make our ward a better place. And for that I am deeply sorry. I want to make it clear that I have never acted on those rants. However, they should not have been expressed. It certainly was not my intention to demean anyone.”

Gardiner is also in hot water with the Chicago Board of Ethics for allegedly asking a former staff member to leak a political opponent’s criminal record. 

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