Moments after Neal Sales-Griffin sat down in the living room of the 600-square-foot, soft-lit Kenwood apartment where he spent much of his childhood — “my mama’s house,” he calls it — the memories come rushing back.
The nights he took his turn sleeping on the couch or floor. The jam-packed Thanksgiving gatherings and joyful games played in the yard on Drexel Boulevard. The people he recalled getting gunned down on the front sidewalk. The difficulties he had at school, and the grants and scholarships that helped him attend Mount Carmel High School and Northwestern University.
“Chicago afforded me some opportunities. Chicago also presented a lot of struggles for me …. crunched up in this apartment, not always having the space we needed, not always having the money we needed, not always having food on the table like we needed it,” Sales-Griffin said. “So many other people have experienced far worse than I ever did, and that’s the stuff I think about every day. That’s why I’m sprinting toward this.”
He’s running for mayor of Chicago. On Saturday morning, the 30-year-old tech entrepreneur with no government experience will launch a campaign focused on setting term limits, removing big money from politics and using technology to shine a spotlight on how money is spent in the city’s multibillion-dollar budget.
Sales-Griffin says what he lacks in City Hall know-how, he’ll make up with a deep understanding of Chicagoans’ distrust in their government and using his entrepreneurial experience to lead a transparent transformation of how the city is run.
For his age, Sales-Griffin has built a long LinkedIn page: Founder and CEO of one of the nation’s first computer coding schools. Adjunct professor at Northwestern’s engineering and law schools. Advisory committee member at the Museum of Science and Industry. Co-chair of an entrepreneurship council at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Resume aside, Sales-Griffin faces a steep climb to the fifth-floor mayor’s office.
He’s trying to unseat Rahm Emanuel, one of the nation’s most seasoned and well-funded politicians. And he’s joining an increasingly crowded field in the February 2019 mayoral election with a crop of better-known challengers, including former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, businessman Willie Wilson and Chicago principals’ association President Troy LaRaviere.
Even as Sales-Griffin rails against money in politics, he acknowledges he’ll have to raise a bunch of it to get his name ID up and his message out. And perhaps most difficult of all, he’ll have to convince Chicago voters that a relatively unkown 30-year-old is up to the job.
“Why are we not effectively building trust and communicating with our people about what’s really going on? It’s because we’re scared. We’re scared of what happens when they realize the truth, and we try to hide things from them because that puts our re-election chances at risk,” he said. “I’ve had more than enough of that, and if it takes a 30-year-old to step up — hey man, that’s a sign. It’s a signal that Chicago is not OK, that I’m sitting here today, having to run for mayor, because no one is talking about these things. So, here we go.”
‘Crazy mixed bag’ upbringing
Sales-Griffin is the son of Linda Sales (pronounced SAH-lez), who worked as an Chicago Public Schools special education assistant, and Anthony Griffin, a retired Chicago police officer who spent 30 years on the force. Sales-Griffin said the two never married and split up for good when he was still young, and he spent portions of his childhood living separately with each parent.
His younger years, he recalled, often were marked by poverty, as his mother struggled to help members of her extended family in addition to her two children. At times, relatives stayed at the tiny Kenwood coach house apartment.
Sales-Griffin said he struggled to fit in at Ray Elementary School, and failed a math class. While watching a late-night TV show, his mother found out about Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network, which offered scholarships for underprivileged families. She applied and received one of the Oprah grants, which was enough to transfer Sales-Griffin and sister Noelle to St. Thomas the Apostle School in Hyde Park.
Later, he won a Daniel Murphy scholarship that helped him attend Mount Carmel, the all-boys Catholic high school in Woodlawn known for its powerhouse football program. Sales-Griffin played football, ran track and nearly got straight A’s.
By the time Sales-Griffin reached high school, much of his family had left the city. His father, who is African-American, had seven brothers and sisters and grew up in Hyde Park. His mother, who is of Filipino, Honduran and Mexican descent, grew up as one of eight siblings in Englewood and South Shore.
“We have this crazy mixed bag of cultural upbringing that I was blessed to be a part of, but so many of my family members that I grew up with and was born around, slowly but surely as I became a teenager, they would disperse, they would go away, they would be gone. They’re off in California, or Memphis or Florida, all over the place, but not Chicago,” Sales-Griffin said. “You wonder what life would be like if you got to grow up with your family, with your cousins, with your friends who decided Chicago wasn’t good enough for them anymore. That strikes such a strong chord for me every day.”
It’s also a theme of his budding campaign. Sales-Griffin’s website includes the credo: “Chicago is not OK. Our family and friends are moving away. Let’s bring them home.”
That’s a not-so-subtle reference to Chicago’s shrinking population, particularly on the South and West sides, which have experienced an exodus of middle-class and lower-income African-Americans in the last few decades.
Sales-Griffin said he’s all too familiar with why people have left: inadequate schools, fear of crime, too few jobs for young people. The only way to reverse that trend, he says, is to elect someone those communities can place faith in, someone who will work to improve their lives and neighborhoods.
“So many people are disengaged. They’re not even voting, because they’re like, ‘Why? What am I voting for? Who am I voting for? What are they going to do for me? I’ve known Chicago has been this machine — that’s entrenched, that’s corrupt, that’s opaque — for my entire life,’ ” Sales-Griffin said. “You get born into that culture, so there’s a disconnect. It’s about building trust.”
Campaign cash, Pritzker ties
Sales-Griffin said he’ll build trust by running as a reformer. He’ll propose term limits for the mayor and aldermen. He’ll push campaign finance changes, perhaps similar to New York City, where public funds match small-dollar contributions from constituents. He’ll propose a plan to reform CPS. And he says he’ll put up an easy-to-use site to show the public how its money is spent, while being upfront on how that spending should change and what new taxes or fees will be needed to address the city’s ongoing financial challenges.
It’s one thing to present plans. It’s another to project credibility as a young, relatively unknown candidate. Sales-Griffin said he’ll try to earn votes by displaying his values, pointing to a business career that he said largely has been focused on giving back.
After graduating from Northwestern, where he was student body president, Sales-Griffin briefly worked at a venture capital firm, but didn’t find the work rewarding. He took time off to teach himself computer science. Learning how to do it proved difficult, but he and partner Mike McGee saw an opportunity in that struggle. In 2011, they formed one of the nation’s first coding bootcamps to make it easier for others to learn the skill behind so much of modern technology. Five years later, they sold The Starter League. Since then, Sales-Griffin has served as CEO of CodeNow, a nonprofit that teaches coding to thousands of high school students.
Sales-Griffin refers to his work as having helped “democratize a skill set that provided so many people, thousands of people with job opportunities and new skills.” He says he wants to educate Chicagoans in a similar fashion about their government.
Sales-Griffin and McGee started the coding school instead of going to work for then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Harper Reed, the campaign’s chief technology officer, wanted the two to work as project managers. Reed remained a mentor to them and served on the coding school’s board.
Sales-Griffin also has ties to Democratic governor nominee J.B. Pritzker. Sales-Griffin was an original tenant at 1871, the tech incubator at the Merchandise Mart that Pritzker helped found.
When Pritzker kicked off his campaign last year, Sales-Griffin introduced him to the crowd. In an interview this week, Sales-Griffin called the billionaire Hyatt Hotel heir a “good man,” but said the two don’t agree on everything when it comes to politics, citing the influence of money. So far, Pritzker has poured $76.2 million of his fortune into his run against Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Still, Sales-Griffin has set a campaign budget of between $10 million and $15 million to compete with Emanuel, who raised $24 million for his 2015 re-election. Sales-Griffin said he knows how to raise money and “establish a shared vision and get people excited about it,” but the political newcomer also pledged, if elected, to document every meeting and interaction he has in an effort to show there will be no payback for campaign cash.
“I’m not taking money from people who expect anything from me, except a better government,” Sales-Griffin said. “We’re going to hit our numbers on the amount of money it’s going to take to win this election, but man, isn’t this the problem? I’ll do what I have to do this one time to make this happen, but enough is enough.”
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