Former ASG president launches Chicago mayoral campaign


(Source: Nales Sales-Griffin)

Neal Sales-Griffin (SESP ’09) is running for mayor of Chicago. The tech entrepreneur was ASG president in the 2008-09 academic year.

Gabby Birenbaum, Assistant Campus Editor

When Neal Sales-Griffin (SESP ’09) launched his 2008 campaign for Associated Student Government president, his goal was to initiate systemic change within ASG.

Frustrated by a disengaged Senate and an executive board that was not responsive to student concerns, Sales-Griffin campaigned on a platform of transparency, accountability and access. Upon his victory over four other candidates, he set out to make ASG responsible and reliable.

A decade later, Sales-Griffin is again crusading for governmental transparency and reform — only this time, he’s running for mayor of Chicago.

“I could promise you all these nice bells and whistles, but if we don’t actually put our government itself in a position where it can actually be held accountable properly by the people and establish trust, then it might get better but it might not,” Sales-Griffin said, referring to his campaign strategy for both ASG and the mayoral race. “I’d rather design a system that’s designed for progress, no matter who is in charge and who’s leading it.”

Sales-Griffin, a tech entrepreneur and McCormick School of Engineering professor, has not worked in government since his ASG days. At only 30 years old, the Chicago native will face a crowded field of seven other challengers, including incumbent Rahm Emanuel and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas.

Despite the qualified competition, Sales-Griffin said he brings a unique perspective to the race.

“From a lens of leadership and education, as well as in technology and business, I think there’s a lot more that we could bring to the table to make our government more efficient and more accessible to people,” he said.

Sales-Griffin grew up in the Kenwood neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. After arriving at Northwestern in 2005, he quickly got involved on campus. He said as a freshman, he helped start the Institute for Student Business Education, where he now serves as a board member. Sales-Griffin also worked as a residential security monitor, Safe Ride driver and a library front desk attendant.

As ASG president, he started an initiative for a new student center, overseeing a research project on problems with Norris University Center. Nate Perkins (McCormick ’10), who served as Sales-Griffin’s vice president for student services, said he remembers Sales-Griffin as a charismatic voice with inspiring ideas.

“He really was able to rally a ton of students around his vision and campaign back then,” Perkins said. “He had a … big vision, big picture, big idea leadership style in student government and as president.”

After graduating with a degree in learning and organizational change, Sales-Griffin worked in venture capital at Sandbox Industries, but said he wanted to learn a new skill set. He said he taught himself computer programming and software design, and turned down an opportunity to work on Barack Obama’s presidential reelection campaign to launch Code Academy, a coding bootcamp now called The Starter League.

Sales-Griffin said through The Starter League, he helped teach more than 1,600 people software development and design. He sold the company in 2016, and currently serves as CEO of CodeNow, a nonprofit that teaches coding skills to underprivileged teenagers. In addition, he’s an adjunct professor at McCormick and at the Pritzker School of Law.

Sales-Griffin said the idea to run for mayor came to him last year when he realized that members of his family were continually leaving Chicago. He said he started conversing with people and recognized that poor schools, poor safety and a lack of job opportunities were forcing people, especially African Americans in the south and west sides of the city, to move. The city government is not doing enough to improve the lives of its citizens, he said.

“We have entrenched forces that are at play that we’re not doing anything about because we don’t have term limits, because we don’t have campaign finance reform,” Sales-Griffin said. “I decided to step up and start talking about these issues and doing something about it.”

Though he did not mention Emanuel by name, Sales-Griffin’s frustration with the incumbent mayor’s leadership is evident. His website says he would only serve two terms — Emanuel is currently running for his third — and that his first priority would be to introduce campaign finance reform “to level the playing field.” Sales-Griffin said he actually wants to meet and talk to voters and speak with them about the state of the city.

Economics Prof. Mark Witte, who taught Sales-Griffin and still keeps in touch, said his outsider status could be beneficial. He said Sales-Griffin has new ideas and is willing to be innovative.

Witte said Sales-Griffin has always been drawn to leadership positions and was a creative student who never settled for an easy answer. He said he believed Sales-Griffin would make a good mayor.

“He’s always been very civically engaged and minded,” Witte said. “In his business enterprises, it’s about, ‘What needs does society have, and can I do that well while making it work?”

Ultimately, Sales-Griffin will face an uphill battle. Emanuel raised $24 million in his 2014 election, and the size of the candidate pool bodes well for the incumbent.

Sales-Griffin said voter turnout will be the biggest obstacle to his candidacy. The timing of the 2019 election, a disconnect between government and underserved communities, and the history of voter suppression in Chicago present challenges, he said.

Witte said though Sales-Griffin is “clearly a longshot,” he should not be counted out.

“He’s pulled off some wild things,” Witte said. “This could happen.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the source of the photo. The source is Neal Sales-Griffin. The Daily regrets the error.

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