Neal Sáles-Griffin walks into the Chicago Defender building with an optimistic bounce, casually dressed wearing a “Made In A Chicago Hood” jacket, and consistently flashing a captivating smile. You get the sense that he holds importance but cannot articulate why. The 31-year-old tech entrepreneur believes he has what it takes to become Chicago’s next mayor, despite a field that boasts many of the city’s political elite.
“Where has that gotten us? Where have all these experienced and seasoned politicians gotten us? asks Sáles-Griffin. “We got more of them. Okay? Great.”
As one of the youngest mayoral candidates, Sales-Griffin says he represents “change,” “innovation,” “youth,” “energy,” and “integrity;” his resume leaves little room for doubt that he is lying. When the Mt. Carmel High School cornerback’s NFL dreams paused due to injury, he redirected his focus on a future away from sports.
He graduated from Northwestern University with a Learning and Organizational Change degree while working as Associated Student Government President. At the age of 21, Sáles-Griffin served as the chief operating officer for Flawless Cuts Barbershop, managing two locations on the South Side of Chicago. He taught himself how to code software leading to co-founding the first ever coding boot camp, creating a blueprint that influenced a nationwide millennial coding movement; Sáles-Griffin was 24 years old.
“When I first got my start doing programming and computer science, I built a clone of Twitter,” says Sáles-Griffin. “This was 8 years ago. Anyone who is interested, or wants to learn how to build software, the first thing I have them do is build the original Twitter app. ”
Although his extensive resume is full of leadership positions and reads unconventional for a political candidate, the simple truth is that many voters are unfamiliar with Sáles-Griffin’s backstory.
Who is this confident, young Black man running for mayor?
He is Afro-Latino, making him the first and only Black and Latino candidate pursuing the mayoral seat. “My Grandfather is Filipino. My Grandmother is half Mexican and half Honduran. She immigrated from Honduras to Bronzeville in Chicago when she was 12 years old,” details Sáles-Griffin in a personally blogged Medium post. “She raised my Mother and her seven brothers and sisters in Englewood and Roseland. They had a tough time growing up in mostly Black neighborhoods. They struggled with their identities as Latino South Siders.”
Sáles-Griffin’s paternal family provides great contrast. His father, Anthony Griffin, is a Black man who experienced Jim Crow racism. He remembers his father would tell him “… stories growing up being called n*gger going down the street.” Anthony Griffin served as a Chicago Police officer for 30 years while Linda Sáles, his mother, worked in CPS for 17 years.
Like many in Chicago, Sáles-Griffin is a product of lower-middle-class beginnings. “At the age of 5, I was living with my dad – who was a cop. My mom was trying to get back into work,” Sáles-Griffin explains. “She worked at Michael Reese hospital, but then she decided to work at CPS as a special education teaching assistant at Ray Elementary.”
Sáles-Griffin says his upbringing informs his political positions as well as his decision to run for office. He claims to approach each of the city’s issues on their own terms, rather than relying on dominant ideologies such as “liberal” or “conservative.”
However, he does have political ties. Sáles-Griffin declined an invitation to work on then-President Obama’s 2012 campaign as a project manager and opted to build a coding school with his friend Mike McGee. He personally knows J.B. Pritzker and happily introduced the gubernatorial candidate at the Pritzker campaign launch. He even had an hourlong conversation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel a week before the mayor decided not to run re-election.
Yet Sáles-Griffin holds firms that he represents a bold new change and not the traditional Chicago Democrat flashback. In fact, he speaks against the Democratic machine and the amount of money in current political campaigns. Sáles-Griffin asserts, “I’m not interested in limited or incremental progress. Right now, management of the Chicago machine from another traditionally-experienced political operative is not what is best for the city. ”
Sáles-Griffin thinks Chicago’s machine politics has caused the city to move at a snail’s pace addressing the socioeconomic plight burdening the South and West sides. According to him, this slow momentum stagnates people’s care and investment in Chicago’s politics, leading to poor voter turnout. He believes faith must be restored into potential voters rather than vote-shaming –– the tactic of blaming non-voters for non-participation.
“Most of us are disconnected,” laments Sáles-Griffin. “We have over 70 percent of us who are old enough to vote but don’t. It’s not just about voting. I’m not for vote shaming. I actually detest that there is this approach where people are told that they are bad or wrong for not [voting]. I think it’s more important to understand why they should have a reason and making sure people are connected to that. ”
On the issues, Sáles-Griffin is considerably a Democratic progressive, championing social justice and demanding universal health care. His platform priorities listed on his website (nealformayor.com) are affordable housing, public safety, government accountability, and education. If elected, he says he will tackle the city’s budget on his first day to make sure Chicago’s $22 Billion is going where it’s needed.
Neal Sáles-Griffin wants voters to recognize that he is a regular 31-year-old Chicagoan who enjoys listening to Lil’ Wayne (He highly anticipated the artist’s long-awaited “The Carter 5” album) and is willing to go through great lengths to enact systemic changes. He asks not to be labeled.
As he so eloquently puts it:
“I don’t fit into any boxes. I’m just a guy who gives a sh*t.”