Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduces herself at a mayoral forum on Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Melody Mercado/ Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot was on the defensive Saturday as the crowd of mayoral challengers called her out for not reopening the city’s mental health clinics.

Seven of the nine mayoral candidates showed up to the Saturday forum hosted by Access Living, a nonprofit focused on breaking down systemic barriers for people who are disabled.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Rep. Jesus “Chuy” García, Ald. Sophia King (4th), state Rep. Kam Buckner, activist Ja’Mal Green, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and former CPS CEO Paul Vallas were in attendance. Businessman Willie Wilson and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) didn’t show.

Saturday’s panel was the first for Lightfoot and García and comes after a recent survey that shows Lightfoot trailing three challengers: García, Johnson and Vallas.

The panel focused on issues for disabled Chicagoans surrounding criminal justice, transportation, special education teacher shortages, mental health and affordable housing.

Mayoral candidates Rep. Kam Buckner and Ald. Sophia King (4th) hug before a forum on Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

When asked about mental health, the other candidates said Lightfoot refused to reopen six mental health clinics closed under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Last year, Lightfoot’s administration pushed back hard when a group of alderpeople proposed reshuffling mental health spending to reopen closed clinics. On Saturday, she said her alternative plan, the Trauma-Informed Centers of Care Network that funds community mental health organizations and the city’s five remaining mental health clinics, was a more successful model offering culturally relevant services in all 77 neighborhood areas.

“There was a lot of conversation about reopening the mental health clinics. … I thought about that too, and argued for it,” Lightfoot said. “But then what I heard from the experts and what I heard from patients is that they didn’t want clinician care that our clinics offer. What they wanted was to be able to go to culturally relevant services in their neighborhood.”

García said he’d work to hire more mental health clinicians, expanding access to health care in collaboration with Cook County, but didn’t say whether he’d reopen clinics.

“There’s a greater need for mental health services today specifically,” he said, adding that he’d prioritize expanding health care across the city “whether it’s Chatham, Little Village or Uptown.”

Other candidates Saturday said their mental health policies include reopening those shuttered clinics.

Many of the candidates said they have family members who have disabilities. But some struggled to give specific policy initiatives they’d implement that would directly impact Chicago’s disabled community.

A woman livestreams the mayoral forum on her phone on Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

When asked about how candidates would make transportation more accessible, King mentioned creating a collaboration between all public transportation systems and Vallas pitched more police officers on the CTA in order to keep the disabled safe.

The other candidates pitched upgrades to CTA stops to make them ADA accessible.

Johnson said he’d add ambassadors to the CTA who could assist riders with disabilities, while Buckner pitched online booking for paratransit services. Green, Johnson and Buckner also said they would implement a municipal snow removal program to make sidewalks more accessible in the winter.

Lightfoot touted the city’s $118 million from the federal Department of Transportation to continue modernizing CTA stops across the city by making them accessible.

When asked about the Chicago Public School’s special education teacher shortage, many of the candidates said they’d increase pay and pathways for people to become teachers.

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas reviews a document before a forum on Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

King and Green said they’d create programs to help teachers secure housing. King suggested interest free loans to build a home. Green recommended covering those teachers’ down payments and closing costs.

“They’re the one profession where we throw everything at their feet that we’re unable to resolve and ask them to do that. They need that incentive,” King said.

Vallas, who has experience leading public school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, said he’d subsidize student teachers to come into the classroom and allow graduate students to earn credits to become certified.

When asked about reentry plans for disabled people leaving prison, Green said he’d give $1,000 a month to 10,000 residents living in poverty, which would include people leaving prison.

“Returning home … we should make sure that they have a pathway to live in a middle-class life, to be able to get access to real job opportunities, and we need to give them that foundation,” Green said.

Activist Ja’Mal Green and Congressman Chuy García review paperwork before a forum on Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

King said she’d give $600 a week to some people under a universal income program which would include job training and social services.

Buckner said he would implement individualized reentry plans, while Garcia said he would take a holistic approach with various community partnerships and employment opportunities.

Two mayoral forum are planned for Saturday. One is hosted by the Libertarian Party of Chicago and the other by Chicago Women Take Action.

To watch Saturday’s forum, click here.

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