CHICAGO — Mayoral candidates traded barbs on policing tactics and taxes in a feisty, televised forum Tuesday evening as the heated election enters its final month.
The forum, held at Steinmetz High School, was hosted by WGN anchors Lourdes Duarte and Tahman Bradley.
But by the midway point, the moderators felt “forum” might have been too soft a descriptor.
“You’re doing a great job turning this into a debate,” Bradley told the nine candidates on stage.
A full video of the debate is here.
The sharpest attacks of the night came when the candidates were asked about crime and policing, issues which are top of mind for some voters as the city saw a rise in crime at the start of the pandemic.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she plans to continue her effort to hire more officers, get guns off the streets and push the courts to prosecute habitual offenders, pointing to declines in some crimes in 2022.
When moderators pressed Lightfoot for three new tactics she would institute if reelected, she demurred, instead referencing her ongoing efforts.
“It’s not what I will do in the future. It’s what we are doing now,” Lightfoot said.
Other candidates seized on the mayor’s words.
Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO who has centered crime prevention in his campaign, said he would end the department’s “friends and family” promotion system, push officers to local beats and stem the tide of retirements by incentivizing their return.
Rep. Kam Buckner said he would increase the money that goes to gun violence prevention and hire more detectives.
All eight challengers said they would fire police Supt. David Brown.
“This mayor was just asked the question about what she would do differently, and she doubled down on her failed policies,” Buckner said. “That is the Lightfoot way.”
Lightfoot responded by calling the criticisms “soundbites” and saying she presented real solutions to issues involving crime and policing.
The forum got more heated when Ja’Mal Green, a community activist who led protests after police fatally shot Laquan McDonald, criticized businessman Willie Wilson’s push to “take the handcuffs” off police and allow them to “hunt down criminals like rabbits.”
Wilson doubled down on the statement Tuesday after being asked what he considered to be “constitutional policing,” saying he lost a son to gun violence.
Green is one of the few candidates, along with Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who has not called for hiring more police officers.
“It is disgusting that we have a 70-plus-year-old man on this stage who was a sharecropper from down South who will get on TV and constantly double down on hunting people down like rabbits,” Green said. “He should know what that means and know how it feels.”
Wilson shot back with a jab at Green’s youth. The activist is the youngest candidate in the field at 27.
“I don’t respond to children,” Wilson said.
Candidates shared various ideas for incentivizing hiring in the police force, with Ald. Sophia King (4th) suggesting offering them low-interest mortgages or home loans and “humanizing” the police force. Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) pointed to his work creating police district councils, and Buckner suggested removing the credit score requirement for officers.
But sparks flew again when Lightfoot accused Johnson and Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García of being “defunders” of the police.
García responded by calling Lightfoot a “liar,” saying he never advocated for police budget cuts during his time as a county commissioner, while Johnson pushed his plan for a more holistic $1 billion investment in the city and anti-violence programs paid for in part by taxes on corporations.
“The defunder on the stage is actually Mayor Lori Lightfoot — and Paul Vallas,” Johnson said. “Refer to me as the investor in chief.”
Taxes also created rifts between the candidates. When asked who would commit to not raising taxes during their term, Green, Buckner and García raised their hands, saying they would find budget inefficiencies and grow the city’s tax base to support their programs. Vallas said he would cap property taxes.
Other candidates, including Sawyer and King, said it would be imprudent to promise not to raise taxes, but they would push to raise city revenues by improving schools, budget efficiency and making sound fiscal decisions. Wilson, who has railed against taxes, suggested imposing a 3- to 5-percent “hardship” tax on new businesses.
Johnson — who has proposed a variety of taxes focused on businesses and high earners but vowed not to raise property taxes — said his opponents were obfuscating the truth when they promised not to raise taxes.
“The people on the stage are either lying to the people of the city of Chicago, or they’re hiding the ball behind their back,” he said. “You cannot run a city government off bake sales.”
Johnson was interrupted by members of the audience throughout the debate.
The election is Feb. 28. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the two top vote-getters will be held April 4.