ROSCOE VILLAGE — All nine candidates vying to be Chicago’s next mayor courted the votes of more than 500 47th Ward residents over the weekend, with crime taking center stage.
At the forum Sunday night at Lane Tech High School, mayoral contenders traded barbs on policing, CPS and CTA as they made their pitch to lead the city. The forum was open to all residents of the 47th Ward, which includes parts of North Center, Lakeview, Lincoln Square, Uptown and Andersonville on the city’s North Side.
Hosted by WGN television anchor Ben Bradley, the forum gave all nine candidates the opportunity to respond to four questions on policing, the school board, issues with the CTA and the city’s pension shortfall.
While Mayor Lori Lightfoot played defense, touting her record hiring police officers and transit workers, as well as making a payment to the city’s pension fund and promising to appropriate revenue from the new casino to help balance the books, other candidates tried to go on the offensive but generally stayed cordial in a format that didn’t lend itself to political pugilism.
The forum started with a bit of a bang, as Ald. Sophia King (4th) took a shot at Lightfoot in her opening statement, criticizing the mayor’s pugnacious relationship with the police, teachers and their unions.
“There is so much dissension between this administration and police, between this administration and the teachers,” King said. “We need a mayor who can lead with collaboration, not confrontation.”
Lightfoot used the opportunity to try to reframe her reputation, saying she grew up in an abandoned steel town, dealt with racism and sexism throughout her career, and, more recently, has been mischaracterized by other candidates and the media.
“I’m your mayor. I know you know what I am. But what concerns me is that you don’t know who I am,” Lightfoot said. “Some people here in this stage are going to try to tap into your fears. I want to tap into your hopes.”
Crime And Policing
Candidates continued the sound bites as the first question turned to crime and modernizing the police force, with a handful of progressives on the ballot grappling over a wide range of solutions to the city’s violence.
While Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia advocated for fully implementing the police consent decree that was mandated by a federal court in 2017, others, like community activist Ja’Mal Green, called for the creation of an unarmed department of social workers to respond to non-violent calls.
State Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner touted his work passing an assault rifle ban in Springfield, and said the city needs to “civilianize” the police department. Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner who has been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, advocated for 24-hour health care access to treat trauma victims.
“It is disappointing to be on stage with individuals who claim to be Democrats and they’re growing one the largest budgets in the entire budget, which is the police budget,” Johnson said to applause. “And we do not feel any safer even though we’re spending more money on policing.”
Paul Vallas, who has earned the endorsement of the city’s largest police union and made public safety his central campaign issue, took a different tack, saying the city needed to fill police vacancies, bring back retired detectives, begin a witness protection program and increase the number of beat cops on the city streets.
Meanwhile, businessman Willie Wilson put his position bluntly: “We need to take the handcuffs off the police.”
When given the chance to respond to service issues with the embattled Chicago Transit Authority, Lightfoot used her time to “reset the record” on crime and policing, saying the homicide clearance rate was at 50 percent, and that the city had cleared more homicides in the past two years than in the past 10. She said the city had implemented 80 percent of the consent decree, and had hired 950 new officers.
And as for the CTA?
“We have to hire more people,” Lightfoot said.
But concerns about crime nearly overshadowed concerns about service, as many candidates focused their answers about the CTA on handling security on the transit system. Vallas called for eliminating private security on the CTA and instead using the money to hire more cops to patrol stations, while Garcia touted his congressional transportation committee assignment and said he could help Metra, Pace and the CTA collaborate to cover CTA budget deficits when federal funding dries up. Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) received applause when he touted the coming South Side Red Line extension.
The city’s ominous pension shortfall also loomed large over the forum. While Garcia credited Lightfoot with making a record payment on the deficit and earmarking casino money to help pay it down in the future, both he and Johnson called for renewing the effort to institute a graduated-rate income tax in the state.
The measure, championed by Gov. JB Pritzker, was narrowly defeated as a ballot initiative in 2020 after businesspeople campaigned heavily against it.
“I believe we have to try again,” Garcia said on Sunday.
The forum, which took place at the second-largest single-campus high school in North America, also focused on how candidates planned to collaborate with the Chicago school board to ensure adequate school funding. The board, which has long been appointed, will switch to an elected body by 2027, despite objections from the mayor.
Lightfoot said she would look to Springfield for more funding. Others agreed, but also criticized the mayor for backing out of her support for an elected school board.
“An elected school board makes plenty of sense…it’s what the mayor wanted, until she changed her mind,” Buckner said.
Johnson, Garcia and Green, all of whom supported an elected school board, said that they sent or are currently sending children to CPS, giving them a stake in its funding.
“Chicago, you will be negotiating with a parent,” Johnson said.
The forum also had a few lighthearted moments. Wilson, who was scrupulous about cleaning the microphone, was given his own about halfway through the questions. Johnson jokingly took exception to the preferential treatment. When asked about the pension shortfall, Wilson said he knew best how to bring business back to the city and cut taxes.
“And lastly, brother Johnson, I’ll buy you a mic,” Wilson said, to laughs.
The election is scheduled for Feb. 28. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote getters will face off in a runoff April 4.
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