More than half the candidates running for mayor faced off in tightly scheduled, back-to-back forums on December 11. The first, at the UIC Forum, was organized by the Chicago Housing Initiative (CHI), a citywide coalition of community organizations advocating for fair and affordable housing. The second was hosted at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park by the 38th Ward Democrats in conjunction with other northwest side democratic groups, the Chicago Teachers Union, and the Chicago Association of Realtors.
In attendance at the CHI forum were Toni Preckwinkle, Ja’mal Green, Lori Lightfoot, Amara Enyia, Garry McCarthy, and Dorothy Brown. All except Brown also came to the second forum, where they were joined by Paul Vallas, Gery Chico, Susana Mendoza, Willie Wilson, and La Shawn Ford.
The forums presented one of the first opportunities to compare candidates’ positions on some of the most pressing issues in the city. Several questions came up at both events, allowing for a chance to track the consistency of candidates’ messaging as they courted distinct audiences. Many of the about 1,200 attendees at the CHI forum were low-income people of color, seniors, and people with disabilities. Questions were posed by leaders of the various organizations that form the CHI coalition, including One Northside, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and People for Community Recovery based in Altgeld Gardens on the far south side. Meanwhile, the more than 500 attendees at the northwest side forum were mostly white, and questions came from moderator Patti Vasquez of WGN Radio as well as the CTU, Fraternal Order of Police, audience members, and the Reader‘s own Ben Joravsky.
Overall, the questions at the CHI forum were more open-ended and candidates had a minute each to answer. On the northwest side, each question was posed to a selected candidate, who had a minute to respond, and then Vasquez singled out a few of the others for 30-second rebuttals. The northwest side forum concluded with a lightning yes-or-no round on an array of hot button issues.
Here are highlights of the issues raised and questions asked at the events, and how the candidates responded.
The issue: replacing lost public housing units. Until 1996, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development required local housing authorities to replace every public housing unit they demolished. Once the requirement was abolished many agencies, including the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), had an avenue for transitioning to Section 8 vouchers as the primary method of providing housing subsidies, and for building mixed income housing developments through public-private partnerships. As a result, the nation’s permanent stock of affordable housing has eroded significantly.
The question at the CHI forum from One Northside: Do you support one-for-one replacement of any Chicago Housing Authority public housing units that may be lost in the future, and how would you improve oversight of the uses of Chicago Housing Authority land?
All of the candidates used the questions as an opportunity to drag the CHA for its stockpiling of federal funds allocated for housing subsidies to pay down its debts.
Preckwinkle, Lightfoot, and Brown all said explicitly that they support one-for-one replacement of public housing units demolished or taken off line going forward. Enyia and Green also seemed to support the idea, though they didn’t explicitly mention one-for-one replacement.
The issue: rent control. Due to the 1997 Rent Control Preemption Act, no local regulation on residential or commercial rents can be established by the state or any local governments in Illinois. Recently, a coalition of community groups mobilized to repeal this prohibition and agitate for rent regulation in Chicago.
At the northwest side forum, Vasquez asked the candidates for a yes or no position on rent control in a lightning round. It was the only question that seemed to engender some sort of paralysis.
“It’s not a simple question,” Vallas said after a series of “uh”s and choking sounds. “No it’s not,” several other candidates chimed in. Vasquez asked if anyone had a yes or no answer. Green piped up with a “yes.”
Vallas, Preckwinkle, Ford, and Enyia said they are for lifting the state prohibition on rent control.
Mendoza: “No,” adding that “on the west and the south side of the city of Chicago people’s homes are underwater and having rent control there would actually hurt those people’s homes and their values.”
McCarthy: Agreed with Mendoza, adding that his position on rent control is a “yes with conditions, it’s not a blanket policy.”
Lightfoot: She didn’t state a position on lifting the ban or imposing rent control, pivoting instead to talking about the need for affordable housing. Chico joined her in this approach.
At the CHI forum, Preckwinkle had said “I believe in rent control.” And Brown said she supports rent control and that she’d work with the state legislature and the governor to repeal the ban. She also supports a state senate bill recently advanced by Mattie Hunter that proposes to establish a system for rent regulation across the state.
The issue: senior housing. Involves three elements: passing the Chicago Relocation Plan Ordinance, which seeks to minimize displacement and disruptions to the lives of affordable housing residents whose buildings are undergoing maintenance or repair; the senior housing bill of rights; and the creation of a fully funded “Senior Housing Bureau.”
The question at the CHI forum from the Jane Addams Senior Caucus: Do you support the senior housing platform?
All of the candidates said yes and used their allotted time to wax poetic about their love and concern for seniors and personal experiences taking care of elderly family members and neighbors. “Housing is so important for seniors, they are so helpless,” Brown said. “There’s some areas in the world that throw seniors over the volcano. It’s like we’re doing that to seniors here in the city of Chicago when we do not provide them proper housing.” (Despite our best efforts the Reader couldn’t find any information online about cultures practicing this type of geronticide.)
The issue: accessible, affordable housing. Chicago has a documented shortage of affordable housing units outfitted with ramps, doors wide enough for wheelchairs, grab bars in bathrooms, and other accessibility modifications.
The question at the CHI forum from Access Living: Would you commit to building 3,000 units of accessible, affordable housing in Chicago?
Brown: Committed to that number and that she’d want to have a “properly funded office of people with disabilities.”
Green: Yes and made an additional commitment to improving accessibility infrastructure at CTA stations.
Preckwinkle: Didn’t commit to the 3,000 units but acknowledged that more affordable, accessible housing is needed. “We also need to provide modification assistance for homes,” she said. “A lot of our seniors could age in place if we had grab bars in the bathrooms, if we had stairways with chairs that would take them up to the second floor of their home.”
Lightfoot: Said she’d want to create more than 3,000 units and echoed Green’s call for increased accessibility in other facets of city life.
Enyia: The city needs to “create incentives for [accessibility] modifications to take place” in houses and buildings and to make sure developers are aware of and implement accessible designs in new properties. She didn’t mention a position on the 3,000 units.
McCarthy: Also didn’t state a position on the 3,000 units but he said landlords “need to be held accountable,” when they don’t comply with federal accessibility requirements.
The issue: Community Benefits Agreements. These agreements between developers of high-profile projects and nearby neighborhood residents seek to protect them from displacement and offer tangible benefits, such as jobs, from the creation of new buildings, parks, and other major public works.
The question at the CHI forum from Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP): Would you support a community benefits ordinance to stop displacement around the Obama presidential library complex and other projects that could spur gentrification? Would you support an ordinance that would set aside 30 percent of new housing near these projects as affordable, provide property tax relief, and create a fund for job training?
Green: Yes. “I love you President Obama but we would not let the community suffer at the end.”
Preckwinkle: Said she’s a supporter of CBAs and cited her work on getting one in place for Hyde Park when Chicago was competing for the 2016 Olympics and she was Fourth Ward alderman.
Lightfoot: “Every time we look at a huge investment we need to make sure that the community is protected, and has a seat at the table.” She added that the city needs a new land use plan, citing the lack of one since 1966 as the reason for uneven distribution of new development through the city.
Enyia: Made a point to “lift up the organizers” agitating for a CBA with the Obama library. “I stood with them then and I stand with them now.” She also said that CBAs should “extend beyond just the Obama presidential center.”
McCarthy: “I do agree with the community benefits agreement,” he said “but I do think that there needs to be a stimulus package attached . . . this should be stimulating economy and jobs in the neighborhood.”
Brown: “Gentrification should not equal displacement.” She supports a CBA for the Obama center. “I have a friend that lives in that area and they have already started to come around there asking them to sell their property,” she exclaimed.
None of the candidates stated positions on the specific provisions within a CBA ordinance that the STOP member had asked about.
The issue: aldermanic prerogative. This is a longstanding City Council custom that allows aldermen de facto veto power over new developments in their wards and has been used to prevent the construction of affordable housing, particularly on the northwest side.
The question at the CHI forum from Neighbors for Affordable Housing: Will you work collaboratively with community organizations who recently filed a federal lawsuit challenging aldermanic prerogative?
All six candidates for chief executive of the city gave a resounding “yes” to the idea of curtailing the power of its legislators.
The issue: school closures
The question at the northwest side forum from the Chicago Teachers Union: What is your position on school closures and administrative shake-ups of the sort that have affected some 70,000 students in the city over the last two decades?
Not a single candidate said the closures were a good idea and each used the opportunity to riff on the importance of everything from state level school funding reform, to properly funding neighborhood schools, to an elected school board.
The issue: Chicago as a sanctuary city
Vasquez asked Wilson his position on maintaining Chicago as a sanctuary city for immigrants given his support of both Bruce Rauner and Donald Trump.
Wilson: Supports retaining sanctuary status for Chicago and said he supported Trump because the Democratic party “wouldn’t allow me to even get on the ballot in at least 20-some states” when he ran for President .
Green: Slammed Wilson for being “almost a Republican because most of the people he supports are Republican. He’s not black first, he’s actually rich first. These are the type of people we cannot have in office.” He didn’t mention anything about sanctuary cities.
Enyia: To be a proper sanctuary city Chicago needs to “start at home first” and provide safe neighborhoods, quality schools, jobs, and other things that “grant a high quality of life” to existing residents.
Mendoza: Said she’d protect Chicago’s sanctuary status.
The issue: police oversight
At the northwest side forum, Fraternal Order of Police president Kevin Graham asked Lightfoot what she would do “differently to ensure effective oversight of CPD, and how would you include first responders in policy decisions?”
Lightfoot: “First responders have been included.” She said she reached out to officers during her management of the city’s Police Accountability Task Force. “We’ve got to do more to make sure we’re supporting our police officers,” she said, “but we also have to hold them accountable.” She didn’t get into details on what she’d do differently as mayor.
McCarthy (who was police superintendent and lost his job in the wake of the Laquan McDonald scandal): “The word we keep hearing is accountability, but nobody uses the word authority.” He said he was accountable for the behavior of the police officers but not “in charge of the discipline system,” implying that the mayor-appointed Police Board (once headed by Lightfoot) should have less say in officer discipline decisions.
Preckwinkle: “The culture of the police department is basically to cover up and not hold your fellow officers accountable.” She too didn’t offer any insight into what she’d do to ensure effective oversight of the department.
Green: Proposed requiring officers to take out insurance policies that would pay for misconduct settlements and judgements—a policy idea that would require changing state law.
Vallas: Proposed growing the ranks of police officers and detectives. “When you don’t fill vacancies you can’t have beat integrity and you pit the police department against the community.”
Enyia: “Investing in people in the neighborhoods” is the best way to “support police officers.” She said the police have been expected to “clean up the mess of leadership that has failed to do the things necessary to address the root cause of violence.” She also advocated investing city resources to promote strong block clubs.
The issue: gun violence
Vasquez asked McCarthy what he’d do to reduce and prevent gun violence.
McCarthy: “Reducing gun violence starts with ensuring that criminals go to jail,” he responded. “We don’t need to keep legislating what police officers should be doing, what we need is good leadership and good policing,” as laid out by the Obama administration’s task force on 21st century policing.
Lightfoot: The solution to gun violence isn’t locking more people up but stopping “the guns from coming into our streets in the first place.” She said the city needed to work collaboratively with neighboring states and other levels of government to do this.
Preckwinkle: Talked about the need to focus state resources on prosecuting violent crimes.
Green: Centering the conversation on police and guns “won’t reduce violence in the city of Chicago.” We have to talk about the “root causes,” he argued, such as unemployment, lack of mental health care, and a lack of jobs for ex felons.
Ford: “We have to make sure that people are mentally healthy, and physically healthy, and financially healthy,” he said. “Guns will be there. If there are no guns there’ll be knives. If there’re no knives there will be bats. We have to make sure we take care of our people-if we do that we will be safer.”
Enyia: The city needs to focus on alleviating the root causes of violence. She talked about how manganese and lead that have been documented in soil and homes “have a biological effect on brain development and behavior” and the shuttering of mental health facilities. She said violence is “a mentality before it’s an action, if we don’t address the mentality and the conditions that create that mentality we’ll be talking about this issue 20 years from now.”
The issue: city pension debt
Vasquez asked Enyia about the debts plaguing city government after decades of failing to “properly fund its pension systems.” She pointed out that by “most predictions” the city can’t afford to make the pension payments Emanuel had committed to ramping up, and she wanted to know where the candidate would get the new revenue “to ensure Chicago does not make the debt worse for the next generation,” or where she’d make cuts if she wouldn’t want to impose new taxes.
Enyia: “I definitely would start with the money that we waste” on things like police misconduct settlements and judgements which have cost the city tens of millions of dollars every year, she said. “There’s also money we’re not leveraging appropriately which is captured in the TIF funds.” Her final proposal was the creation of a public bank to stimulate the local economy and thus lead to greater tax revenue for the city. “They could issue low-interest loans for our infrastructure projects and essentially capture all the existing revenue that we currently pay to private financial institutions.”
Preckwinkle: “We clearly have to unwind many of those [TIF] districts” and take back the property taxes sequestered in them. She also said she’d want the city to take decision making over workers compensation payments out ot City Council finance committee chair Ed Burke’s hands and back into the mayor’s control. (The program currently pays out $100 million every year to the city’s 33,000-person workforce .) She also said that passing a graduated income tax at the state level offers hope for improved city finances.
Lightfoot: Glad to hear Preckwinkle join her in calling for workers comp reform and taking away the “$100 million ATM machine that Ed Burke solely controls.”
Chico: “Alternative forms of revenue” like a casino and legalized marijuana would help alleviate the pension crisis.
Green: “We need to start talking about how to actually tax the rich” through taxing local financial transactions, a “corporate head tax.” He reiterated his support for the real estate transfer tax for high-value property sales.
The issue: Lincoln Yards. The city’s latest scheme to funnel TIF money into private hands is a massive project proposed by Sterling Bay, which transform acres of land along the Chicago River between North Avenue and Fullerton.
Joravsky asked Green: “Do you support TIF as a development incentive? Will you honor the TIF deal at Lincoln Yards and what reforms do you propose to ensure taxpayer dollars are used as intended?”
Green: “I believe we need to abolish the TIF system,” which would release all the captured funds back to the the city, school districts, and other taxing bodies, which can lose out on raising property values in TIF districts for up to 50 years. Instead, Green said he’d create “Downtown Benefits Everybody” districts to redistribute a portion of the taxes collected in highly developed areas of the city to lower-income neighborhoods.
McCarthy: “TIF funding needs to be used the way it’s defined by state law: for blighted neighborhoods.”
As the northwest side forum concluded, the candidates were challenged to a “yes-or-no” speed round of questions. Mostly, they were able to stick to the protocol.
Do you support a woman’s right to choose?
Yes from everyone.
Red light cameras?
No from everyone except McCarthy and Mendoza. The former police chief said “we want to keep them in some locations where there’s high propensity for accidents.” Mendoza said they’re needed “in the most dangerous intersections of the city.”
Casinos in Chicago?
Everyone was a yes except for Enyia. Ford said he’d only support them in “communities that’s not in poverty.” Green said he’d only want them “at the airports, where there are tourists.”
Recreational marijuana legalization?
A resounding round of yeses with a caveat from Ford: “Only with reform to the criminal justice system.”
Elected school board?
Vasquez asked candidates to choose between a partially elected, fully elected, and appointed Chicago Public Schools board:
Partially elected: Vallas, Mendoza, McCarthy, Chico
Fully elected: Preckwinkle, Enyia, Ford, Lightfoot, Green
The final two questions concerned the candidates’ positions on dibs for parking spaces—which all but McCarthy support—and their top choice of restaurant and order for a last meal in Chicago. The Reader took the liberty of reporting the prices for these meals:
Vallas: Pastichio at Greek Islands, $14.95
Mendoza: Carne brava meal at Tio Luis Tacos, $14.95
McCarthy: Strip steak at Gibson’s, $54
Preckwinkle: “Just about anything” from Pizza Capri, where pizzas start at $14.95
Enyia: BBQ cauliflower at Majani, $7
Ford: Unspecified meal at MacArthur’s, where all meals are less than $12
Lightfoot: Fried pork chop, mac and cheese, and collard greens at Pearl’s Place, $17.99
Chico: Hamburger at The Gage, $15
Green: Jerk chicken wrap at Ain’t She Sweet Cafe, $8.49