IN EARLY DECEMBER, Ben Joravsky interviewed mayoral candidate Amara Enyia. She has a PhD in educational policy and a law degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and at only 35, she’s perhaps one of the better-known mayoral candidates in Chicago thanks to her endorsement by Chance the Rapper. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
JORAVSKY: Amara, you’re younger than most of the other candidates. You’ve never served in elected office. So address that issue—assure the people of Chicago that garbage will be collected, trains will run, and police will patrol the streets if Amara Enyia is mayor.
ENYIA: Well, a lot of times the focus is on the number of years of experience, and I always have to remind people that the current circumstances that we’re living under, the complaints that people have, the issues and problems that they see, is the result of the current crop of leadership, going back decades. So if you’re satisfied with the way things are, then that political experience is what created those conditions. The reality is that far too many Chicagoans are not satisfied.
I’ve managed nonprofit organizations. I’ve worked in the business sector, I’ve worked in the manufacturing sector, I’ve worked in education, housing, have managed large-scale economic development projects. I’m also an organizer, so you will be hard-pressed to find any candidate who has both the breadth of experience, the understanding across policy areas, but who also is so deeply connected to the everyday lives of Chicagoans. That’s the kind of experience that Chicagoans want. They don’t want the status quo, they don’t want more of the same disconnected individuals who are politicians but have no connection to the experience of everyday Chicagoans.
There’s a segment of the city that gets very cautious when it comes to a mayoral election—they fear if a person who comes into office is an outsider who’s not enshrined by corporate Chicago, things will fall apart. I think it’s because people have this notion of the mayor as this all-powerful human being. Do you agree with me that this is a prevailing attitude and, if so, what can you do to combat that?
Well, it’s about showing that we actually have a shared interest in the city doing well across the board. Right now the city is so polarized and you would be led to believe by the popular narrative that to advance one part of the city means to destroy another part. And that is a false narrative. It’s a false dichotomy.
We actually have to show that we cannot be as truly great as a city as we could be unless all parts of the city are doing well. When you’re locating in Chicago, you want your employees to work in safe neighborhoods and live in safe neighborhoods. So when you hear about the shootings that are happening downtown, that’s sending a message to the large corporations that the city is trying to attract as to whether this is a good investment.
In late November FBI agents invaded the office of 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, one of the most powerful men on the City Council. They raided his office, and five days later Burke had a fund-raiser. About a thousand people showed up, paying $150 to kiss the man’s ring. What’s your reaction when you see that?
Well, I was not at the fund-raiser [laughs]—let’s be clear about that. When you have consolidated power for so long, when you have stature that creates this sense of invincibility, that’s where corruption is allowed to thrive, that’s where backroom deals are allowed to thrive, and that’s where you see these kinds of individuals that actually do a disservice to the city.
I’m old enough to remember Ed Burke’s role in the 80s Council Wars, how he led the white aldermen against Harold Washington in a Trump-like, nationalist uprising. I cannot forgive him until he at least publicly addresses the role he played. When you go out on the campaign trail, do you hear other old-timers like me talk about these things?
I do. So it’s interesting, because I hear the fact that the inflection point for the city of Chicago is 35 years ago. I hear them talking about things like the excitement that they felt to have [in Harold Washington] a mayor that felt like he was of, with, and for the people. Where they felt that they were heard, they felt that he was responsive, that he actually liked the city and enjoyed what it meant to represent people. And the fact that, 35 years later, that is still the reference point, to me speaks so much to what the city has become since that time.
One of the ongoing mistakes of the past that perpetuates things is throwing money at gentrifying neighborhoods with TIF deals, the big one right now being the $800 million Lincoln Yards deal. Are you opposed to that?
I think the Lincoln Yards project is being rushed through—I think the mayor is bypassing a process because perhaps he wants this to be a part of his legacy. I think it’s emblematic of the disparity in investment in the city. This project stands to get hundreds of millions of public tax dollars, but again neighborhoods are left behind. So the same neighborhoods that are supposed to benefit from TIF dollars do not get access to those TIF dollars, but these large-scale developers who otherwise would be just fine even without public dollars are getting access to the public dollars. These are just problems that have been long-standing that have not been addressed by the city, and the Lincoln Yards project that’s now being rushed through is only the latest example.
In late 2017, Chance the Rapper showed up to oppose a TIF expenditure to build the police academy on the near west side. Despite his pleas, the vote went 47-2 for the police academy. Will you show up, with or without Chance, at the City Council hearing when the aldermen are trying to sneak this Lincoln Yards vote through before Mayor Rahm gets out of office, to say, “no way, don’t vote for this”?
I was at the City Council meeting where Chance was standing with organizers who have been talking about this. No Cop Academy is sort of the movement that has formed to talk about why we do so much investment in police infrastructure, but the investment that actually builds strong individuals and communities—it’s almost nonexistent.
So I’m presuming you’ll show up again to oppose Lincoln Yards?
Of course. v