3 mayoral candidates speak at 1st Unitarian forum

Mayoral candidates Amara Enyia (from left), Lori Lightfoot and La Shawn Ford addressed the mayoral candidate forum at the First Unitarian Church sponsored by Indivisible Chicago South Side. (Photos by Spencer Bibbs)

Staff Writer

Three candidates for mayor promoted their candidacies Tuesday night at a forum hosted by the First Unitarian Church and Indivisible Chicago – South Side. While Amara Enyia and Lori Lightfoot both offered concrete, decidedly left-of-center policy proposals, State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) spoke mostly in platitudes and generalities.

The Herald asked each candidate about their views of the Obama Presidential Center, naming the pending federal lawsuit against the project, campaign for a community benefits agreement (CBA) for areas surrounding the campus south of Hyde Park and the project’s current strong aldermanic and mayoral support as topics to keep in mind.

Enyia, executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and a former member of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, said Protect Our Parks v. Chicago Park District should be seen through to its conclusion and mentioned her involvement with the CBA coalition, noting that, without pro-action, Chicago has seen patterns of displacement again and again, pointing to skyrocketing home values in Woodlawn as evidence.

Lightfoot, former head of the Chicago Police Board and the Police Accountability Task Force, expressed gratitude for the Obama Foundation’s decision to house the OPC in Chicago but said that, as in the case of all development, it cannot be done “at all costs.” She praised “people in the neighborhood [who] organized themselves to really stand up and demand that there’s equity” and said more needs to be done to ensure that communities near Jackson Park will not be adversely affected by the OPC and that the process, especially as far as tax monies are concerned, is transparent.

Ford (D-8th), who has represented parts of the Austin neighborhoods and some West Suburbs since 2007, said he supports the project and that “you have to have a community benefits agreement when you have such a big project that’s receiving such state money [and] is receiving such city benefit.”

Enyia spoke first and said her campaign is much a question of “why not”

“The times demand that we ask why not, why not now, why not in this city?” she said. She described her upbringing as the daughter of Nigerian refugees who continued their activism in Chicago and how the city’s “inequities” influenced her time at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where she studied journalism, political science, education, law and public policy, earning three advanced degrees, including a doctorate.

An East Garfield Park resident, she discussed living in a community where many have criminal records and want to work and where substance abuse lingers while social services have been cut.

“We go from ‘why not’ to why we must,” she said, “instead of waiting for others to do what we know we can do.” She pointed to the role that addresses or commuting time plays in Chicago students’ experiences in public education — railing against school vouchers, which she said perpetuate segregation, and the “Hunger Games” quality of trying to get preschoolers into selective schools. She called for a public bank “whose only responsibility is to make sure that the city’s economy is actually strong, not to generate profit for shareholders.”

The mayoral election, she said, is a unique chance to set Chicago on its path for the next two generations, and she recalled her father telling her once that revolutions never happen while maintaining the status quo.

In response to questions, she said that a reallocation of city funds to libraries, the ease of use of which have suffered from uneven hours of operation in recent years, would be a reasonable investment into communities, especially for children. She went further and said she would support better funding for school libraries, which she said have also been cut in recent years.

Later, Enyia said that struggling communities’ commercial corridors deserve the same level of municipal support that the city provides to corporate entities in order to get them to set up headquarters here, recommending two-year abatements of tax responsibilities in those corridors and city arrangements with landlords for rent abatements, saying that small business revenue would ultimately pay for it.

Regarding police relations, she reiterated her support for the consent decree between the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois Attorney General and said that gaps exist in officer training, including consistency, “re-ups” and dealing with mental health crises. Asked about inconsistencies in city hiring by neighborhood, she said there are issues with recruiting as well as biases held by those doing the hiring, issues with promotions (i.e. patronage) and systemic racism in certain departments; she named Water Management as an example.

“One of the things that happened is you saw people leaving the Department. They thought it was a hostile environment,” Enyia said. “It doesn’t do us much good to have people going into a department if soon thereafter they’re being pushed and forced out because it is hostile.”

Enyia turned a question about aldermanic prerogative, the system of devolved decision-making that has led City Council members to be described as 50 mayors of 50 wards, into a discourse on housing, saying aldermen being able to green- or red-light development in their wards has led to a feast or famine of affordable housing in different parts of the city, which also limits the physical mobility of individuals who receive it.

Lightfoot, whose parents fled the Jim Crow South, began by discussing her impoverished childhood in Northwest Ohio — her father’s work overseeing a coal-burning furnace led to serious and long-lasting effects on his health, which left him deaf — which she said has led to her professional history and current candidacy.

“I saw way too many people growing up in circumstances like mine and families like the one I grew up in being left behind,” she said. There’s a lot of great things about the city, as you well know, but the greatness and the prosperity of our city is not being evenly distributed to neighborhood after neighborhood the way that it should be.”

She said she envisions a Chicago without services-starved neighborhoods facing 25 percent unemployment and horrific rates of children of color living in poverty. She said the next mayor should understand the urgency of “closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots,” neighborhood investments that would lead people to participate in the “legitimate” economy, great neighborhood schools and good fiscal policy “so that we are not continuing to pass a series of taxes, fees and levies that frankly are driving people of color into bankruptcy.”

Long a darling of Chicago liberals, Lightfoot also took a shot at candidates now seen as frontrunners who only declared their candidacies after Emanuel announced he would not seek another term. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was notably absent from the evening, though the event was held in her neighborhood and her church.

“I am the only independent, reform candidate with the experience and bandwidth to lead this city forward,” she said.

Asked about top donors to her campaign, Lightfoot mentioned several public interest-oriented attorneys and noted that most of her donors have given less than $250.

She said Chicago has a reactive, not proactive, policy towards illegal guns, taking more off the street than New York City or Los Angeles combined despite its substantially smaller population. As guns are trafficked into Chicago from Indiana, Wisconsin and the South, Lightfoot said the federal government must step up to the plate. She also said her administration would expand hiring in its public safety department.

When questioner Kofi Ademola called her biased and “cold-hearted” during her service on the Police Board, Lightfoot adamantly defended her service, during which the percentage of officers terminated or suspended rose to 70 percent from 35 percent. Later, she said she supported the abolition of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the controversial federal agency.

Asked about incorporating formerly incarcerated people back into society, Lightfoot said utilizing community organizations “at the street level” for mentoring young men and to be involved in shooting reviews, call-ins and to “help stop the retaliation cycle that happens with violence.”

She said that there is a serious problem with fraud involving government contracts with women- or minority-owned business enterprises. Lightfoot said those businesses need lower barriers to entry (like easier contracts), on-time payments from the government and general contractor accountability through a closer scrutiny of and more stringently written contracts, and she called for “incubator spaces” for entrepreneurs across the South and West sides.

Ford began by discussing his experience in seminary — he had considered becoming a priest — and how the Catholic Church’s social justice emphasis as well as racism he endured in parochial schools formed his political opinions. He said his policymaking work has led to exposure to many kinds of people and some personal conflicts, as when the Chicago cardinal called him about his support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights in Illinois.

“I believe strongly in a democracy, and that’s what I like about nights like tonight, where we have people who are engaged,” he said. “That’s what we need more in this city more than anything: we need people to be engaged, and we need people to take the City of Chicago back from the big dangers that we see that have caused this city to be so corrupted.”

Ford pled guilty to misdemeanor income tax fraud in 2014 in a plea deal through which prosecutors dropped 17 felony counts of bank fraud and false information against him.

In response to questions over his emotional August appearance on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends,” the morning show known to be a favorite of President Donald Trump, where Ford pleaded for city resources and for the president and Emanuel to work together to confront Chicago’s violence, Ford said he would do what it takes to get Chicago its resources, noting Illinois’ low rate of federal investment-per-federal tax dollar. Later, Ford said his Springfield experience would be a boon to his performance as mayor.

Asked about support for formerly incarcerated Chicagoans, Ford said the city must reorient its moral compass away from just downtown development. He also said that community development would reduce crime and better the city’s finances as well as neighborhood development. Later, he said that ICE should not be abolished.