Chicago mayoral candidates share ideas on city investment, schools and crime

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Four candidates for Chicago mayor shared ideas Tuesday ranging from the creation of an independent development authority to invest in projects such as a hedge fund to the redirection of new business property taxes toward feeding and housing vulnerable Chicagoans.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer, businessman Willie Wilson, state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas met with the newspaper’s editorial board, which operates separately from the newsroom. The challengers — all aiming to deprive Mayor Lori Lightfoot of a second term in office — offered some diverging ideologies but overall consensus that the city was headed in the wrong direction. The board will meet with other candidates in the coming days.

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For much of the session, the candidates focused on crime, education and community investment, particularly on the South and West sides. Vallas criticized the city and state for closing schools too long during COVID-19 and blamed it in part for increased street violence, a contentious claim that Lightfoot has also made.

Asked to address the declining enrollment at CPS — from just over 400,000 students a decade ago to just over 320,000 for this school year — candidates gave a wide range of causes and solutions. Wilson blamed crime and high taxes, Vallas and Sawyer both said they would look into bloat at CPS’ central office.

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Buckner said school enrollment issues reflect the broader exodus of Black residents from Chicago, which needs to be addressed for the health of the city and schools.

Mayoral candidate and state Rep. Kam Buckner meets with members of the Tribune Editorial Board.

“For many of the young people in the district, if the lead pipes don’t get you, if the constant threat of strike don’t get you, the subpar curriculum will,” Buckner said. “People are making a choice. … They’re voting with their feet.”

Wilson said as mayor he would “close some of those schools down that have 10% or 25% capacity. I would sell them. I would open some up as trade schools,” he said. “Then I would take some of the other schools and create construction inside them and create jobs that people can get in those particular schools, and open them up for the homeless until they get on their feet.”

Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson meets with the Tribune Editorial Board.

Vallas said CPS would be better served if some of the charter schools currently operating in “substandard buildings” — he estimated there were at least 80 — were allowed to occupy former district-run buildings. “You have charter schools that are in warehouses, you have charter schools that are in rectories. These are our kids,” he said.

“The school district, under pressure of the teachers union, will not let them occupy these big, vacant buildings,” Vallas said, noting that charter high schools are often the closest available for Black and Latino students.

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The candidates sought to portray themselves as uniquely qualified to lead the city. Vallas highlighted his ability to be “wonkish” but also collaborative and cast himself as a problem-solver.

Wilson spoke about his philanthropy and cash giveaways and noted that he gave away thousands of face masks at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. He proposed that all new businesses coming to the city should see 5% of their property taxes go toward loans to help struggling Chicagoans stay fed and housed, particularly during times of crises.

The businessman also joked that he didn’t finish school but makes more money than anyone in the room.

“I only have a seventh grade education,” Wilson said. “I ran away from home at 13. Now all these guys and you guys probably have more education than I have but I probably can beat you making money because you work for somebody else.”

Candidates also discussed the Invest South/West program that Lightfoot launched as her signature neighborhood investment plan in 2019, with the goal of increasing development in parts of the city that have long suffered from disinvestment. The mayor frequently lauds the program as a transformational effort to boost neighborhoods on the South and West sides, but a Tribune review of the program paints a much more complex and nuanced picture.

Mayoral candidate Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, meets with members of the Tribune Editorial Board.

Among the findings were that while Lightfoot’s administration has spent millions of dollars in public funds and worked to spur both public and private development in neighborhoods that have experienced generations of disinvestment, the mayor has also lumped millions that were already in the works before she took office or constitute routine government spending, padding the investment total for Invest South/West.

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“The mayor put her name on Rahm Emanuel’s homework,” Buckner said.

Sawyer said Lightfoot’s office doesn’t work with aldermen on development, leading to projects ending unsuccessfully. And Wilson said he would partner with major corporations to help set up trade schools.

On investment, Vallas proposed an “independent development authority” to create a fund for spurring development.

“Why can’t the city become an equity investor in some of these projects?” Vallas said. “Imagine if the city had taken a 5% investment in Lincoln Yards or any of the other projects across this city over the last 20 years. They’d probably be the biggest hedge fund in the country.”

The candidates also talked about crime. Wilson said he would leave Chicago if it doesn’t get under control. Sawyer talked about student truancy driving “far too many of these crimes” and floated intervention programs as well as the youth activist-backed “Peace Book” ordinance that calls for more investment in non-law enforcement related solutions to violence.

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Buckner said his uncle was lost to gun violence in Morgan Park in 2015. The homicide rate is too high and the clearance rate is too low, he said, arguing the city’s stricter youth curfew ordinance passed last year failed the combat the issue.

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas meets with members of the Tribune Editorial Board.

Vallas said he would crack down on nepotism in Chicago police promotions, making them strictly merit based, and get rid of the private security patrolling Chicago Transit Authority because, he contended, those guards are toothless compared to sworn officers.

While many political forums end with harsh words exchanged between contenders, the four candidates held hands and said a prayer after Wilson requested a show of faith to end the meeting.

Nine candidates are in the Feb. 28 race for mayor. If no one gets more than 50% of the vote, a runoff between the top two will be held April 4.

ayin@chicagotribune.com

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