If you want to know what happened at the Chicago mayoral candidate forum last night, sponsored by a raft of progressive organizations and held at the Chicago Teachers Union offices, you can read the Tweets and even watch the Facebook Live. But if you want to know how the candidates came across to this taxpayer, homeowner and mom of a CPS student, read on.
But first, full disclosure. I’m a middle-aged lefty whose politics were largely molded by my New Deal Democrat dad. My usual tactics in any election are to support the farthest-left candidate possible in a primary and then get more pragmatic in the general. Given that in deep-blue Chicago the primary is everything, I get to go far-left when choosing which candidate wins my highly-prized ballot signature. However, dear candidate, just because I signed your petition doesn’t mean I’m gonna vote for you. Ballot access for candidates who aren’t expected to win is important to me.
It was with those thoughts in mind that I signed Amara Enyia’s petition way back when the weather was warm, well before Chance the Rapper endorsed her and Kanye West handed her a substantial wad of cash. She made it easy. She came to my neighborhood and held a coffee and a run/walk. She has been doing that in neighborhoods all over town for months.
I went to last night’s forum with a great deal of curiosity to see how the candidates would come across live. Here’s what I saw.
Susana “Miss Personality” Mendoza: Having caught just a few minutes of her on Morning Shift, I was eager to hear more. But two hours of her in a room with more experienced Chicago pols proved disappointing. She was all style and no substance. Sure, she said a lot of the right things in very broad stroke–like, “You better as hell believe I’m going to make sure we’re funding our schools.” On that one she has some track record–working the state with Andy Manar to get the funding formula fixed in favor of equity. But the only policy proposals she actually spelled out were the $15 minimum wage, amnesty for city sticker tickets, and a 2-year moratorium on public school closures. As a friend said to me afterwards, “That gives her just enough time to decide which schools to close.” After the debacle of the 2013 school closings, simply announcing willingness to extend the current moratorium on school closings for an additional two years without any concrete strategies for managing expenses or boosting enrollment does not impress me.
Her lowest moment came when challenged by a question from the audience: “How does supporting vouchers make you qualified to be mayor?” Her effort to explain that she supported them while she was state rep of a district with heavily overcrowded schools, but doesn’t support them any more, came off as wishy-washy flip-flopping to gain political advantage. That, coupled with her feeble efforts to distance herself from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, confirmed the impression I’ve gotten from insider political friends–she’s not the real progressive in this race. But her friendly, authentic speaking style definitely captured some hearts in the room. “I can see she’s a mom. She’s the only one of the candidates I could see being a hugger,” said a Millennial in attendance afterwards.
Paul “Revenge of the Nerds” Vallas: I gotta give Paul credit; he knows a lot about how budgets work and all the things Chicago could do to squeeze more money from the feds and the TIFs. He would probably have played better to the crowd had he been able to talk about those things in less detail and with less jargon.
It would take a whole separate post to fact-check all the things he says about his accomplishments in Chicago and Philadelphia as schools chief in both places. If you want an idea of what we might expect from Vallas in City Hall, this story on his time in Philadelphia probably gives us a good notion–do things big, do things fast and do them all at once. And maybe state money will follow all that bigness. Or not.
Lori “PoPo” Lightfoot: In her closing statement, she offered two of the best zingers of the night. First, she threw out a jab at Preckwinkle and Mendoza, saying, “I didn’t wait and remain silent while Rahm was on the ballot.”
Then she cast her net wider: “If you want the same-old, same-old, you’ve got an a la carte menu right here,” pointing to the candidates behind her and sparking laughter. She went on to say, “But if you want someone who is unbought and unbossed…” and offered herself, in the mold of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress and the first Black woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
She also handed me a story tip by giving a shout-out to Burroughs Elementary in Brighton Park for their work to support students dealing with trauma. (Watch for a future post, perhaps.)
Although she presented a reasonable breadth of policy ideas–from housing and transit to mental health– she still came across as strongest on her home turf of police accountability. She came out swinging on the need for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department and touting her championship of “lie or die”–the requirement that police face firing if they file false reports or lie under oath.
Enyia and Preckwinkle Mirror the Generational Tensions among Progressives
The two candidates who appeared to generate the most enthusiasm from the crowd represent the generational tension present among progressives nationally.
“Grandma” Toni Preckwinkle referenced her grandsons, who are Chicago Public Schools students, and stressed her experience: 10 years as a history teacher in CPS, 19 years as alderman and eight years as Cook County Board President. Perhaps her finest moment came in talking about Cook County’s commitment to public health–Cook County Hospital provides 45 percent of the county’s charity hospital care and has been at it for 180 years. She was also the only candidate to speak directly about racism and segregation as factors in our high rates of incarceration.
During candidates’ questions to each other, she and Mendoza traded smackdowns. Preckwinkle took Mendoza to task for her past support of the death penalty; Mendoza countered that she was the deciding vote to abolish it. Mendoza accused Preckwinkle of contributing to displacement by imposing the soda tax and allowing former County Assessor Joe Berrios’s flawed property tax assessments to continue unchecked. Preckwinkle responded that she was “deeply disturbed” by the errors in assessments and worked with Berrios on reform, and will continue that work with incoming assessor Fritz Kaegi.
Overall, I and other middle-aged folks I spoke with afterwards found Preckwinkle the most substantive and knowledgable candidate across the range of issues covered. But with record numbers of Chicago Millennials voting in November, the progressive candidate to watch remains 35-year-old Amara Enyia.
While Amara “Great Millennial Hope” Enyia had good-but-not-great depth on policy issues, she was the only candidate who spoke at length about her connections and commitment to recent grassroots struggles, from the campaign for a Community Benefits Agreement with the Obama Presidential Library to the fight to save NTA. She put forth out-of-the-box ideas like a public bank for Chicago. She spoke in very concrete terms about inequity in CPS, from how neighborhood school boundaries are drawn to the two-tier system of high schools fostered by the selective enrollment system.
Enyia chose to take on Mendoza for her past support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, asking, “How can we trust you will do anything differently?” Mendoza simply said she didn’t agree with everything Rahm did and shifted gears to her favorite topic, bashing Gov. Bruce Rauner.
And Enyia’s closing speech made the point of the night: “Who can you trust?” she asked. “Trust the folk who are doing the work when the cameras are off.”
Afterwards, I spoke with about a half dozen young people who agreed, “She killed it.” A few months ago I wouldn’t have imagined it, but Amara Enyia looks like she’s headed for the big leagues in the race for mayor. Will she turn out to be Chicago’s version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? I wouldn’t count that out.
Photo credit: Michael Beyer