An often-combative Mayor Lori Lightfoot once again took the offensive against her leading challengers during a forum Thursday, repeatedly interrupting rival candidates and even the forum moderator as she defended her mayoral record.
As it has during much of the mayoral election, crime became a main focus of the discussion as Lightfoot attempted to portray herself as being the one person actually addressing the issue while her opponents were coming at the topic from both ends of the political spectrum.
Turning to U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” García, a progressive congressman from the Southwest Side, Lightfoot labeled him as a supporter of the defund the police movement, declaring: “This man is a (police) defunder, pure and simple. Don’t let him fool you.”
Then on the other side, speaking of former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Lightfoot focused on Vallas’ time as the city’s budget director under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, saying, “This man has no plan to keep Chicago safe, and he’s embellishing all the other parts of his so-called public safety bona fides.”
She also slammed both Vallas and business owner Willie Wilson for seeking the endorsement of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, noting it is run by controversial President John Catanzara, who Lightfoot called “repugnant.” Vallas received the FOP endorsement.
Then she later smirked when Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson said he’s the only candidate who has presented a budget plan.
“You’re not the only one who’s actually passed a budget,” Lightfoot said. “We do that every year.”
At one point in the forum, hosted by WCPT 820-AM, Lightfoot tried to inject an attack on García’s relationship with indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan into the conversation about crime as host Joan Esposito tried to keep them on topic.
“Who’s moderating here?” Garcia asked, with a shrug.
“We love a spirited, passionate give-and-take,” Esposito said. To which Johnson quipped, “especially between allies” in reference to Lightfoot and García.
WCPT divided its forum into two fields of candidates, with Lightfoot, García, Vallas, Johnson and Wilson participating in the first half. The second, which featured state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner, Ald. Sophia King, 4th, Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, and activist Ja’Mal Green, was far calmer.
During the first session, candidates debated the mayor’s public safety plan and her hand-picked police Superintendent David Brown.
Lightfoot tried to turn the tables on crime, saying the city is succeeding in reducing street violence. Shootings and homicides are down year over year, Lightfoot said, though both categories are significantly up from when she took office in 2019.
“David Brown has been through hell and back as we all have,” Lightfoot said. “He is, in this moment, leading our department and I stand by him,”
She also turned to García and called him “the OG” of defunding police, a charge that drew a chuckle from García as he accused her of distorting his record. Earlier in the debate, he said that, “I have not supported any such movement” in reference to the activist calls in the wake of George Floyd’s murder to reallocate law enforcement funding and spend it on other social services.
Johnson deflected a question about his support for taking money from police budgets and putting it into other programs by telling a story about other suburbs that have more robust plans for children.
“You can sign your child up in Oak Park for hula hoop class, just little white kids just walking in a circle,” Johnson said. “But we can’t invest in the children of the city of Chicago? Under my plan, we invest in people.”
While discussing crime, Vallas invoked his history as Chicago’s budget director and said his programs under Mayor Richard M. Daley led to historic decreases in homicides.
“You had nothing to do with that,” Lightfoot said.
For his part, Wilson reiterated that the Lightfoot administration has put too many constraints on Chicago cops and defended his comments that suspects fleeing police should be “hunted down like rabbits.” While Wilson said he should’ve elaborated further, he noted that a son of his was murdered and is concerned about criminals not being held accountable.
“To be honest with you, look, you don’t understand,” Wilson said when asked to respond to the “rabbit” remark. “When you lose a 20-year-old son, get killed by gun violence, it’s emotion. … I am tired of people making excuses out here for these people committing crimes.”
He also drew chuckles during one of his several vows to never raise taxes, saying, “I wouldn’t support taxes on nobody. … I’m sick and tired of taxes. And I can afford to pay them, but I’m sick and tired.”
Near the end of the forum, the candidates were asked who they would vote for if not themselves.
Lightfoot declined to answer and said she would vote for herself. Garcia said he would vote for Buckner, who was participating in the second half of the forum, “since he isn’t on this panel.”
“If you were on the panel, who knows,” Garcia joked.
Wilson too dropped a joke, answering the question with, “I would vote for myself and if I didn’t vote for myself, I would create another name and vote for myself.” Johnson said he would vote for the people of Chicago, and Vallas quipped, “The only person that I would not vote for is Mayor Lori Lightfoot.”
Lightfoot asked for more time and rebutted, “I’ve listened to Mr. Vallas many times. And what I feel like is I’m listening to a version of ‘Extreme Makeover,’ Paul Vallas edition, because he doesn’t know the facts.”
Vallas responded that the two of them participated in dozens of forums when both ran for mayor in 2019 and that she must not have been paying attention four years ago.
“You’ve sat beside me in 40 forums where we were running together, and the things that I said then are the same things I’m saying now,” Vallas said. “You just haven’t learned anything.”
Johnson and Wilson shared a fist bump after a question on what each candidate admired about the person next to them, to which Johnson said, “I believe that Dr. Willie Wilson is one of the most sincere individuals in all of the city of Chicago.”
Lightfoot, however, did not quite return the favor during her turn to compliment Johnson.
“He spins a good story,” Lightfoot said. “You can tell that he was a preacher’s son.”