Chicago mayoral candidates spoke out about dirty trains, late buses and low homicide clearance rates in the police department during the latest debate as Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended her record.
The latest mayoral forum, moderated by WBEZ Reset host Sasha-Ann Simons, largely focused on public safety, transportation and education. U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and Ald. Sophia King shared the stage with Lightfoot, while the remaining four candidates are expected to participate in a second event Thursday.
While the candidates largely refrained from making personal attacks on each other, Lightfoot’s opponents argued the city is going in the wrong direction on key issues while she said her administration is making strides.
In response to a question about the safety and reliability of the CTA, Buckner said he’d planned to take a bus to the forum but was ghosted.
“Realistically, when it comes to where this system is right now, we are falling way behind the market,” Buckner said. “It’s because we haven’t done the planning and there hasn’t been leadership.”
Garcia also ripped the CTA’s leadership and promised to bring stakeholders together to improve the system, which he said he is in a unique position to do.
“I am deeply disappointed and pissed off that buses are dirty, trains are filthy, people doing all kinds of things that didn’t happen just a few years ago,” he said.
King talked up the need to improve safety and boost ridership.
“We need to take the dollars that we’re spending on private security to pool that back to officers,” King said.
Buckner similarly criticized the city for spending money on K-9 unit German shepherds to patrol the CTA which, he said, was ineffective: “Nobody on the system feels safer than they did a few years ago.”
In 2022, the rate of violent crime on trains began to drop for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it remained near the highest levels seen in the past decade, and more than twice as high as the years before the pandemic.
Reports of violent crime on the “L” were rising in the years before Lightfoot took office in 2019. They dropped as the COVID-19 pandemic emptied the trains of many riders, but not nearly as much as ridership dropped, meaning the odds of becoming the victim of a violent crime, like a robbery, homicide or more aggressive assault or battery, spiked in 2020 and 2021.
In 2019, there were 2.54 violent crimes reported per 1 million train rides. That rose to 5.97 in 2020 and to 6.83 in 2021, before dropping back down to 6.17 per million rides in 2022.
Lightfoot defended her record on transit and safety, saying her administration has placed more uniformed police officers inside the trains and stations and that the CTA is “not at the finish line by any stretch of imagination, but we’ve made significant progress.”
Lightfoot also launched an attack on Vallas after he raised concerns about low ridership.
“With due respect to again Mr. Vallas, part of the reason that CTA ridership is down is because of this thing called the pandemic, and because people are not coming downtown full time like they used to,” Lightfoot said. “They’re in remote work. So overall, it’s affecting not only the CTA ridership, but other parts of our economy.”
Throughout the forum, Garcia repeatedly cast himself as a consensus-builder who can bring different interests together. Garcia talked about being a good listener and collaborator on issues from crime to transportation.
“If you want to be an effective leader, you have to be a good listener and you have to be a collaborator,” Garcia said. “That’s what I am prepared to do as mayor.”
On crime, candidates talked about low response times and arrest rates. Buckner spoke of the “abysmal” clearance rate, which refers to suspects being arrested or identified, saying suspects aren’t being caught for crimes including homicides, carjackings, and sexual assaults.
Vallas and Buckner both dinged the city for slow police response times, with Vallas saying retired cops as well as a beefed-up witness protection program need to be more effectively utilized.
Lightfoot attacked Vallas broadly by again attempting to tie him to the controversial Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president, with whom Vallas made an appearance this week at a lunch for retired cops.
“I know you’ve been gone from the city of Chicago for a long time, but almost everything you just said is categorically untrue, and probably because you’re getting your public safety advice from John Catanzara,” Lightfoot said.
The mayor continued, defending the city’s purported homicide clearance rate and detective promotions under her tenure: “I can’t sit here and listen to you denigrate our hardworking men and women of the police department. … Easy for you to say from your perspective, but I deal with the police every single day.”
Later, Vallas talked about the CTA’s budget and joked as he listed off a string of statistics, “I didn’t get that from John Catanzara, by the way.”
Chicago police recorded a homicide clearance rate of 51% as of the end of 2022, but that doesn’t mean all those cases yielded an arrest and charges. Each year, about half of cases are cleared by a category the department calls “exceptional,” which means police have identified a suspect, but either the suspect is dead or prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to approve charges. The 51% figure also includes cases from prior years that were solved in 2022.
Garcia said a leader has to bring people together, and that he would bring the Cook County State’s Attorney, chief judge and other stakeholders in the justice system together to collaborate.
“I would get rid of the citywide units and make people come back to the neighborhoods to patrol, to walk the beat, to talk to neighbors,” Garcia said. “Building public trust is essential for greater public safety in Chicago because people have lost that trust.”
On schools, Vallas took another round of attacks.
Garcia said the city needs to work with community groups who fell out of the system during the pandemic. He also noted that he fought Vallas for a Little Village high school.
In 2001, Garcia was aligned with protesters who staged a three-week hunger strike in the Little Village neighborhood and eventually convinced then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and CPS to build a new high school there. About three months after the strike ended, the mothballed plan to build the school was resurrected by the new CPS administration, led by Arne Duncan. The Little Village Lawndale High School Campus opened in 2005.
“Let me point out I actually funded the Little Village high school,” Vallas said.
Garcia interrupted Vallas and shot back, “Arne Duncan funded the Little Village high school. That’s why he was invited to the groundbreaking.”
King also attacked Vallas after he said he agreed with one of her proposals — to bring back retired cops, saying she appreciated the compliment but “we’re very different candidates.”
“He believes in law and order. There are candidates that believe in defunding police. I’m right where people stand, that we can uplift our police and hold them accountable,” King said. “… And I’m not waffling on a woman’s right to control her body like Paul has done. Women, you have to listen to this.”
Vallas has maintained he has always been pro-choice but personally opposes abortion on religious grounds.
Another candidate, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, appeared at the City Club of Chicago Wednesday, presenting an abbreviated version of his 12-point education plan to an unusually raucous crowd, which included teachers, union supporters, and aldermen.
Johnson reiterated support for the Bring Chicago Home ordinance to fund services for the homeless and pledged to pass the “Treatment Not Trauma” ordinance in his first 100 days in office, if elected. He also touted a proposal to let students ride the CTA for free all year “whether they’re on their way to school, headed downtown to the Art Institute, or going to softball practice.”
That plan, in part, calls for co-locating child and health care centers in underutilized school buildings. “Child care is a public good, and should be invested in as such,” the plan says, noting that “the child care crisis is largely a result of the tax breaks enjoyed by billionaires and corporations in the state. … If corporations paid what they owed in taxes, Illinois could fund free child care for all.”
As he wrapped up his speech, Johnson said Vallas would be a “disaster” for the city, and said “his budgetary practices that led us into the economic despair that we have now. And now he wants to be trusted with the same budget that he couldn’t get right when he was here.”
Johnson also announced the endorsement of 47th Ward Ald. Matt Martin ahead of the event, which comes days after Lightfoot’s budget chair, Ald. Pat Dowell, also lined up behind Johnson.
Martin told the Tribune he chose Johnson because of his pledges to build bridges, as well as his history on the county board and as a Chicago Teachers Union organizer.