Chicago’s mayoral hopefuls exchanged personal attacks during a contentious candidate forum Tuesday evening that was repeatedly interrupted by loud protesters.
A group of demonstrators chanted against Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who joked during the live broadcast that he must be doing something right if he isn’t mayor yet but already drawing protests. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, meanwhile, stood up for Johnson, saying he “has a right to talk without interruption.”
The rest of the forum, moderated by WGN-TV’s Lourdes Duarte and Tahman Bradley, featured far less collegiality between the candidates. At one point, Duarte and Bradley called for a show of hands from candidates who would keep Lightfoot’s handpicked police Superintendent David Brown as the city’s top cop. Lightfoot raised her hand and businessman Willie Wilson sheepishly followed suit.
“I think you have to fire the mayor,” Wilson said.
Lightfoot mostly ignored the comment but pivoted to an attack on Johnson and U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who she accused of being “defunders” of the Chicago Police Department.
“Fact check that,” Garcia responded. “She’s always creating smoke screens to cover up her own failures.”
Johnson argued the city’s level of spending on police hasn’t worked.
The exchange was just one of several testy moments between Lightfoot and her challengers, who repeatedly criticized each other in sometimes personal terms.
Activist Ja’Mal Green, for instance, said Lightfoot was lying about crime statistics and criticized Wilson for saying Chicago cops should be allowed to hunt suspects down “like rabbits.” He said Wilson’s comments were “disgusting.”
For his part, Wilson declined to engage Green, the youngest candidate in the race, saying, “I don’t respond to kids.”
Wilson’s “rabbits” comment at a debate earlier in January was a repeat focus of the forum. Duarte, the moderator, asked him, “What does constitutional policing mean to you?” Wilson’s answer didn’t address constitutional policing.
“We have to make our citizens safe at all costs,” he said.
The mayor also confronted Wilson about the “rabbits” remark, noting he’s “talking about Black and brown boys in our city” and calling the comment “offensive.”
“I can’t believe you continue to say it,” Lightfoot said.
An emotional Wilson then invoked his son, Omar, who was murdered in 1995, as he doubled down on the controversial remarks.
“If somebody comes and kills somebody in her family, then she’ll know how it feels,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to protect our citizens who (follow the law).”
While Lightfoot argued that crime has gone down from 2021 to 2022 and is on good pace, State Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner said Lightfoot would “double down on the failed policies that gave us a doubled murder rate.”
Lightfoot later rebutted Buckner.
“It’s easy to come up here and say soundbites but what I didn’t hear is any actionable concrete solutions and many things I did hear, we’re already doing,” Lightfoot said.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer said the city could try new initiatives as violence prevention tools by listening to youth groups, including South Side-based youth activist group that Boyd belongs to called “Good Kids Mad City.”
“We never talk to youth about how to solve their own troubles,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer said the city should consider the Peace Book pushed by the group, which cropped up about four years ago and in a recent iteration calls for 2% of the Chicago police budget to be reallocated to peace initiatives that do not involve law enforcement or incarceration.
Earlier in the debate, moderators asked the candidates to say whether they would commit not to raise taxes.
Buckner, Garcia and Green raised their hands. Buckner said the city’s budget is “opaque” and if you go through it with a “fine-tooth comb” and audit you can find “efficiencies.”
“I don’t believe in nickel-and-diming and raising taxes on people is the right thing to do,” Buckner said.
Green promised to do a fiscal audit on the city’s books and “grow our economy” with bonds to help
“No new taxes,” Garcia said, before pivoting to talk about crime and the need for investment to grow the city.
The candidates’ promises, however, ignored a key reality: While the city has made some strides in recent years, its finances remain precarious and it is unlikely that the next mayor can govern without once raising taxes or fees.
Lightfoot launched her signature neighborhood investment plan Invest South/West 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. To be sure, 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. But the mayor has also lumped millions of dollars that were already in the works before she took office or constitute routine government spending, padding the investment total for Invest South/West.
Vallas criticized her for doing “one offs” and taking credit for economic development. Lightfoot countered that it’s unfair to call her projects “warmed over has” and said, Tell that to the people of Austin, tell that to the people of Roseland where we have seen real economic development.”
At a post-forum news conference, Lightfoot responded to Wilson’s comments about the loss of family and said she is “sorry and sympathetic to every single parent who’s lost a loved one, a child to gun violence in the city. But you can’t then turn that pain into the kind of thing that he wants.”
“There are plenty of examples in our city, where moms and dads and grandmas and others have turned their pain into purpose, who have come together in productive ways to help our young people heal and recognize that picking up a gun is the start of a tragedy, and it’s not going to keep them safe. There’s lots of constructive things that one can do in light of that. And I can think of countless examples in my own experience,” Lightfoot said.
“But,” she continued, “to say I’m justified because my son was killed by gun violence? How about work to bring peace to our neighborhoods, not to exacerbate the problem by letting the police loose to kill more young Black and brown kids. That’s not the answer.”
If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote on Feb. 28, a runoff among the top two will happen April 4. Early voting began last week and, as of Tuesday, 1,122 people had cast ballots in person and 3,255 ballots had been returned by mail.