Chicago’s mayoral candidate forums have seen plenty of attacks amongst the candidates.
But Thursday night’s forum saw a first of this election cycle when Mayor Lori Lightfoot ripped into Fox 32 moderator Mike Flannery for asking a question about high truancy rates at Chicago Public Schools.
“You are characterizing our kids that are exceeding all odds, working hard every day — and, yes, the graduation rates are up despite the pandemic, yes, they’re getting scholarships at an amazing level — you’re describing them as if they’re dumb, lazy and not doing anything …”
Flannery responded, “That is absolutely false.”
The mayor continued as Flannery attempted to cut in: “Here’s what I know, Mike. The reality is, and I invite you to come with me to an elementary school or high school … we have put in a ton of resources to make sure that those kids that are struggling, that they have a place in school, that they are learning and that they are thriving. That is the reality. Do we have challenges? Absolutely.”
Lightfoot has also pushed back on other moderator questions or interrupted them at previous forums, but Thursday’s event was her most forceful rebuke yet.
The rest of the forum, hosted by Fox 32 Chicago and The Lincoln Forum, was generally civil as the candidates focused on their standard talking points. Early on, Lightfoot incorrectly claimed the Chicago Transit Authority isn’t facing financial troubles in response to a question about how to deal with looming shortfalls.
“Well, the fact of the matter is, there’s not going to be a fiscal cliff for the CTA because the CTA — understanding that this infusion of federal dollars is short-term — has budgeted in the out years to make sure that there are sufficient funds. But let’s be honest, public transportation, mass transportation all across our country for years, has been underfunded,” Lightfoot said, adding that Congress should provide more money to sustain the system.
In fact, the CTA is facing a steep fiscal cliff. Federal funding for regional transit agencies are slated to run out in 2025 and Chicago-area agencies are staring down a $730 million budget hole, a gap the regional transit agency says is too big to fill with service cuts and fare hikes alone.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas called Lightfoot out for that statement.
“There is a fiscal cliff,” Vallas responded. “Right now, the farebox is 18% of the operating costs, that’s down from 46%. That’s a fiscal cliff. When COVID money runs out, the system is going to be broke.”
Vallas then pivoted to his plans to boost public safety on the CTA to help increase ridership: eliminating private transit security to boost Chicago police ranks dedicated to patrolling trains.
State Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner said more coordination was needed with the Regional Transit Authority to “deal with the farebox ratio issue,” a reference to the state mandate for CTA, Metra and Pace suburban services being required by state law to bring in enough revenue to cover 50% of day-to-day operating expenses each year. The requirement was waived during the pandemic as ridership plummeted.
“This is a manmade crisis,” Buckner added.
Lightfoot launched the first attack of the night, this time on Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson.
“I can’t listen to Brandon Johnson talk about what he said, ‘We need more public safety right now,’” Lightfoot said. “This is the man who said, ‘Defunding is not a slogan; it’s an actual political goal.’ His goal is to destroy our police department by cutting our officers and making our communities less safe.”
Johnson responded: “That’s just not true. It’s ridiculous.” He cited his new public safety plan, saying he would “spend money on hiring rank-and-file members to become detectives to actually free up law enforcement to actually solve crime,” though that would involve promotion, not new hiring.
Activist Ja’Mal Green attempted to use that exchange to cast himself as the outsider candidate, including by attacking Johnson for his support from the Chicago Teachers Union.
“Brandon and Lori, both of them are terrible candidates for mayor of the city of Chicago,” Green said. “One is puppeted by a union for political control, and the mayor we already know what happened the last four years. We need a new leader that is not tied to any political baggage.”
In response to questions about crime, Lightfoot said the city has made progress. Violent crime in 2022 was down from 2021, she noted, though crime remains higher than it was before she took office. Lightfoot acknowledged car thefts are up but said it’s due to a TikTok trend where people steal Hyundais and Kias using USB thumb drives and that auto manufacturers not being responsive.
U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said crime is up due to the pandemic and civil unrest, and that combined, “there’s a sense the city is adrift.”
“That’s why we need a new leader at the Chicago Police Department, but we also need to ensure that the department is fully staffed and funded and that the consent decree — the roadmap to modernizing policing — (is) data-driven and that we move citywide units into the neighborhoods for patrol, to form relationships, to build trust, to have accountability.”
Ald. Sophia King said the city needs to recruit more cops and boost morale by implementing a new plan that gives four days on, three days off, as a way of increasing their rest.
Businessman Willie Wilson leaned on a quip in response to the same question: “Well, I’m trying to do it right now; replace this mayor, first thing.” Wilson then reiterated that he wants to “take the handcuffs off the police and put it on the crook.”
In response to a question about how as mayor, he would bring back downtown workers, Buckner described himself as a “pro business progressive,” and pledged to cut red tape, streamline business permitting and provide technical assistance.
Describing Lightfoot’s frequent pivot away from high-profile business exits of Citadel and Boeing and toward the expansion of other companies like Kimberly Clark, Buckner said “just because you put syrup on it doesn’t make it pancakes.”
On crimes committed by teens, Ald. Roderick Sawyer said there must be a youth truancy department to track where these students are when they aren’t in school as well as passage of the “Peace Book” ordinance that would funnel money toward non-law enforcement violence solutions.
“We never talk about the youth,” Sawyer said. “We never have an opportunity to talk about, how do we engage youth, and how are they exhibiting their frustration by acting out, by doing these crazy things like carjacking cars and getting involved in other criminal activity.”