Cook County candidates discuss priorities

Forum held by local NAACP

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By Reema Amin

Austintalks.org

Candidates running for the 1st District Cook County Board seat took turns, Feb. 1, trying to persuade West Side voters that each is the best choice to win the March 18, Democratic primary.

Four of the hopefuls gathered at Sankofa Cultural Arts Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave., for a candidate forum hosted by the Westside Branch NAACP.

The fifth candidate, Brenda Smith, could not attend because of a prior engagement, forum organizers said.

Commissioner hopefuls include former 29th Ward Ald. Isaac "Ike" Carothers, who was convicted in 2010 of accepting a bribe worth $40,000 in home renovations and spent over a year in federal prison.

"I've made mistakes in life, but God saw me through," Carothers said during the panel discussion, never directly mentioning his legal trouble.

Ronald Lawless is back on the ballot this year after losing to incumbent Collins in 2010. He ran as a Green Party candidate last time.

Lawless said he would not give the audience "bells and whistles" but would suggest realistic changes for the 1st District, which includes the Austin neighborhood and suburbs Bellwood, Broadview, Maywood and Oak Park.

Like Lawless, the two other candidates at Saturday's forum — Blake Sercye and Richard Boykin — would be first-time elected officials if they win. Both are lawyers, and Boykin was a former chief of staff for West Side Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-7th), who's backing his campaign.

Among the issues the candidates emphasized was criminal justice reform.

There needs to be an expansion of mental health services for inmates outside of Cook County Jail, everyone agreed, which would help alleviate overcrowding.

Sercye said the overcrowding issue is his No. 1 concern.

He wants to reduce the jail population by helping low-income, non-violent offenders pay their bonds so they can be released on electronic monitoring. Sercye's "two-fold approach" would also involve working with organizations like Bethel New Life to educate people about jobs and opportunities to turn them away from a life of crime.

"We need to continue to invest in ex-offenders and our children," Sercye said.

Lawless agreed it should be easier to bond out of jail and added he wants to work on reducing the number of false arrests and prosecutions by punishing the police agency involved. 

He said a department that makes a false arrest should have to pay expungement fees for the wrongly accused.

Throughout the discussion, Carothers said his top priority was increasing economic development on the West Side and building out the community. He cited his experience in beautifying Madison Street in Austin by adding flower beds and new lighting.

As an alderman, Carothers said he tried hard to bring jobs to the ward, even though it wasn't always easy dealing with others in government.

"I understand how to leverage government," he said.

But Boykin countered Carothers' vision by saying if the streets are not safe, businesses will refuse to set up shop. He said he would try to work with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart — who has endorsed Boykin — to help beef up public safety on the West Side.

As he warned of a pending county-wide pension crisis, Lawless promised that if elected, he would try to explore ways to increase budget revenue.

"We have services we can't provide. We need to raise money to pay the bills," Lawless said.

When asked about their experience handling budgets, Carothers recalled his time on the Chicago City Council and reminded the audience that part of his job was proposing how to spend the city's $6 billion annual budget. He added that he also managed a multimillion-dollar budget as a commissioner for the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Boykin said he oversaw Cong. Davis' budget and successfully helped implement many community services as chief of staff.

Both Lawless and Sercye said they helped oversee budgets in non-profit organizations where money is tight.

Feb. 18 is the deadline to register to vote for next month's primary election.

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