When you ask Amara Enyia why she’s running for mayor of Chicago in 2015, she is not short on answers.
“I think the administration is very polarizing,” Enyia said of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team. “He’s created a dichotomy in the city that pits one group against the other. It increases the gaps between the haves and have-nots. I think it pits the city against teachers, and tries to pit teachers against the community.”
That’s no more evident in Emanuel’s handling of the education system, said Enyia, 30, who’s looking to the one-term incumbent. “I believe the administration is creating a dual system of education that is pitting public schools against charter schools. I think we should have options, but this notion of replacing neighborhood schools with charter schools is wrong.
“I think it creates a dual educational system that is detrimental to the people in the community,” Enyia said.
Though she’s not officially announced her candidacy just yet, for Enyia, the 2015 mayor’s race offers residents an opportunity to determine a new direction in leadership for the city.
A community organizer and owner of ACE Municipal Partners, a consulting firm that helps local municipalities grow their economies, Enyia is currently executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
She believes her campaign offers residents a clear choice, shifting from a mayor who considers himself a polarizing figure and has urged people to support someone else if they don’t like it.
“Well, I think we should take his advice and support someone who is actually unifying the city,” Enyia said.
And she believes her background and experience allows her to do just that. Her foray into politics came while working on her doctorate degree. In 2008, she landed a fellowship in former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration. There, she was involved in municipal policies such as finance, employment and education. She found the experience frustrating because “there seems to be a disconnect between those who were making policy and those impacted by policy,” Enyia said.
“I learned first and foremost that policy cannot happen in a vacuum. Policy-making cannot take place in the office. In order to be effective in making policy you have to be out in the community,” she said. “There has to be an openness and willingness to engage with the people who are going to be affected.”
Passing up a career in corporate America, Enyia bee-lined to the West Side, landing in Austin where she headed up a newly-formed community group, Austin Coming Together.
“I wanted to be useful to helping improve the communities in the city. That’s why I went to the West Side,” said Enyia, who holds a master’s and a PhD in education, as well as a law degree.
Being in the community, she says, has given her a vantage point to see the effects of Emanuel’s policy on working people and the growing class divide that comes with. Enyia points to the massive school closings of last year — more than 50 neighborhood schools in all — as an example. Another is privatizing public assets, in effect saddling middle- and low-income families with increasing taxes, fines and fees.
Such policies, Enyia insists, forces people to decide between “paying off a ticket and putting food on the table.”
“They feel like there are two cities — one for those who have money and one for everyone else,” she said.
Among her more critical issues is the lack of accountability and oversight of tax increment financing (TIF) dollars.
“TIF dollars are supposed to be used for the purpose of developing blighted areas and, yet, what kind of development do you see in the most blighted communities in which we work?” she asked.
What this city needs — and what’s lacking in the current administration — Enyia said, is a leader who wants unity, transparency in government, and equity in policy, something she said is lacking in the current administration. City residents, she added, deserve representative leadership that values them.
“We as a city could never be as great as we could unless we understand that we have to operate in our collective interest — that we all rise together, that no neighborhood is left behind [and] that no side of the city is left out of the equation,” Enyia said.
That means ensuring corporations pay their share of taxes and not on the back of property owners or at the expense of public sector employees, she said.
“I don’t believe in demonizing the unions,” said Enyia, whose parents were forced to migrate to the United State in the late ’70s because of their activism against the oppressive Nigerian government.
She said she’s not afraid of Emanuel’s $7.3 million campaign war chest. She said she is running to win and balks at the notion she has no political experience.
“Look at where we are with our current mayor. He’s got plenty of political experience,” she said. “He was in Congress. He worked in the Clinton administration. He worked in the Obama administration. Where has that gotten us?”