Candidates for 29th Ward alderman participate in a forum on Jan. 25, hosted by the Westside Branch NAACP at Greater St. John Bible Church. Michael Romain.

On Sunday, Jan. 25, the eight candidates for 29th Ward alderman gathered for a conversation that, for sitting Alderman Deborah Graham, must have felt like both an indictment and an inquisition. Both the challengers and a sizable contingent of the approximately 70 audience members passionately expressed their dissatisfaction with the alderman and the mayor she’s supporting.

But perhaps no person in the sanctuary of the Greater St. John Bible Church at 1256 North Waller Avenue was more direct and explicit in his frustration than Chris Taliaferro, a Galewood attorney and police sergeant.

“We don’t need 100 more days of Alderman Graham,” said Taliaferro, who was seated next to the alderman and whose frontal attack Graham met with a barrage of eye-cutting and several unscripted rebuttals.

Taliaferro is one among a crowded field of eight candidates that, in addition to Graham, includes attorneys Lawrence Andolino, La Coulton J. Walls and Bob Galhotra; community activists Oddis “O.J.” Johnson and Zerlina A. Smith; and community college professor Stephen Robinson.

The 29th Ward now includes a greater portion of Galewood and parts of Montclare, Schorsch Village, Belmont Heights, North and South Austin, the whole Island area and a large part of Lawndale.

The candidate forum was hosted by the Westside Branch NAACP and recorded by CAN-TV. Below, we’ve provided most of the questions the candidates were asked and summaries of each candidate’s positions.

Each candidate was asked to explain what actions he or she would take in his or her first 100 days in office.

Andolino: He said that he will identify money for economic development, TIF [Tax Increment Financing] dollars and “our major streets where we need to bring jobs and commercial [development].”

Graham: “I’ll continue the work we started,” she said, adding that the proposed Mariano’s grocery store on North Avenue is “already under heavy negotiations.” She said that the ward has secured $225,000 in grants to study the business districts of North Avenue, Chicago Avenue and Madison Street.

“We’ve attained that money to make sure we are looking at bringing a healthy and viable business district” to the ward, she said. She also highlighted a partnership with Oak Park to implement a North Avenue TIF district “to help business owners in that area.” She said that she would continue to work with the Austin-Galewood Sustainability group and touted her efforts to develop the corner of Central and Madison. She said the police parking lots in the area are draining the tax base.

Taliaferro: “We don’t need 100 more days of Alderman Graham,” he said. He said the ward has gone six years without significant development, noting that he “will ensure we put the proper committees together…so [residents] can have an active voice in development.”

Smith: She said that she would ensure that the ward gets an elected school board representative and would focus on bringing wraparound services; more union-based skilled trades; and more jobs with livable incomes into the community.

Galhotra: He said that he will have several community meetings to bring all stakeholders together and do a complete assessment of economic, crime prevention and education in the ward, so that residents have a full and clear understanding of “what we need to do going forward.” He also said he is interested in redeveloping the Frederick Cooper Factory and Zenith Factory buildings.

Robinson: “I would like to come in and look at unifying the Galewood and Austin communities,” he said. He noted that he will look at bringing manufacturing and light engineering jobs to the ward, in addition to evaluating job placement and crime prevention.

Walls: “The first thing we’ll do is go after the issues we already know about,” he said. He said that Austin is a food desert and that “there’s no major food chain in Austin and it’s been that way for six years.” He said that he would have an economic development plan finalized before he is elected.

Johnson: He said he will convene a meeting between residents and businesses.

Each candidate was asked to evaluate Chicago police superintendent Gary McCarthy’s performance and whether or not, if elected, he or she would support McCarthy in that role.

Taliaferro: “[McCarthy] has done a good job,” he said, noting that he can’t disparage McCarthy because of his position as a police officer (it’s against departmental policy). He did say, however, that the department has room for improvement, noting that more funding should be allocated toward CAPS [Chicago Alternative Policing Strategies] and that the department can do a better job in building community trust.

Smith: “[McCarthy] has to go!” she said, adding that police abuse by cops who live outside of the community is a problem. She also advocated for more block-level organization among residents.

Galhotra: He said that it is probably better for CPD to be headed by someone within CPD, not an outsider like McCarthy. He also revealed deep skepticism of the optimistic crime data presented by McCarthy and Emanuel, noting that “there hasn’t been a drop in the murder rate” and questioning the integrity of the murder stats used by the administration.

Robinson: “We do need to change the police brass,” he said, noting that he would recommend 1st Deputy Supt. Al Wysinger to replace McCarthy.

Walls: “McCarthy does not get my vote of confidence,” he said, referencing the recent superintendent changes in the 15th District. He said that this change was implemented without community input. He also stressed the need for beat officers to be more dedicated to attending CAPS meetings and that community policing officers should have more prominence and responsibility within the department.

Johnson: “He’s fired…bottom-line,” he said. Johnson also stressed that more black officers need to be assigned to patrol predominantly black neighborhoods.

Andolino: “If you’re going to work for the City of Chicago, you should come from Chicago,” he said, echoing Galhotra’s sentiment. He also stressed the need for the department to build community trust by hiring officers who live in the city.

Graham: “I disagreed with Supt. McCarthy in some of his actions in replacing our commanders in the 11th and 15th Districts,” she said, but she referenced CAPS and National Night Out as instances demonstrating that the police department has nonetheless been “working hard to improve relationships with the community.”

Candidates were asked to explain their positions on medical marijuana and whether or not they would support a marijuana dispensary locating within the ward.

Graham: “We have very few areas zoned for a pot clinic,” she said. “There is one trying to come into the ward, but I committed to the community not to allow anything that requires a special use without consulting the community. So they haven’t presented themselves yet to come into the community. It wouldn’t be a decision I’ll make on my own. The community would have to make the decision….If the community doesn’t want it in the area, they will not have it in the area.”

Taliaferro: “I believe that there are those that may need [legalized marijuana] … I can’t judge whether or not someone needs it,” he said, but also noted that he doesn’t “approve of our current alderman not making the community aware of where these proposed locations [for dispensaries] are.” He said that there “is a proposed location on Harlem and Belmont,” but that not all residents in that area were aware of the proposal. “I made them aware of it and I’ll continue to make them aware of it. We need to have a voice in where these locations are.”

Smith: “I don’t support [dispensaries in the community],” she said.

Galhotra: He noted that the dispensaries would be producing legalized marijuana for people with serious medical conditions. “It ain’t going to be homie scoring weed at the pot clinic, it’s going to be cancer patients and these people need the help!” he said. “These are people who really need the help, let them get the help.”

Robinson: “I think everyone overlooked the big picture—taxes,” he said, noting that the city should capture the tax revenue that might be generated from the dispensaries. He also said medical usage should be considered.

Walls: “The community should be involved in making those decisions where they want things at in the community,” he said, also noting that people suffering from grave illnesses should be considered during community consultations. “We’re not talking about drug sales on the streets and on the corners,” he said, emphasizing that Ald. Graham did not provide sufficient community consultation.

Johnson: “No,” he said to the idea of dispensaries locating to the area.

Andolino: “Nothing gets built anywhere without our say so,” he said. “It’s got to go where people feel it’s applicable.”

Who are you supporting for mayor?

Walls: Willie Wilson, because “he’s a CEO.” Walls said the city would benefit from electing a CEO as mayor and that Wilson’s economic development agenda would provide a boost to the city’s economy.

Robinson: “The jury is still out,” he said, although he mentioned that Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Willie Wilson were his top choices.

Galhotra: He does not have a candidate he’s backing yet, he said. “I’ll find out on Feb. 24,” he said.

Smith: “Anybody but Rahm Emanuel,” she said.

Taliaferro: Willie Wilson, because “I believe he has a dream and a vision for the entire city” not just downtown.

Graham: “I’m working with Rahm Emanuel,” she said, but noted that she’s more focused on her own campaign.

Andolino: “I haven’t decided who I’m supporting,” he said.

How will you address the excessive force by police?

Robinson: “It starts from the top down,” he said, adding that he would facilitate a community discussion that would bring residents, law enforcement officials and elected officials to the same table.

Galhotra: He said that he would reform the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), advocating for more citizens to sit on the board. He also mentioned that he is in favor of a body camera pilot program recently implemented in the Shakespeare district which would require police to wear cameras attached to their clothing and headgear to record events as they unfold in real time.

Smith: She said that communities should be able to choose their commanders and should have more input in the policing process.

Taliaferro: He said that all police need training in the use of force and that the use of excessive force “is never necessary.”

“The police department’s policy is excessive force should never, under any circumstance, be used,” he said. “We have to qualify every year for marksmanship; however we don’t have to qualify in use of force. I think every single police officer on an annual basis should attend use of force training and be qualified in the model [that] the department has.”

Graham: She said that the use of excessive force is already banned and that the City Council introduced an ordinance to ban the chokehold. She also said that the department has already provided cameras, policies that would continue to monitor police “as they go out and do the work to keep us safe.” She also stressed the need to ensure an open line of communication so “complaints are heard in terms of police performance out on our streets.”

Andolino: “Excessive force is illegal,” he said, noting that he advocates for the use of deterrents, such as body camera equipment. “If you have a body camera and your actions are recorded, then you’re going to do the right thing,” he said. He also reinforced his earlier point that police should be from the communities in which they are policing and that programs such as CAPS should be utilized more in order to gather neighborhood input.

Johnson: He said that police should who use excessive force should go to jail.

Walls: He said that the police should receive more training on citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights and should be rewarded “for not making arrests,” instead of being rewarded for making arrests. He said that IPRA and OPS [Office of Professional Standards] are just not working and we all know that.”

It’s estimated that 460,000 workers in Chicago do not have sick days. Once elected, will you support the referendum on the ballot to pass a citywide ordinance for sick day pay?

All candidates agreed that they would support this measure, with the consensus opinion being that paid sick leave is commonsense legislation that would be good for business, in addition to being the humane thing to do.

When it comes to workforce development, what are your plans to bring new businesses into the community and secondly, what process do you have to make sure that communities are hired and local tradesmen are on the job?

Walls: He said that he would identify economic zones on Madison, North Avenue and Chicago Avenue and try to allocate unused TIF [Tax Increment Financing] money to those areas. He also noted that Austin lacks the presence of major chains to generate large-scale employment and tax revenue.

Robinson: He said that he would “shore up the businesses we currently have first” before looking at other areas of opportunity. He also noted that a major tenet of his economic development platform would be crime deterrence, which he said is a major impediment to economic development.

Galhotra: He said that he would work with the Office of Economic Development to outline and identify areas in Austin with the most need for economic development. He said he has a “great interest” in repurposing the Zenith Factory and the Frederick Cooper factory. He also said that he would conduct traffic studies of major corridors as catalysts for mounting a comprehensive economic development plan.

Smith: “We do not just need any jobs to come to our community, we need jobs in our community [that pay wages] we can afford to take care of our families on,” she said. “No fast food restaurants that get rich off of the poor, we need [co-operatives] where we actually own and have sustainable businesses.”

Taliaferro: “I will support any businesses that will thrive with our community, that will grow with our community and hire our community,” he said. “Unfortunately, over the last four years, we’ve seen pawn shops. We’ve seen liquor stores. These are jobs that are not viable to our community; in fact, they thrive off of our community. They grow, but [our community doesn’t] grow,” he said, adding that he would form a committee to vet businesses who plan to move into the area and would visit job sites to make sure that employers are hiring unionized and local workers.

Graham: “I’m going to continue to work with the Austin-Galewood Sustainability Plan,” she said, noting that locations within the 29th Ward have been marketed to potential developers and that a community agreement has been fashioned that would be presented to the developers that are selected.

“One we narrow down who we would like to see in our community, we would develop a plan that the businesses would have to abide by—the number of people they hire in the community, the level of services, different areas that they need, from security to brick layers to concrete pourers.”

Andolino: He said that he would build a case and go after each potential business in the same way that was done with the Galewood Starbucks, which he claimed to have helped lure to the area. He also recommended for a rebranding of the Austin area and suggested that the TIF process be reformed so that TIF money doesn’t continue to get diverted to large corporations that produce far fewer jobs than advertised.

Johnson: He said he would convene a meeting with various shareholders in the community in order to find out what they want. He also said that he would lobby the mayor’s office for tax incentives.

Ald. Graham was asked to explain her support for Mayor Emanuel.

Graham said that the mayor “has made tough decisions.” She said that, when Mayor Emanuel decided to close 50 schools—four of which were in Austin—she let him know that she didn’t agree with the decision, noting that the closings “pitted communities against each other.”

“I worked really hard and he listened to what we needed…if you’re going to close these four schools from our community make sure that the existing schools have the material and what they need so our children can advance,” she said. “So [now], we have state of the art schools in the 29th Ward [and] a mechanics program at Michelle Clark that is flourishing.”

If you’re elected, will you use participatory budgeting to allocate your [$1.3 million] dollar discretionary fund and will you commit to doing so?

Background: “Every year, each of Chicago’s 50 wards can address their own specific local infrastructure needs through the Aldermanic Menu Program.

In 2012, $1.32 million per ward was allocated from the CIP general obligation bonds to provide a menu of infrastructure project options for the aldermen to select and prioritize.

“Projects chosen by the aldermen include the repair and upgrade of streets, alleys, curbs, sidewalks, traffic signals, street and alley lighting and street pole painting” (City of Chicago).

Andolino: Yes. “That is the aldermanic menu fund and what you need to do is find out where it can be best deployed in the ward and make some benefit for the residents of the ward and you make that decision by bringing the people together,” he said. “You’re not going to spend that menu money without input from the community.”

Graham: Yes. “The 29th Ward already has participation in the budget process,” she said. “When the residents come forth and say … they’re missing lights or things of that nature, we’re able to go out and have our streets surveyed and get those streets done…We do get input from the block clubs, from the people, from various parts of our community—that’s how we get the work done. We don’t just go out will-nilly.”

Taliaferro: Yes. “What you do is you make the community aware that we are going to have a meeting regarding the budget, how to spend it and where we should spend it and right now that is not happening,” he said, noting that he would greatly support a participatory budgeting process.

Smith: Yes. “We need to go to the table collectively,” she said. “That’s where democracy starts, because most of the things going on in the 29th Ward and throughout the whole city [are] going on behind closed doors. They bring it to us after they’ve already made up their minds to do what they’re going to do.”

Galhotra: Yes. He said he would have four separate meetings in different sections of the ward “so everybody has a convenient place to go to and share their insight about what needs to be done in the ward and as alderman I’d make the decision” on the $1.3 million allocation.

Robinson: Yes. “I would do it through transparency, bringing the community forth and asking the questions.”

Walls: Yes. He said that participatory budgeting is “a hallmark of my platform” and that he’s met with the representatives of UIC “that developed that program.”

“You get the community involved in developing and finding projects that they’d want in their community, then you have the committee get informed as to which projects can work and which projects can be viable in the community. After that, they vote on the projects and they choose on which ones will work,” he said, noting that people who are at least 16 years old get to vote on those projects.

Johnson: Yes. He said that he would form a committee comprising residents of each of the 44 precincts in the 29th Ward and have an open debate before the community votes on projects.

Each candidate was asked whether or not he or she supports the proposal by UIC to build the Obama Presidential Library in North Lawndale.

All of the candidates agreed that they support the UIC-North Lawndale bid, with several, such as Lawrence Andolino, expressing regret that the library could not be built in the 29th Ward.

Click here to read coverage of this forum by our partners at Austin Talks.

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