A large crowd gathered at the Chicago Women Take Action Alliance Mayoral Forum on Saturday, January 24, 2015. (Chandler West/Staff Photographer)

Three of the five mayoral hopefuls attended a candidates’ forum hosted by the Westside Branch NAACP last Saturday, Jan. 25.

Bernard Cobbins was disappointed. The North Lawndale resident hoped to hear from all the candidates vying to be the city’s next mayor. 

“What I was disappointed about is that we didn’t hear from all the announced candidates,” Cobbins said. “Three showed up out of five, so what’s the message there? It’s not important enough for you to come to this side of town to express why you want to be mayor….”

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), businessman Willie Wilson and political activist William “Doc” Walls shared the stage at Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (7th) were invited, but did not attend. 

All five candidates, however, did show up at a forum sponsored by the Chicago Women Take Action Alliance, which was held at Chicago Temple, 77 West Washington Street. Before an audience of about 700 spectators inside the downtown church, Garcia mused that it may have been the first forum at which all five mayoral candidates were present. 

At neither forum, however, did the candidates debate each other. At the Chicago Women forum, they spoke and took pre-solicited questions for 30 minutes each, with only one candidate addressing the public at a time. When one candidate finished addressing the crowd, he left and another entered to take the stage after him. 

At the NAACP forum, the three candidates present answered questions posed by NAACP officials. Questions ranged from outsourcing city services to addressing the city’s unfunded pension liability, which tops $19 billion. 

The candidates offered varying ways to fix the city pension deficit. Fioretti said he would not raise property taxes, the main funding source for the city’s pension system. He called raising property taxes another form of “foreclosure.”

Instead, Fioretti said he would create a pension obligation bond, funded by a one percent commuter tax. That, he noted, could raise $30 billion. He also would implement a financial transaction tax on stock trades.  

Walls echoed Fioretti’s position on not raising property taxes, but he differed on the financial transaction tax. Walls called it “pie in the sky” and not a solution to the city’s financial problems. The city, he noted, has uncontrollable debt obligations, with a chunk of the budget going to paying down the interest on accumulated debt.

“We have to transition Chicago from a debt to fund service revenue and expenditure system into a pay as you go revenue and expenditure system,” Walls said, noting that the move would save millions and allow the city to meet its pension obligation to city workers.

“We cannot balance the budget based on fines, fees and assessments,” Walls said. “Red light cameras, blue light cameras, speed zone cameras—they don’t help people in our community. What we have to do is more effectively spend the money that we have.”

Wilson, however, said he flat out opposes any taxes. He didn’t specifically spell out a plan to address the city’s pension crisis other than saying he would look at a city casino and new businesses as a possible funding source.

“How can you tax people when they are losing their homes,” he asked.

All the candidates agreed on having an elected school board, but Walls raised an alarm of caution. He said there must be measures in place to ensure big business, special interest groups and unions don’t “hijack” the school board as is the case with municipal elections.

“The purpose of having an elected school board is to make certain that average people have an opportunity to serve on that board,” Walls said. “We want to make certain that big business and big money don’t overwhelm them and leave them out.”

Wilson drew big laughs responding to a question on reopening the city’s mental health clinics. In 2012, the mayor closed six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, which serve low-income residents. All the candidates said they would reopen the clinics, but Wilson said he has something special in mind for one of them.

“I would reopen all those clinics up, but I would save one of them to put Mayor Emanuel in,” Wilson quipped.

The Westside NAACP has been holding candidate forums leading up to the Feb. 24th municipal election. Remel Terry, the Westside NAACP branch’s political action chair and 2nd vice president, said the forums are about civic engagement.

The branch has been holding forums for the West Side aldermanic races and the mayor’s race. West Side communities like Austin, Garfield Park and North Lawndale often feel that they are left out of the process, she said. 

“There [have] been a lot of issues around school closings, the budget. We really wanted to give the community another opportunity to hear about who wants to represent … Chicago and especially what they plan to bring or offer for the West Side of Chicago,” Terry said.

Attending the forum was Commissioner Barbara McGowan, vice president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Like most in the audience, the Austin resident came to hear what the candidates had to say.

“This is the first time that I have to see some of them up close and personal,” McGowan said, noting that she is undecided in the mayor’s race. “I don’t favor one candidate over another.”

Her concerns are the red-light cameras and the city’s sanitation problems, which McGowan said she wants whoever sits on the fifth floor of City Hall to address.

“I don’t like us having the reputation for being the number one city for rats and bed bugs,” McGowan said. “I certainly would like to see something done about that. I don’t like having that reputation.”

Michael Romain contributed to this article.

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