Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and challenger Tara Stamps threw a few white-knuckled swings Tuesday night during their first debate this election cycle, heating up the race just two weeks before the runoff.
The April 7 election is the first runoff for 15-year Ald. Mitts, who was just 1 percent short of the 50.1 percent needed to keep her Chicag0 City Council seat Feb. 24; Stamps came in second with 32 percent.
Unlike the earlier forums they’ve attended, the debate gave the candidates a chance to respond more directly to their opposition.
Stamps asked Mitts to debate her before the February election, then again in early-March. The alderman told AustinTalks she ignored the requests because she felt Stamps had not treated her with respect.
Mitts voiced that sentiment at Tuesday night’s AustinTalks/Austin Weekly News-sponsored event, where the candidates also called each other out on their voting records, knowledge of the ward’s new boundaries and even their mothers.
More than 120 people filled the auditorium at LaFollette Park.
Moderator Curtis Lawrence, an associate journalism professor at Columbia College, started by asking Stamps – a CPS teacher – how she plans to make decisions without the influence of the Chicago Teachers Union. The group has pumped at least $56,000 into her campaign, according to campaign finance records.
Stamps said her own interests — like serving the working class and wanting a safe community — just happen to match CTU’s.
“It’s an independent voice that started the union voice,” Stamps said. “My vision happens to be the same as the union.”
Mitts was asked the same question but about one of her biggest funders: Chicago Forward, a political action committee that backs candidates aligned with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Daley appointee, often accused of voting too often with the mayor, has received roughly $44,000 from Chicago Forward.
Mitts said she’s “a voice for the residents of the 37th Ward” and stood up to Emanuel before he closed six mental health clinics across the city in 2012. Mitts received a bout of cheers, but Stamps pointed out in her rebuttal that the alderman ultimately voted to close them.
In an interview Wednesday, Mitts reiterated that she “let the mayor know how she felt,” but voted for the closings because she was outnumbered by his supporters and figured her stance could be wrong.
Both agreed Tuesday night on a few things, including improving relations between the police and the community and considering participatory budgeting, which gives residents the reins over a portion of the alderman’s $1.3 million menu money.
The personal jabs started early, when Lawrence asked the candidates how they would improve schools.
Mitts said she fought to ensure no ward school closed in 2013 when 50 schools were shuttered citywide, four of them in Austin.
Stamps gave Mitts credit but said the alderman is wrong for allowing charters to come in and take resources that could go to neighborhood schools. She also mentioned a federal investigation of Concept Schools, the group that brought the Horizon Science Academy charter to Austin.
But when she invoked her late mother, activist Marion Stamps, and her commitment to fighting for equal education, Mitts made a comment that drew audible gasps and some laughter from the audience.
“Let your mother rest. My mother is gone as well,” Mitts said, pointing to Stamps’ repeated mentions of her mother throughout the race. “We are trying to represent the 37th Ward; neither of our mothers will be here to do that.”
Stamps wasn’t the only one who used a trademark comment that evening. At least three times, Mitts cited the Wal-Mart she brought to the ward, a go-to response when asked about her track record.
Lawrence asked her to name other accomplishments in terms of business development. She said she helped bring 200 jobs to the Freedman Seating company at 4545 W. Augusta, as well as an auto parts shop and a hot dog restaurant.
“When we were in a recession, I was still cutting ribbons in the 37th Ward,” Mitts said.
Stamps, who held a large minimum-wage rally this month, said Mitts should have worked toward livable wages instead of bringing in a big corporation like Wal-Mart.
The two then had a cringe-worthy exchange on ward boundaries while talking about youth activities.
After Mitts said she wants to build a youth center, Stamps accused an already-existing after-school program – By The Hand – of picking and choosing which kids get to use the facility. (A child must enroll for the program).
Mitts said the building at 415 N. Laramie isn’t even in the 37th Ward.
“If you have a complaint, take it to the alderman from the 28th Ward,” Mitts said.
City records show Stamps was correct by a hair, according to an official ward map: 415 N. Laramie is less than a block north of the ward’s southern border on Kinzie. The building was in the 28th Ward under the old map boundaries, which were changed in January 2012 and took effect the beginning of this year.
Stamps told the alderman to “investigate” why a ‘Mitts’ banner is hanging outside the building.
Mitts argued Stamps can’t really know the issues since she’s only lived in the ward a few years. Stamps fired back that she doesn’t need to be a resident for 35 years to know what the community needs.
One audience question asked Tuesday night touched on a now-controversial issue for Mitts, who issued an apology Wednesday about anti-gay comments she made last weekend at a candidates forum.
The Sun-Times first reported her comments, which were caught on video at a League of Women Voters forum on Saturday: “I don’t want to be biased here, but I don’t support the fact that we can have two women married, two men married and we pay our fees and your tax dollars go. And they can get the same benefit as the woman or a man get. And I don’t think that that playing field is level.”
At Tuesday night’s debate, Mitts said she has never supported gay rights in her professional or personal life. But if “the law supports gay rights, so will I.”
Stamps said she’s a supporter and has relatives who practice “an alternative lifestyle.”
Mitts refused to discuss Tuesday night’s comments with AustinTalks after the Sun-Times story broke, but her office issued a statement that began, “I support gay rights.”
Another audience member wanted to know about an old request for a speed bump that has received no response: When would Mitts’ office get back to them?
The alderman asked the person to come see her after the debate, promising to to take care of it.
“If there are any service requests, we are here for you,” Mitts said, explaining that the system can mess up requests sometimes. “Please stay on it so we can get it done.”
She also said if there had been problems in her office getting back to people, it was because her mother and brother had died. “I hit a bump in the road two years ago.”
Mitts used part of her closing statement to say that people shouldn’t vote for someone who disrespects the current leadership. Earlier in the night, Mitts said Stamps had never even introduced herself to the alderman.
Stamps was visibly upset at the alderman’s comments, but she’d already given her final statement.
On Wednesday, Stamps said she met the alderman when she first got elected, then again when she permanently moved to the ward four years ago.
The two capped the bitter ending with a handshake, a couple minutes before Stamps could be seen introducing a toddler to the alderman.