ENGAGING THE WEST SIDE: Candidates for mayor of Chicago during a Feb. 9 mayoral forum hosted by the Chicago Westside Branch NAACP. | AustinTalks

At a mayoral candidate forum hosted last weekend by the Chicago Westside Branch of the NAACP, candidate Lori Lightfoot’s opening statements foreshadowed the afternoon’s conversation.

“If we do not do something radical and transformative to invest in the West Side, we will no longer be a great city,” Lightfoot said. “And we will continue to see the mass exodus of low-income and middle-income black folks out of the city of Chicago.”

The Feb. 9 panel was held at Malcolm X College, where eight of the 14 mayoral candidates discussed issues plaguing the West Side, including city investment, corruption, education and violence.

Amara Enyia, Bob Fioretti, state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, John Kolzar, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Paul Vallas and Willie Wilson also participated in last weekend’s forum, one of many being held ahead of the election on Feb. 26

Throughout the forum, both Enyia, head of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and Ford, who represents Austin in the Illinois House, leveraged their connections to the West Side.

“I live on the West Side,” Enyia said in her opening statements. “It’s quite unfortunate that in 2019, my lifespan will be 20 fewer years than my counterparts downtown. That is not on accident. That is the result of tangible public policies that disinvested, ignored and overlooked the West Side since 1968 and before.”

In response to a question about implementing structural reform in “one of the most corrupt cities in the U.S.” most of the candidates agreed on limiting aldermanic authority, expanding audit power for the Inspector General and called for transparency in public officials.

Vallas made what seemed to be an indirect comment about Enyia, saying that in order to root out corruption, public officials should give full disclosure of information like their tax returns, which he said “a number of candidates have not filed.”

Enyia seemed unfazed by comments about her tax returns, which have been reported on by the Chicago Tribune.

Asked how they would use their mayoral power to improve the quality of life on the West Side, Enyia shared a plan that focuses on the Chicago Department of Planning and Economic Development and called for a $10 million innovation fund for start-up businesses with “models that create pathways to ownership.”

“We need to own the businesses in our neighborhood,” Enyia said. She also detailed initiatives to change the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to give businesses upfront capital to invest in the community rather than reimbursing business owners, which is what the current program provides.

Vallas called for allocating one-third of TIF revenue to West Side equity investment, taking advantage of the more than 130 opportunity zones, and hiring blacks and Latinos within the community.

Preckwinkle echoed her opponents.

“The downtown area glitters and sparkles, and it is filled with cranes,” Preckwinkle said. “But in many of our neighborhoods, there are empty lots.”

Preckwinkle also said as mayor, she would reinstate the Chicago Department of Housing to promote affordable housing across the city.

“I know that the alderman on the West Side want development, they want affordable housing, and the mayor needs to support their efforts to do it,” Preckwinkle said.

The issue of economic investment and affordable housing hit home for Austin resident Serethea Reid, who is president of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association. She took notes throughout the forum.

“If you’re a major developer, the city will provide all sorts of infrastructure and incentives, pave the streets, fix the lights,” Reid said. “But if you’re a small business owner, they want you to go into a war zone and get it up and running and give a ‘rebate’ later.”

Reid, who has lived in Austin for 10 years, said in addition to economic development, public safety is the biggest concern among residents in the community.

“You cannot have robust economic development if people do not feel safe,” Reid said. “You cannot get people to invest in places where they do not feel safe. It prohibits growth, and the neighborhood cannot flourish.

Ford said as mayor he would build up community by investing in public education, first and foremost.

“We need to address the mental and behavioral health of our community, so that we can also have a physically and mentally stable community, and reduce crime,” Ford said.

Preckwinkle said the only way to solve the issue of violence in Chicago is to create better connections between police and residents. Other candidates referred to the Chicago consent decree. Ford was the only candidate who directly cited racism in the city’s police force.

Lesser-known candidate Kolzar said he would implement an ordinance requiring 60 percent of the police force hired within the communities they serve to “alleviate tension.”

Cassandra Norman, a retired CPD officer and president of the South Austin Neighborhood Association, said she agreed with the candidates who said it is important for police officers to look like the residents they serve.

“Even when I go to the grocery store now, people still call me Officer Norman and I’ve been retired for seven years,” Norman said.

She said Austin residents are not necessarily playing favorites with the candidates from the West Side.

“Enyia and Ford have familiarity in Austin, but there are so many candidates, we really have to look at the issues and where each of them stands.”

Norman said there has been a lot of buzz in Austin about Enyia’s taxes. According to a recent Tribune article, Enyia omitted one-third of her income on her 2017 federal tax return.

“Of course, there’s a concern about how she is spending her own money,” Norman said. “How can she manage money as a public official? We have invested in a mayor who handles a lot of money, and she’s showing us how she handles her own money.”

In a moment that drew laughs from the crowd, the candidates were asked to answer “yes” or “no” about whether they would support the next mayor of Chicago if they lose the election.

Wilson responded, “I am the chosen one.” The question went down the line of candidates who all responded “yes,” except for Vallas, who chuckled and said, “I’ll support Willie if he is the chosen one.”

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