A different kind of pledge of allegiance

Mayoral candidates promise free college tuition, free transit, and more

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By Michael Romain

Editor

The local community organizers of a Jan. 16 Chicago mayoral forum, held at New Mount Pilgrim MB Church, 4301 W. Washington Blvd., forced the five candidates who showed up into what may have been the tightest corner any have been backed into so far this election cycle. The organizers gave the candidates virtually no room for rhetorical maneuvering. 

Before a standing-room-only audience of nearly 1,000 people, candidates were each asked if they would sign a pledge that would tether them to "Reimagine Chicago," the platform created by the forum's host, the Grassroots Collaborative — which comprises more than two dozen local, progressive community organizations across the city, including West Side organizations like the Leaders Network and Westside Rising.

Lori Lightfoot, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, Amara Enyia, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and businessman Willie Wilson attended the forum. All of them, except for Wilson, signed the pledge. 

If elected, the candidates who signed the pledge promised, they would meet with the Reimagine Chicago coalition before Inauguration Day to discuss priorities, include a representative from the Reimagine Chicago Coalition on the transition team and keep the commitments they made and uphold the issue positions each took during the Jan. 16 forum. 

Earlier in the forum, after the candidates were each given one minute to respond to questions posed in each of five issue areas — affordable housing, education, sanctuary and reimaging safety, economy and jobs, and revenue — they participated in a lightning round of seven questions and were required to limit their answers to simple yes or no responses. 

As mayor, each was asked, will you "reopen the mental health clinics that Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed in 2011 and invest an additional $25 million of city funds in mental health care?"

Will you "move away from student-based budgeting at Chicago Public Schools and toward an equitable funding formula that takes into account factors like bilingual education, special education, poverty trauma and teacher experience?" 

Will you "support free college tuition for all Chicago residents, including undocumented students, at Chicago City Colleges?" 

Will you "abolish the gang database that racially profiles our communities," activists asked, adding that the database is a list of 195,000 city residents (97 percent of whom are black and Latinx), "tagged" as gang members, who "suffer harsh consequences, including loss of job opportunities, harsher sentencing, and, for immigrants, detention and deportation?" 

Will you "publicly call for the delay of any action" on two new "mega-TIFs" that Emanuel is proposing that will "cost Chicagoans $1.6 billion?" 

Will you "reinstate free transit on CTA for seniors and create free transit for you up to age 24?"

And finally, will you "publicly call on City Council to halt any votes" related to the proposed $95 million police and fire training academy the city is planning to build on the West Side? 

All of the candidates, including Wilson, answered "Yes," with many adding their own flourishes ("Yes, and more," Lightfoot said in response to whether she would reopen mental health clinics and invest an additional $25 million of public funds into mental health care). 

The West Side forum was yet another exercise for the candidates in jockeying for influence and competitive advantage among the city's most progressive, leftist constituencies. 

With so little policy disagreement, some candidates sought to distinguish themselves among the crowd by emphasizing their progressive bona fides and track record of legislative accomplishment. 

But the forum facilitators made sure the lives of the candidates would not take precedence over the lives of the many marginalized residents who were in attendance. Before the candidates were asked to respond to each issue area, a member of one of the organizations affiliated with the Grassroots Collaborative gave testimony that reduced the abstract issue topics to human scale. 

Anthony Stewart, a co-founder of Black Workers Matter and a member of Westside Rising, spoke about his experience as a cook on a cruise ship owned by new Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. 

"Sometimes, when I get off work in the middle of the night, it takes two hours for me to get home," he said. "First by el, then by bus and then I have to walk. I would love to see jobs in our community, but instead of investing in our community to create those jobs, we see our property taxes diverted by the mayor to politically connected developers for property outside our community and in some of the richest neighborhoods." 

Many of the candidates offered solutions from the Reimagine Chicago platform (see the opposing page). Organizers said they'll hold the candidates who signed the pledges to their word. For those who did not sign the pledge, organizers said, they'll keep the pressure on.

"For us, this is not fun and games, but this is a matter of life and death," said Rev. Marshall Hatch, the pastor of Mount Pilgrim. "We want a next mayor who will tear down the tale of two cities in Chicago and make sure all of God's children have a right to the tree of life." 

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com   

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