Hundreds of Chicagoans from Belmont Cragin to the southeast side packed an auditorium at the University of Illinois at Chicago on Saturday—many of them arriving from their neighborhoods in yellow school buses— to hear the city’s mayoral candidates talk about their plans for helping neighborhoods, which they say have been left out of Chicago’s growth.
The forum was organized by the One Chicago for All Alliance, a coalition of more than 30 community development groups. The goal was to put neighborhood issues front and center in a race with 15 candidates and no shortage of hot issues, from corruption to policing.
Inside the auditorium, the scene looked like a political convention, attendees sitting with their neighborhood delegations, tall signs designating the communities residents hailed from.
“We are here to send a message to the candidates that our communities—they matter,” said Karina Ayala-Bermejo, president and CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino, which runs education and job training programs for kids and adults on the southwest side.
The sort of community organizing Chicago is famous for was on full display. The candidates—12 of them—leaned into the topic.
“I was born in a neighborhood, I’m from a neighborhood, I understand neighborhoods, and I am committed to putting neighborhoods first,” vowed Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.
Many of the candidates articulated what organizers would define as the heart of the problem: “We see the success in downtown, we see the success in many neighborhoods of our city. The biggest challenge is how to spread that out,” said Bill Daley, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and brother to former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Organizers’ goal was to get candidates to offer concrete plans for increasing investment in needy neighborhoods and expanding economic development—increasing employment, attracting more capital to disinvested communities, and expanding opportunities for lower-income entrepreneurs. Candidates were also asked how they’d ensure immigrants are not only safe but thriving in Chicago, and what they would do to address the city’s troubled police department.
Ideas from the candidates included turning vacant buildings into affordable housing, banning the boot, putting social services and job training centers into closed schools, and forcing banks to invest more in neighborhoods.
“The excitement right now with Lincoln Yards? Where is it around the city? We need to bring it around the city,” said Gery Chico, who said local businesses—and the activity they draw— are an antidote to crime. Chico was board president of Chicago Public Schools and chair of Chicago City Colleges.
Attorney John Kozlar suggested Chicago use Little League teams as a model to reduce violence. “If we could have a Little League baseball, football, softball, we could have Little League doctors or Little League attorneys or Little League carpenters,” Kozlar said.
The candidates were not allowed to talk about their opponents, only their own agenda. And the audience wasn’t allowed to boo or clap. Instead, people were given green paper cards to wave when they liked an idea, and red cards to show when they disagreed.
Promises to improve schools were popular, filling the hall with a sea of waving green cards. “Parents should not have to go and try to get into a magnet school for their children to get a good education. Every school should be at a magnet school level,” said Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown.
Calls to end city fees, fines and taxes that hit the poor particularly hard also saw widespread support.
Former Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy said Chicago needs to have “a very difficult discussion about race,” arguing there are root causes for Chicago’s problems that must be addressed. “We have to talk about slavery, black codes, segregation, Jim Crow, redlining. That’s what put us in this position,“ he said.
Community organizer Amara Enyia said at stake in the Feb. 26 election is who can afford to live in the city, as housing and other costs go up.
“Who gets to call themselves a Chicagoan? Who deserves to be here?” she asked. She said the choice voters make “will determine the face of the city for the next 50 to 100 years.”
There was a distinct premise behind this forum: there’s a social and economic cost to inequity in the city. No candidate openly disagreed with that.
Organizers say the hundreds of people who came out represent neighborhoods with one million residents, and lots of potential voters.