In a sea of mayoral candidate forums this winter, one held Thursday stands apart because of who led the way in asking the questions: Students. And these teens held nothing back.
In a forum at Whitney Young Magnet High School Thursday, students commanded the stage, peppering the 11 candidates with questions on recently-released contract demands by the Chicago Teachers Union, on moving to an elected school board, on a new police training academy facility and on whether they support legalizing marijuana.
Nearly the entire field turned out for Thursday’s event at the Near West Side selective enrollment school. At least 13 candidates are expected to be on the Feb. 26 ballot.
The 11 candidates agreed on many topics — they sang a chorus of yeses when asked if they supported legalizing recreational marijuana — but key distinctions emerged.
Take the Chicago Teachers Union. The union is set to begin negotiating its next contract with Chicago Public Schools and it publicly released contract demands this week, asking for a 5 percent raise and a big drop in class sizes to no more than 24 students. The CTU contract expires June 30 and the next mayor will most certainly play a key role in shaping and finalizing any new deal.
Several candidates expressed skepticism.
“Teachers are critically important to the health and well-being of our city, not just because of the role they play in educating kids, but they are part of the middle-class fabric of the city,” said Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor. “But we can’t negotiate and give away dollars we don’t have.”
And then there was this from Garry McCarthy, the former Chicago police superintendent: “We need to lift teachers up as the respected individuals that they should be. And … I also believe that if the CTU spent half as much time putting their efforts into making sure teachers teach, instead of their politics, we’d be in a much better place.”
The candidates also spoke out forcefully — and disagreed — on an elected school board and on the possibility of more school closings.
Most supported switching Chicago from a school board appointed by the mayor to a fully elected board, with Austin Chamber of Commerce director Amara Enyia insisting that school board has a history "that has been rife with corruption.”
But there were dissenters, with former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and former Chicago Public Schools board president Gery Chico arguing in favor of a board that mixes elected and appointed members.
The candidates also disagreed over the need for a new $95 million police training academy in West Garfield Park, answering a question from a student who said she was one of the organizers of a movement called No Cop Academy to scuttle that proposed facility.
McCarthy and Lightfoot came out strongly against it while Mendoza and Former CPS CEO Paul Vallas defended the need for more police training and were open a new facility somewhere in Chicago.
When they weren’t talking policy, the candidates tried to try to connect with their teen questioners and the audience of mostly Whitney Young students.
Attorney John Kozlar, who is the youngest candidate at 30 years old, repeatedly stressed his youth as one of his greatest assets, though he didn’t win many over after saying he only supported legalized marijuana for adults but not teens. Near the end of the forum, McCarthy took it upon himself to remind Kozlar that he too will get old one day.
After the forum, several students said the event was just what Whitney Young seniors needed.
“We all live in Chicago, and someone on this stage is going to be our next mayor,” said junior Thomas Stanton. “So we wanted to make sure that Whitney Young seniors, many whom will be able to vote, we wanted them to be able to see what their choices are, and also [we] wanted them to see how important it is to get involved in the political process.”
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