Lightfoot paints rosy view of future in first TV debate — but eight rivals slam thorny past

The mayor acknowledged “people in the city don’t feel safe,” but urged voters to stick with her for a second term. But her rivals slammed her over high crime rates.

Mayoral candidates
Mayoral candidates (from left) community activist Ja’Mal Green, Ald. Sophia King (4th), state Rep. Kam Buckner, businessman Wille Wilson, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), and U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, get ready to participate in a debate at WLS-TV ABC Channel 7’s studio Thursday evening. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times
Mayoral candidates
Mayoral candidates (from left) community activist Ja’Mal Green, Ald. Sophia King (4th), state Rep. Kam Buckner, businessman Wille Wilson, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), and U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, get ready to participate in a debate at WLS-TV ABC Channel 7’s studio Thursday evening. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Lightfoot paints rosy view of future in first TV debate — but eight rivals slam thorny past

The mayor acknowledged “people in the city don’t feel safe,” but urged voters to stick with her for a second term. But her rivals slammed her over high crime rates.

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A crime-ridden metropolis in desperate need of an overhaul as taxpayers and business owners flee — or a city emerging from the pandemic with promising investments and a plan for improved public safety?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot offered a view of Chicago that often diverged from the versions offered up by her eight challengers as they sparred Thursday during the first televised debate ahead of the Feb. 28 mayoral election.

“I don’t know what city these folks live in,” Lightfoot said, gesturing across an ABC 7 Chicago studio packed with mayoral hopefuls who repeatedly slammed her administration over high crime rates they argued have scared families and companies away from the city.

“But the one that I live in, international household names are coming to Chicago,” Lightfoot said, ticking off a few major corporations she said “could be anywhere in the world, but they’re coming here and making significant investments.”

The mayor acknowledged “people in the city don’t feel safe,” but later urged voters to stick with her for a second term. “We have started to change Chicago around for the better.”

But the wide-ranging 90-minute debate — co-hosted by the Leagues of Women Voters of Chicago and Illinois along with Univision Chicago — continually circled back to the crime issue.

“If we don’t have safe communities in good schools, companies and people are going to continue to leave our city,” said Ald. Sophia King (4th).

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a Chicago Teachers Union organizer who said a bullet recently went through a window of his family’s West Side home, called for greater investments in youth employment programs instead of stepping up police officer hiring, a concept pushed by most other candidates.

“This so called toughness — do you feel any safer? That’s why you have to be tough and smart,” Johnson said.

Wilson: ‘Hunt them down like a rabbit’

Millionaire businessman Willie Wilson took the opposite tack, suggesting Lightfoot, former president of the Chicago Police Board, needs to “take the handcuffs off the police” and let them go harder after suspects.

“Somebody run, chase somebody by foot or car, that police officer should be able to chase them down and hunt them down like a rabbit,” Wilson said.

Community organizer Ja’Mal Green bristled after Lightfoot noted homicides and shootings dipped in 2022 compared to the previous two years.

“It was a 25-year high. … Of course we’re going to have some sort of a decrease,” Green said. “She has not been connected to the neighborhoods or to what’s going on on the ground.”

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who also served as city budget director under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, said the CTA has “failed across the board” under the Lightfoot administration.

“Blame it on crime, blame it on the perception that the CTA’s unsafe. … At the end of the day, public safety on the CTA has to be a top priority,” Vallas said, calling for more uniformed police officers on the transit system.

The incumbent fired back that “Mr. Vallas clearly hasn’t ridden the CTA … in a very long time because we do have uniformed officers on the CTA bus and rail, and we’ve increased them steadily over the course of the last year.”

South Side state Rep. Kam Buckner piled on the private security strategy on the transit system.

“Spending $30 million on security dogs like this is 1960’s George Wallace’s Alabama is a problem. We got to find a different way to do this,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, reprising his upstart bid against former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015, said “we can stop the bleeding by making Chicago a safer city. My public safety plan gets to the heart of how we do that.”

‘Grandstanding’ or calling out ‘racist, xenophobic practices’?

Outside of general complaints about Lightfoot, there were few direct attacks among the candidates — except when it came to the influx of undocumented migrants being bused to Chicago over the past few months.

Vallas told Lightfoot to “stop grandstanding” over the issue.

“You can’t basically grandstand and say, ‘We’re a sanctuary city, we’re inviting everybody in.’ And then not have a plan for dealing with people when they do come in,” he said.

Lightfoot accused Vallas of arguing that “we should not call out racist, xenophobic practices of governors like [Texas Gov.] Greg Abbott, who are treating migrants like freight.

“Well, that may be your idea of a welcoming city. It’s not my idea,” Lightfoot said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said “all Chicagoans want to assist those that are being mistreated down in the southern states, in Texas.” But he said Lightfoot’s office came up short on “conversation and collaboration” when it came to sharing plan to use a shuttered Woodlawn elementary school as a shelter.

Lightfoot also went after Garcia after he highlighted the need “to be collaborative, to get together and convene other leaders to figure out strategies” to combat the opioid crisis.

“I agree that we need collaboration at all levels of government,” the mayor responded. “Congressman Garcia, you must have missed that when you were cutting deals with Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto crook, [and] Mike Madigan, the indicted [Illinois House] speaker and cutting red-light camera deals, because we are doing that.”

A rare moment of levity came after Vallas accidentally referred to Johnson as “Dr. Johnson,” a misstatement that Johnson quipped “increased my student loans by $100,000.”

In a lightning round series of responses over how to deal with the Chicago Bears potentially ditching Soldier Field for a new home in Arlington Heights, Lightfoot, Garcia, Johnson, King and Green said they’d lobby to keep the team lakeside. Buckner, Sawyer and Vallas suggested they were resigned to the team leaving for the suburbs — and Wilson said he’d try to “bring another team here.”

Wilson entered the home stretch of the mayor’s race with the largest political warchest at his disposal, with about $4.1 million for his self-funded campaign.

Lightfoot closed the final quarter of 2022 with $1.4 million in her campaign fund, though she’s spent money about twice as fast as she’s managed to raise it.

Johnson, backed by several major unions, had $1.3 million in the bank, about the same as Garcia. Vallas had $1.1 million, with the other candidates well behind on the fundraising scorecard.

The full debate will be re-aired on ABC 7 at 10:30 p.m. Sunday. It’s also available on the station’s website.

The debate will be aired with Spanish translation at 4 p.m. Sunday on UNIMAS (WXFT-TV).