Friday, March 24, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Chicago mayoral candidates square off in televised debate

The 90-minute debate between Chicago's nine mayoral candidates was centered mostly on the topics of crime and public safety.

CHICAGO (CN) — The nine candidates hoping to be Chicago's next mayor met on a crowded debate stage Thursday night, a little more than a month before election day.

The debate, hosted by local news studio ABC7 Chicago and moderated by ABC7 anchor Judy Hsu, touched on issues from public transit to property taxes, but the real focus of the night was on crime and policing. While both the city's shooting and homicide rates decreased in 2022, economic crimes such as burglary and car theft are on the rise. One figure from the Chicago Police Department claims that car theft alone doubled in 2022 compared to 2021.

The candidates on Thursday night — Incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, Democratic U.S. House Rep. Jesus "Chuy" García (IL-4), Democratic Illinois House Rep. Kam Buckner, Chicago City Councilors Sophia King and Roderick Sawyer, local activist Ja'Mal Green and businessman Willie Wilson — each sounded off at various points of the night to stress that they would work to make Chicago a safer city, even when the questions offered by ABC7 Chicago reporter Craig Wall and Univision Chicago anchor Enrique Rodriguez attempted to move the discussion elsewhere.

The major split among candidates on that front was over their willingness to maintain or even increase police funding. Despite the rising crime rates, the memory of 2020 and the legacy of decades of systemic police brutality still figure prominently in Windy City politics; politics in which the city's nascent socialist and progressive movements have a foothold. Most candidates on Thursday tried to walk a careful line on police, voicing general support for the department while shying away from any specific promise to raise or cut their funding.

The two standouts in this regard were Brandon Johnson and Willie Wilson, who broke to the left and right of the pack respectively. Johnson, a public school teacher who has the support of several labor unions in the city, including the left-leaning Chicago Teachers Union, argued that increasing the police budget won't necessarily make the city safer. He pointed out that Chicago has one of the most well-funded police departments in the country — roughly $1.9 billion in 2022 — and yet crime persists.

"We spend more on policing, per capita, than anywhere else in the country," Johnson said. "And yet we're not safe."

Johnson instead argued that to truly fight crime, the city needed to invest more in its low-income communities and boost employment rates among Chicago youth.

"You actually have to invest in people. It's pretty straightforward. There's a direct correlation between youth employment and violence reduction."

While a 2020 report from data journalism outlet Statista found it's actually Baltimore that spends the most per capita on its police out of all major U.S. cities, Chicago still ranked third behind it and New York City.

Contrasting Johnson's comments, Wilson argued not only for increasing police funding but for loosening regulations on their behavior. He said under his watch police would be able to "hunt [criminals] down like rabbits."

"A lot of these rules take the handcuffs to policemen," Wilson said. "They're afraid to arrest somebody for fear that they're going to be arrested themselves."

Loosening restrictions on police may not be feasible given that the Chicago Police Department has been operating under a federal court-ordered consent decree, meant to reform their worst historical behavior, since 2019. It may not even be necessary, given that many Chicagoans and civil rights organizations have accused the CPD of slow-walking their progress in making those reforms.

But Wilson is not one to shy away from outlandish statements and controversial acts. The self-funded, millionaire independent made headlines earlier in 2022 when he spent over $1 million of his own wealth to offer free fuel to drivers at gas stations across the city.

But while that act of charity undoubtedly won him the gratitude of many Chicago motorists, Wilson is likely not the biggest threat to incumbent Mayor Lightfoot. He is a perennial Chicago mayoral candidate, having run — and lost — in both 2015 and 2019. A Chicago Index Poll from Jan. 5 predicted he will see another loss in 2023, taking less than 5% of the total vote.

Instead, Lightfoot's biggest challengers thus far are Johnson, García and Vallas. According to the Index Poll, Johnson and García both command roughly 25% of the vote. Vallas, the race's only white male candidate, is sitting at 15%, while Lightfoot herself trails at just 11%.

This despite beating all three of her rivals in personal fundraising, having raised $1.49 million and spent about $3 million in the last quarter of 2022. By contrast García raised $1.48 million and spent just a little over $151,000 in the last quarter, While Vallas raised $1.13 million and spent slightly more than $840,000. Most of Johnson's funding is supplied by the unions that have endorsed him.

Polling at 11% is an especially cutting blow for Lightfoot given that García and Johnson both lean further left than she does, despite her running as a progressive reformer in 2019.

In fact Lightfoot's general unlikability has been a major criticism of her mayoral tenure. Since being elected she has earned the reputation of being difficult to work with; often quarrelling with alderpersons during city council meetings and getting into repeated scrapes with both the city's progressive public sector unions and its conservative police organizations. It's a criticism she's acknowledged herself in her campaign ads.

Lightfoot continued on the offensive several times Thursday night, including to criticize García for his 2022 congressional campaign accepting a $2,900 contribution from alleged cryptocurrency fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried. But she also defended her achievements as mayor, touting the sale of the city's controversial Thompson Center to Google, the establishment of several affordable housing developments across the city, and the creation of a pilot program that sends social workers and therapists — not police — to respond to mental health crises.

"I want to finish the job that we have started. And what we have seen is a better and safer, more equitable city," Lightfoot said in her closing remarks Thursday night. "There's more work to be done, and I want to get there with you."

Mayoral election day in Chicago is set for this coming Feb. 28. However, if no candidate manages to secure 50% of the vote, the top two candidates will continue to a run-off election on April 4.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.