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Contenders blast Chicago Mayor Lightfoot’s record in 1st debate

Chicago’s mayoral hopefuls took the gloves off during the first televised debate Thursday night, with candidates hitting each other with everything from accusations of plagiarism to lying about crime statistics.

The televised debate marked the first opportunity for all nine candidates to explain their positions to Chicago voters and draw contrasts with one another. Lightfoot, who is facing public concerns about crime, dissatisfaction with her leadership style and anger over some broken promises, often took the brunt of attacks as she sought to defend her record.

But candidates also focused their fire on U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson in an attempt to boost their own campaigns over the perceived frontrunners. And on the issue of the thousands of migrants being bused to Chicago from Republican states, García took some of the sharpest attacks of the night after highlighting his efforts in Congress to secure work authorizations for the asylum seekers.

“The federal government is not doing enough, so Congressman Garcia, we need you and your colleagues to step up, because this is a problem that falls in the laps of Washington, D.C.,” state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner said, adding that it took far too long — 150 days — for an asylum seeker to receive a work permit, and that “permanent supportive housing programs for these people” needed to be “ramped up.”

Lightfoot spent much of the debate going after Vallas. Asked how the city would continue caring for asylum seekers with limited funding allocated from the state, Vallas said Lightfoot should stop “baiting” other governors and grandstanding while proclaiming Chicago is a sanctuary city.

“I think I just heard Paul Vallas say that we should not call out racist, xenophobic practices of governors like (Texas’) Greg Abbott, who are treating migrants like freight. Well, that may be your idea of a welcoming city, it’s not my idea,” Lightfoot shot back, adding that she was continuing to push the federal government to issue asylum seekers work permits “so these people can take care of themselves and live independently.”

On the topic of public safety, Lightfoot acknowledged people don’t feel safe but said crime is down year over year and she won’t rest until Chicago is the safest big city in the country. In response to a question on keeping street vendors safe, the mayor also said the city had been “in Little Village, working with those vendors hand in glove” to make sure that they were protecting themselves, including “not using cash and making sure that the cash that they do take in is secure.”

“We’ve made progress year-over-year, ending down 14% in homicides, 20% in shootings, but I recognize that people in the city don’t feel safe,” Lightfoot said, promising to continue focusing on getting guns off the street, hiring more officers, and “holding violent, dangerous people accountable.”

Activist Ja’Mal Green, however, criticized her for cherry-picking the data and noted that violent crime is up from before she took office. Murders at the end of 2022 were up 40% compared to 2019, according to the Chicago Police Department’s year-end report, and shooting incidents are up 32%.

“How do we allow the mayor to continue to lie about the numbers?” Green said.

On crime, businessman Willie Wilson reiterated his criticism that there are too many restrictions on Chicago police officers and said people who run from cops should be “hunted down like rabbits.”

While other candidates focused on fully funding the police department, Johnson drew the sharpest contrast, saying they were too focused on the same old tough-on-crime approach. He also dismissed Garcia’s public safety plan released this month, repeating the Lightfoot campaign’s recent line of attack that the congressman was copying her ideas.

“All due respect to Congressman Garcia, he did not release a public safety plan,” Johnson said. “He released Lori Lightfoot’s public safety plan. As a teacher, I would call that plagiarism.”

Ald. Sophia King said Johnson’s solution to invest “in people will not get to the immediacy of crime” but pivoted to accuse Lightfoot of being slow to spend the $85 million it had allocated to violence prevention in last year’s budget. Her crime plan, she said, would “put police in the communities where they’re needed the most.”

Johnson also took a shot at Vallas, who supports school choice, for his tenure presiding over CPS’ expansion of charter schools.

“When Paul Vallas was in charge of public schools, he further stratified our public schools, leaving our schools without the necessary support they need,” Johnson said.

Vallas responded that Johnson “continues to confuse me with other superintendents,” while arguing that CPS must reduce bloat in the central offices and funnel that money toward local schools, saying the current spending per pupil is not paying off.

Lightfoot’s expansion of the youth curfew from last year also drew criticism from Buckner, who said, “The young people of Chicago have been traumatized, and this administration has made it worse.”

“When young people in Chicago were crying out for resources, this mayor, this administration gave them curfews,” Buckner said. “We couldn’t even keep pools open in the summertime.”

Chicago’s park district struggled to hire lifeguards last summer after a sex abuse scandal, leading to fewer activity options for city youth. Lightfoot also put a youth curfew into effect around Millennium Park in the wake of 16-year-old’s fatal shooting near the Bean sculpture.

King spoke of her love of the city but said it’s at a “pivotal point” and claimed Lightfoot only represents “segregated parts of it.” King repeated that leaders “have to stop these false narratives that separate us,” like that Chicagoans can’t have both safety and justice.

On the topic of transportation, all candidates except Lightfoot decried the state of the Chicago Transit Authority.

“Whether it’s access, maintenance, or for that matter, cleanliness, the CTA has failed across the board and it needs new leadership,” Vallas said, suggesting he would remove CTA President Dorval Carter. He has called for the CTA to cease using private security and use that money to instead hire more Chicago police officers to patrol the transit system.

Lightfoot scoffed.

“We do have uniformed officers on the CTA,” she said, noting that they’ve also added “canine patrols at the fare box,” where she says CTA crime often starts.

“We need to make sure that we are accurate in the things that we say and not spew soundbites that have no basis in facts,” Lightfoot said, who later added: “I want to finish the job that we have started.”

Buckner, however, likened the K-9 units on the CTA to segregationist “George Wallace’s Alabama” in the 1960s. Saying “the CTA is broken and we have to find a way to fix it,” Buckner promised “no more ghost buses” or “ghost CTA presidents,” a reference to Carter declining to appear multiple times in front of the Chicago City Council.

Wilson suggested lowering CTA fares as a way to bring more riders back.

In response to a question about the opioid crisis and drug addiction, Lightfoot said she agreed with Garcia’s declaration that the city needs to collaborate more with other governments. But she said her administration is already doing that.

“Congressmen Garcia, you must have missed that when you were cutting deals with Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto crook, Mike Madigan, the indicted speaker,” Lightfoot said, attacking Garcia for receiving campaign contributions from the disgraced FTX founder as well as for his former alliance with the now-indicted ex-Illinois House speaker who became embroiled in a ComEd bribery scandal. Garcia has said he did not know of either figure’s involvement in their respective alleged crimes.

Near the end, candidates were asked one of the toughest questions of the night: How they could pay for their proposals, and whether they would raise taxes to do it.

Garcia said he “helped deliver for Chicago” almost $2 billion in federal funds “that has kept the city afloat.” He pledged to “get the economic engine of the city firing on all cylinders again,” but did not say how, only that it could be done “without raising taxes.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer agreed with Buckner that the city needs a “robust plan to repopulate the city,” but “we do it by also having a responsible financial plan.” He would not guarantee that “I would not ever raise taxes, because again, that’s how we got here in the first place, ‘Hey, we don’t have to pay taxes. Hey, we don’t have to pay pension obligations.’”

“We have to grow, grow, grow,” to 3 million residents by the next Census in 2030, Buckner said. But until then, he said the city had to address its pension debt and pushing Springfield for more funding. “I can do that on day one as mayor and make that happen.” Johnson noted he had helped “balance multibillion dollar budgets as a Cook County commissioner, and we didn’t have to raise taxes” while still making critical investments.

“One hundred percent, we are not raising taxes,” Green said. “I mean, we have been taxed almost out of town.”

Beyond the barbs and platitudes, challengers offered few specifics of how they would pay for some of their proposals on matters like public safety and more investment in neighborhoods and social services.

Asked what they should do to prevent the Chicago Bears from leaving Soldier Field, Wilson said, “Bring another team here.”

Lightfoot said she has presented potential plans to put a dome over Soldier Field and she thinks the team is “interested.” Just this week, Bears chairman George McCaskey said the racetrack property remains the team’s “singular focus.”

Although the debate featured an onslaught of criticism between candidates, it had small moments of levity. Johnson corrected Vallas for calling him “Dr. Johnson” and quipped that the extra degree “added $100,000 to my student loans.”

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