From left, Paul Vallas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Ald. Sophia King, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, activist Ja'Mal Green, U.S. Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and state Rep. Kam Buckner all raise their hands in agreement to follow rules set for speaking during a mayoral candidates' forum at Access Living Saturday. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Marking the start of a new phase in Chicago’s 2023 election, Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended her administration’s policies on people with disabilities and mental health issues at a Saturday forum.
The forum hosted by advocacy group Access Living was the first attended this cycle by Lightfoot and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García. Also in attendance were Ald. Sophia King, state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and activist Ja’Mal Green.
For much of the forum, the candidates focused on the issues instead of attacking one another or dropped anecdotes about their personal ties to people with disabilities. Lightfoot, for instance, noted that her father was deaf. García highlighted his wife’s multiple sclerosis and grandchildren in special education.
Three candidates — Johnson, Green, and Buckner — expressed support for a municipal sidewalk snowplow program, while Lightfoot touted her administration’s efforts to improve Chicago Transit Authority accessibility.
The mayor noted the city recently obtained a $185 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to rehab several of its CTA and Metra stations for disabled riders as well as mandating that stations that part of the ongoing Red-Purple Line modernization and a pending extension of the Red Line to 130th Street be accessible.
“All of the modernization that we’re doing across our system has a disability mandate,” Lightfoot said.
Regarding affordable housing, García vowed to use federal and local funds — including tax-increment financing revenue — to create grants and subsidized loans for homeowners to stay in neighborhoods that are rapidly gentrifying. He said the money would be used to making the homes more accessible, energy efficient and internet-connected.
“At the same time, I would streamline the process that nonprofit and other low-income housing developers want to undertake to build houses on Chicago’s South Side, on the West Side and other places,” García said.
Vallas, who has also led public school systems in New Orleans and Philadelphia, said he had the experience to eliminate teacher vacancies in CPS, particularly for special education. He proposed subsidizing student teachers to come into the classroom, expanding alternate certifications and allowing graduate students to earn credits by becoming certified teachers.
“I’ve run four of the largest school districts in four different states, and all had major vacancy issues,” Vallas said. “All those issues were eliminated.”
King had her own incentive plan to recruit and retain teachers. She said she would give them interest-free loans for new homes and floated selling vacant lots for some of the sites.
“Teachers are leaving now faster than we can keep them there,” King said. “They’re the one profession where we throw everything at their feet that we’re unable to resolve and ask them to do that. They need that incentive.”
Green pushed for policies to transition people returning to the city after being incarcerated, as well as for a pilot to give 10,000 Chicagoans living in poverty $1,000 a month. He also suggested creating a single-family mortgage bond fund to back 10,000 home loans each year.
On the topic of reentry services, however, Johnson sought to separate himself from other candidates as one who truly understands the depth of “our addiction around jails and incarceration.”
“The folks on this stage are not gonna be as clear as I am,” Johnson said. “We spend too much on jails and incarceration. And we over-utilize policing as a strategy and it’s failed.”
Johnson and Buckner both threw their support behind an advocacy coalition’s plan to raise the real estate transfer tax on homes over $1 million to fund services for the homeless, which Lightfoot campaigned on but has since opposed.
Buckner also backed the Peace Book ordinance that calls for more gun violence solutions without law enforcement and promised to establish four city-run mental health clinics that are open 24 hours a day, one each on the North, South and West sides and downtown.
“We hear a lot about where care should come from, and who provides care,” Buckner said. “Making Chicagoans choose between having private mental health care and public mental health care, it’s like saying we can’t have both libraries and bookstores. That makes no sense.”
But even though the forum largely stayed focused on issues, the candidates at times took shots at one another, though most of the criticism was pointed at Lightfoot as incumbent mayor.
King used her opening statement to criticize “this administration” for not being collaborative enough. And Johnson referenced a 2018 class-action lawsuit against CPS alleging disabled students with non-English speaking parents were discriminated against. That complaint was filed before Lightfoot’s election, but the district has continued to be plagued with complaints from advocacy groups for special education students.
“As a public school teacher, I can certainly tell you firsthand what it looks like to have schools that are disinvested in and, as mayor of Chicago, you’ll finally actually have a mayor when you elect me who actually believes in public education,” Johnson said. “And you certainly won’t have to sue my administration to get special education to cooperate with state guidelines.”
Lightfoot also faced criticism for her broken promise to reopen the mental health clinics closed by her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, which she rebutted by arguing for her alternative route of partnering with existing clinics not run by the city. All of Lightfoot’s challengers present at the forum, except García, vowed to reopen the shuttered clinics.
“When I entered office, there was a lot of conversation about reopening the mental health clinics,” Lightfoot said. “And I thought about that too, and argued for it. But then what I heard from the experts and what I heard from patients is that they didn’t want clinician care that our clinics offer. What they wanted was to be able to go to culturally relevant services in their neighborhood and that’s precisely what we’ve done.”