A Review of the Chicago Women’s Mayoral Forum
By Suzanne Hanney
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s closure of 50 Chicago public schools and an elected school board for Chicago were the top issues at the Chicago Women’s Mayoral Forum, one of the few public events for all five candidates in the February 24 mayoral election. The January 24 forum nearly filled the sanctuary and balcony of the First United Methodist Church at 77 W. Washington St.
“The toughest thing I have done is to make sure our kids do not continue to be enrolled in underperforming, under-enrolled schools,” Emanuel said as part of his explanation for the closures. “We put the technology in and dramatically increased Safe Passage so that parents have the confidence to send their kids to school. That’s why in the last year despite the worst winter weather, we had the best attendance we have had in decades.
“I took on a two-track system where half our kids were only getting two hours of kindergarten a day and now they will be getting a full day of kindergarten. We had 12,000 kids getting two hours a day. I believe if you looked at those kids, they would be the ones who need seven hours [of kindergarten] a day. I believe kids start dropping out of college in third grade. Our system was set up three years ago to have the shortest school day and the shortest school year in the country.” Now, however, the system is focused on a K-14 approach, where students who can achieve at least a B average can receive free community college, he said.
Moderator Cheryl Corley, who is NPR Chicago Bureau Chief, asked Emanuel if looking back, he wouldn’t have taken a different approach, such as closing fewer schools. The interchange followed a funny moment where Emanuel was trying to squeeze in his statement before her follow-up question.
“This is like dinner in the Emanuel household,” he said.
“Except we have only [bottles of] water,” Corley responded.
Emanuel said that his appointed task force of 12 community members had started with a list of 300 possible closures and then narrowed it down after a series of meetings across the city.
“Those kids were trapped in schools that were underperforming. We put the resources in the schools that needed to be fixed and gave them the technology.”
But did Chicago Public Schools save any money from the closures? Corley asked.
“Not in the first two years, we were too busy fixing other schools,” Emanuel responded.
Regarding the elected school board versus a board continued to be filled by mayoral appointees, “I don’t think we should trick people to think it’s a way of fixing schools,” Emanuel said. Local School Councils were already selecting principals in individual schools, he added.
Corley gave Emanuel two questions on income inequality and gentrification: “what is your plan to ensure people will be able to stay in the city?” She also asked whether more affordable housing might be needed in gentrifying neighborhoods than the Chicago Housing Authority’s traditional mix of one-third public housing, one-third housing affordable to working people and one-third private market.
“It goes to the challenges that Chicago is facing, that other cities are facing,” Emanuel said.
“First we passed the ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $13 an hour and second, we developed the CTA Red Line South. We are rebuilding the 95th Street station and we developed a food desert strategy. We are revitalizing our parks and library system so that now both are rated number one in the country….Housing is a piece of that strategy but not all. Housing without a grocery store within a mile or without minimum wage or a library or parks or mass transit system is not housing…all these things go toward creating a quality life.”
Emanuel cited the city’s five-year plan to do 40,000 units of affordable housing and also the recently passed Single Room Occupancy ordinance to preserve these smaller apartments for low-income people. He also justified his support for the $13 hour minimum wage over the $15 passed by Seattle, for example, because it was the decision of his appointed task force. “We waited for Springfield and I said if they don’t move on it, we [will] move on it,” he said of legislation by the Illinois General Assembly.
Emanuel also touted his changes in domestic violence policy. A new shelter is scheduled to open this spring or fall on the South Side. In addition, police in the 14th, 3rd and 2nd districts will be given training so that when officers deal with domestic disturbance calls, they will be more understanding of women’s issues and more willing to believe them, which will make the victims more ready to take steps toward independence, Emanuel said. The city budget also provides funds for wraparound services for 3,000 women, he said.
Each candidate appeared alone, with roughly 30 minutes to answer questions from Corley and to give opening and closing statements. Forum questions came from participants in the 20 Chicago women’s organizations that had come together to forge the Chicago Women’s Agenda.
Among the member groups were American Association of University Women, Chicago Area Women’s History Council, Chicago Women Take Action, Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Global Girl Media, Jobs for Justice, Mujeres Latinas en Accion, National Rainbow PUSH Coalition and National Council of Jewish Women Chicago North Shore Section.
Robert Fioretti grew up in the Roseland Pullman area, is now an attorney, was first appointed 2nd ward alderman in 2007 and was reelected in 2011. He is among the progressive aldermen on the Chicago City Council.
“I am running for mayor because I believe we are running in the wrong direction,” Fioretti said. “This election is about the heart and soul of our city. Do we want the same: big donors that fill campaign coffers? I want a Chicago that has safe streets and strong neighborhoods, a mayor who stands for everyone in the city….I believe in economic development outside the Loop. I was just in Englewood and we have to make sure the streets are safe for all, reopen our mental health clinics.”
Regarding the 50 CPS closures, Fioretti charged that “they were tone deaf toward keeping the schools open,” and said he favored a moratorium on closing schools.
And regarding the proposal that will be on the ballot in some wards, “I think we need an elected school board, not conflict of interests running amok,” he said.
Corley referred to the “brouhaha about different types of museums coming to Chicago” and asked Fioretti, “what is a realistic approach to long-term protection and maintenance of our public assets?”
“We need to protect our parks,” Fioretti responded. “I was the first one to say no to some billionaire George Lucas having some monument. Does he have a program or is he making it up as he goes along?”
Fioretti also charged the Emanuel administration with potentially failing to obtain the Obama presidential library by failing to look at the land use requirements of each Chicago bid.
“We all want the Obama library,” Fioretti said. “It just shows the bungling attempt of this administration. They should have assigned someone to each bid. The library should be here. It shouldn’t be in New York and it shouldn’t be in Hawaii. This is where everything happened for this president.”
In response to a question on human trafficking in Chicago as modern-day slavery, Fioretti said that every day, between 16,000 and 25,000 women are engaged in prostitution. He referred to a huge problem at Francisco and Madison and said he asked police to seize cars of pimps and johns.
And regarding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education and the learning gap for women, Fioretti said he would like to instead call it “STEAM,” with an additional emphasis on arts.
Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has been an alderman, a state senator, head of a community development corporation and now a Cook County Commissioner. Born in Mexico, he now lives in Pilsen/Little Village.
Garcia told the predominantly female audience about his strong mother, who taught literacy and brought his family to join his father in the U.S.; his 38-year marriage; and his three children (including a nearly 21-year-old daughter) who keep me grounded and I hope apprised of issues relating to women.”
Domestic violence education should begin in elementary school, he said, to teach that it is “unmanly and inhumane. We have to raise awareness of the existence of this problem.” He later pledged to make gender equality and diversity among his most important issues.
Corley questioned Garcia about his plans to stop expansion of charter schools, attended by 50,000 children. “Some say there should be oversight on charter schools,” she said, possibly a moratorium.
“I do think there should be until we can have a greater handle on what happens nationally,” he responded. “If we continue to drain resources, I feel it undermines the public education we have.”
Garcia had said that he did not oppose charters, especially good ones in his district. Many mediocre charters, however, attract top students from neighborhood schools, which undermines those schools. Some charters were unionized and others not, but all were originally supposed to be centers of innovation in public education, he said.
Garcia said also that he supported an elected school board “because I think there needs to be greater accountability.” The elected school board would be one of his first actions if he were elected mayor, he said.
Garcia said he favored a higher minimum wage than the administration’s $13 an hour, which would not go into effect until 2017. “Economic studies have shown that in order for people to be independent, that is a living wage. Raising the minimum economic purchasing power of these [predominantly working class people] will create greater economic stimulus.”
Corley introduced Willie L. Wilson as a self-made multimillionaire, a businessman who owns several McDonalds franchises as well as an international medical supply company and a production company that produces a nationally syndicated gospel show.
Wilson said his priorities would be first, economic empowerment, followed by education, public safety and “economic development and equal opportunity for all citizens regardless of color.
“I am very disappointed that this mayor closed down 50 schools. When you disenfranchise schools, you disenfranchise a generation,” he said.
Wilson proposed reopening Meigs Field, and creating a gambling casino, possibly on the water. He cited reports of casino parking lots in neighboring states filled with cars bearing Chicago city stickers. A casino could do $1 billion a year, he said.
Wilson said he would support the minimum wage, “as high as you can get it, $20 or $30 an hour.” He appeared to address more management jobs than hourly workers, however, as he referred to “businesses that females need to take a look at where you control your own life and your own family.”
Regarding paid family medical leave, another referendum item on the February 24 ballot, Wilson said “you need checks and balances. You have to set up a situation where if you are sick you can take it off, not be at a Bulls game.” The requirement of paid sick leave could mean costs passed on to senior citizens, he said, who are already facing rising costs of gas and food. Yet he also said that he once paid costs for an employee for two years and then another year after her child died.
Regarding handgun violence, Wilson said he would fire current Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and replace him with four district superintendents in an effort to get closer to the public. He would also bring more police out of squad cars and onto the subway and Elevated.
William “Dock” Walls was an aide to Mayor Harold Washington who ran against Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2007 and Rahm Emanuel in 2011. He is a graduate of Chicago Vocational High School, Tuskegee Institute and Illinois Institute of Technology/Kent College of Law.
“It hurts when I hear that 19 people got shot and only one person got arrested, that 97 percent of our young black men are not working,” Walls said of his reasons for running. Later, he addressed Corley’s question about his “perennial candidate” label by emphasizing the 10 percent of the vote he obtained in the election against Daley and the 1% against Emanuel, all at lower cost than other candidates.
He also criticized the closure of 50 schools, which he said should have been retained as multi-use educational buildings, whether for CPS regional offices or human services such close-at-hand therapy. And Chicago’s bond rating, he said, was lower than any other major city except Detroit. “When you do the research and recognize that Rahm Emanuel in his first year of office did not meet with [any community group], he only met with his banker friends.”
Walls also favored a school board elected at-large, with campaign financing restrictions “because it has to be the kind of school board where any educational activist has an opportunity to get elected.”
Walls said he would combat human trafficking by educating young women early on about the signs of sex slavery and abusive situations. Public Service Announcements “could make certain if schools miss the boat and parents miss the boat that we get the message out there that these young ladies are precious.”