CHICAGO - What are the most urgent issues Chicago's new mayor must address? That question was mulled by over 2000 grassroots community activists who gathered Dec. 14 at the UIC Forum in a political style convention. With candidates seated on stage, participants outlined issues, posed questions and eagerly heard the candidates respond.
The unique event was organized by New Chicago 2011, a coalition representing 30 grassroots groups. It exuded a hopeful air that with a new mayor could come a new era of governance capable of addressing people's needs.
Conspicuous by his absence was Rahm Emanuel, who declined to attend (to great boos when it was announced). Emanuel was stuck in a 12 hour hearing to determine if he was a resident of the city and qualified to be on the ballot.
The new mayor faces monumental challenges: high joblessness, mammoth budget deficits, public education and public transit in crisis, a lack of affordable housing and street gang violence.
Throughout the meeting, bitter resentment was expressed over the creation of two Chicagos by outgoing Mayor Daley's policies: one for the wealthy downtown and the other in underserved and struggling working class neighborhoods.
"We are looking for transparency, accountability and community participation in our government," said Michaela Purdue of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. "We want resources based on equity and need and not discrimination and clout."
"Our main concern is gang violence and making our neighborhoods safe for our children," said Olivia Caballeros of the Brighton Park Community Council. "We need more police patrols especially when kids get out of school."
Jeanette Taylor Smith is a member of the Local School Council at Mollison Elementary School. She blasted Mayor Daley's school privatization and said "change has been imposed on us, and it's not happening with us."
When asked where money could come from to address the crisis problems, Lizzette Castaneda of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association pointed to the hundreds of millions of dollars diverted into the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) accounts.
The candidates had a variety of ideas to address the jobs crisis, but no one suggested federal intervention. City Clerk Miguel del Valle called for the creation of a Chicago Youth Corps and promoting small business development.
Former US Senator and US Ambassador to New Zealand Carol Moseley Braun called for a greater role for community banks. She, State Senator Rev. James Meeks and former Chicago Schools CEO Gery Chico all said jobs were connected to improving education. Dr. Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins called for utilizing Chicago's status as a leading rail hub.
When asked if they would support a living wage ordinance to cover big retailers, Meeks, who had brokered a controversial deal to build a new Wal-Mart in the Roseland community, maintained he didn't support Wal-Mart until they agreed to pay a decent wage, but some in the crowd still responded with boos.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), who opposed the building of a Wal-Mart in Chicago's Austin community, said he introduced living wage ordinances while in the city council and as a member of the Cook County Commission and still supports it.
Del Valle drew the sharpest contrast with Emanuel, who polls show is the front runner. On school reform, Del Valle said, "we can't continue to set up parallel systems of education, on one track selective enrollment, magnets and charters, on the other track neighborhood schools. It's time to strengthen neighborhood schools."
All the candidates expressed support for immigration reform. Braun said "people shouldn't be hunted down because of their status."
Davis, a sponsor of the DREAM Act, vowed to continue giving leadership nationally. He said "America is big enough, wealthy enough to be a refuge for those coming from around the world."
Del Valle accused Emanuel of being the chief obstacle to immigration reform while in Congress and as President Obama's chief of staff. That drew the loudest applause of the evening.
When asked if he supported the organization of teachers at public charters schools, Davis said he supported "the organization of any entity whether it's a charter school, charter church or charter bakery. Workers need to be organized to get the protection and wages they deserve."
The debates among the candidates and discussions among voters will continue until the Feb. 22 primary. But this was a night for the people.
Photo: City Clerk Miguel del Valle. John Bachtell/PW