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Chicago mayoral race puts spotlight on issues of justice long ignored

Photo by Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

It wasn’t your father’s mayoral forum.

Only five of the 18 announced candidates for mayor of Chicago in the 2019 contest were invited. Four were women.

Sponsors billed last week’s forum “The Great Displacement,” focusing on Chicago’s “existential crisis” — the disinvestment that has pushed tens of thousands of African American residents out of the city.


“The fact that we can even name a candidates’ forum at a major labor union about black displacement is a feat in itself,” Stacy Davis Gates exclaimed the next morning over coffee.

“Labor, standing in concert with the black community in the city — that’s significant,” added Gates, vice president and former political director of the Chicago Teachers Union. It signals, she said, a “new kind of democracy” in Chicago politics.

Held at CTU’s headquarters on the West Side, the forum drew about 500 people. It was sponsored by a coalition of progressive labor unions and community organizations, including the CTU, Grassroots Illinois Action, the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 11, SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, United Working Families, Cook County Colleges Teachers Union and Action Now, as well as others.

It was the culmination, she added, of years of “sustained organizing” around the 2012 school strike, school closings, the shutdown of mental health centers, the battle for a trauma care center on the South Side and, most recently, police reform in the wake of the murder of Laquan McDonald.

“It is all of the sustained effort,” she said, “since the strike in 2012 that opened Chicago up to this new type of democracy.”

The two top favored candidates in a recent “traditional” poll taken by the CTU were invited — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

To round out the field for the forum, organizers conducted a “grassroots” survey asking Chicago voters to text their choices. That added former Chicago Police Board Chairman Lori Lightfoot; Amara Enyia, president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce; and Paul Vallas, former Chicago Public School CEO.

The forum, Gates said, will leverage the groups’ power to “hold people accountable.”

There are “entire communities in Chicago that were built off the backs of county, city, state, and school workers,” she said. “It’s clear to me that the next mayor is going to have to have the clarity about investment and the expansion of the public sector for people who need it. Not for people who don’t need it.”

Like who?

“The center of the city is experiencing sustained growth in jobs sector in the jobs sector, and the South and West sides are either marginal or declining.”

In other words, it’s payback time.

Union workers and others, she said, have paid the taxes that should fund massive new investments in neighborhoods on the South and West sides that “have been neglected for generations.”

At the forum, candidates took shots at their opponents’ records and eagerly vowed to support affordable housing, economic equity and “progressive” new revenues to fund city services.

They’re all after the big prize — union endorsements and the electoral expertise, troops and cash that come with them.

Most of the big unions have yet to take sides in the race.

CTU members have been meeting regularly with mayoral candidates, she said. The House of Delegates eventually will vote on whether to endorse.

A CTU endorsement is likely, Gates said. “I would be very surprised if our members took a pass.”

Was the likely beneficiary on stage the other night? I asked.

She demurred.

I’ll bet she was.

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