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EDITORIAL: Five weeks to dig deep with Lightfoot and Preckwinkle

Mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot, left, and Toni Preckwinkle, right. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Finally, it’s time for the thoughtful conversation our city has yet to have.

Two good candidates, Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, will face off on April 2 to be the next mayor of Chicago. Both are qualified. Both are thinkers. Both have the ability, and now the opportunity, to engage in a substantive debate about the best solutions to the biggest problems facing our city.

EDITORIAL

That conversation was impossible until Tuesday. With 14 candidates in the race, nobody in a public debate was about to get in more than a few sound bites. It just wasn’t going to happen, though many of the candidates, to their credit, gave it a try.

There was nothing quite so sad as watching Paul Vallas try to explain an eight-point plan to improve the schools in 60 seconds.

But now it’s just Lightfoot, the stern former federal prosecutor whom this editorial page has endorsed, versus Preckwinkle, the stern former schoolteacher. They will argue over who’s the real progressive. And who’s really an independent. And who’s the real reformer. And who’s actually done anything.

And it shouldn’t take much pushing, both candidates being natural-born policy wonks, to get them to dig deeply into the city’s most pressing issues.

We’ll all want to listen closely.

The overriding threat to Chicago, as we see it, is the disappearance of the city’s middle class, which we wrote about on Wednesday. Within that larger context, the next mayor — Lightfoot or Preckwinkle — will have to grapple with an array of major challenges, including these big three: city finances, the quality of the schools and better police work.

Finances:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel did an admirable job of finding stable revenue sources for the city’s four major employee pension funds. That said, the city still is on the hook for $42 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Where will that money come from, assuming Lightfoot or Preckwinkle stick to a pledge not to reduce pension benefits for current retirees or employees?

Both candidates are banking on Chicago pulling in a good chunk of money from a new graduated state income tax, which could be in the works. Beyond that, they basically have pulled their punches with painless solutions such as taxes on recreational marijuana and a proposed Chicago casino.

Preckwinkle has been vague on her views of a property tax hike, while Lightfoot says she would oppose a hike until the “property tax system is fixed.” So where really does Preckwinkle stand? And how does Lightfoot define “fixed”?

Schools:

On the one hand, Chicago’s public schools have made remarkable academic progress during Emanuel’s tenure as mayor. On the other hand, Chicagoans complain of inequities in those gains, with some schools doing terrifically and others doing poorly.

At the heart of the debate, in Chicago and across the nation, is whether privately operated charter schools, which give students and their parents more options, should be promoted over traditional neighborhood schools. This editorial page favors a freeze on new charter schools in Chicago, as do both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot. Preckwinkle also wants to declare a moratorium on more school closings.

Both candidates favor an elected school board, instead of an appointed board, and Lightfoot says it might be smart to require school board candidates to have served on a local school council. Our own view is that a hybrid board would work best, with a majority of members appointed by the mayor and a few others elected, so that the mayor still is held accountable.

Lightfoot, we should add, has expressed particular displeasure with the performance of the public schools’ CEO, Janice Jackson.

Police:

One of the more tension-filled outcomes of Tuesday’s election is that the two top vote-getters generally are viewed by the police as being anti-cop. We believe that is unfair. Neither Lightfoot nor Preckwinkle is anti-cop; they simply want the police to do a better job of respecting civil liberties. But there you have it.

The police community’s animosity toward Lightfoot is straightforward. She headed a City Hall task force that produced a scathing report of the Chicago Police Department, which in turn led to the current court-monitored effort to overhaul the practices of the department. Plenty of cops don’t think the department needs reforming, even after the police cover-up of the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald.

They are wrong, and Lightfoot is right.

That said, many police officers loathe Preckwinkle, and those feelings will only grow as she plays up her more progressive credentials in this runoff race.

Preckwinkle alienated many pro-police voters when she ran a campaign ad trumpeting her behind-the-scenes role in exposing the police shooting of McDonald. She first described to a reporter the contents of an autopsy report that showed McDonald had been shot 16 times. Then, as Cook County Board president, she released the report as quickly as she could.

Cops, as a general rule, also hold it against Preckwinkle that she helped her protege, Kim Foxx, get elected Cook County state’s attorney. They think Foxx, like Preckwinkle, is soft on crime.

Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle are unapologetic supporters of the federal consent decree to reform the Police Department, and both as mayor would face particularly strong resistance to reform. A lot of cops just don’t trust them — certainly not in the way they might have trusted as mayor a Bill Daley, Gery Chico or Garry McCarthy.

How will Chicago’s next mayor, whether Lightfoot or Preckwinkle, build better bridges to every community, cops included?

We’ve got five weeks, Chicago, to dig in and find out.

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