Four-candidate mayoral forum turns into two-way conversation after no-shows

Scheduling conflicts kept Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and businessman Willie Wilson away from the forum, so community activist Ja’Mal Green and retiring Ald. Roderick Sawyer had the stage to themselves.

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Community activist Ja’Mal Green and retiring Ald. Roderick Sawyer, son of former mayor Eugene Sawyer, at the University of Chicago mayoral forum on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

Community activist Ja’Mal Green (left) and retiring 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer, son of former mayor Eugene Sawyer, had the stage to themselves during a mayoral forum Thursday at the University of Chicago.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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What was supposed to be a forum for four of the nine Chicago mayoral candidates turned into a two-way conversation about Chicago’s problems after two invited candidates were last-minute no-shows.

Scheduling conflicts kept Cook County Commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson and millionaire businessman Willie Wilson away from the forum at the University of Chicago sponsored by WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the U. of C.’s Institute of Politics.

That meant community activist Ja’Mal Green and retiring Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), son of former Mayor Eugene Sawyer, had the stage to themselves for a discussion moderated by Sasha-Ann Simons, host of WBEZ’s, “Reset” program.

“Very unfortunate that two other candidates dropped out of this forum. Hopefully, they are considering dropping out of the mayor’s race, too,” Green said to a smattering of laughter from the live audience.

As she did at a similar forum Wednesday featuring Mayor Lori Lightfoot and four other mayoral challengers, Simons asked her own questions, along with questions posed by listeners and readers in a “Peoples Agenda” survey that drew 2,000 responses.

The first question was about crime — the top issue on voters’ minds in a recent Sun-Times/WBEZ/Telemundo Chicago/NBC5 poll. Both were asked what they would do in their first six months in office to deliver Chicago from violent crime.

Green talked about creating a $100 million “department of social workers to respond to mental health calls,” which comprise 40% of 911 calls. He also wants a $30 million “Youth Intervention Department” to provide jobs, counseling and other support to “young people who drop out of school” and turn to crime.

“We’ve got to have alternatives for young people. We need to make sure that we’re investing in them. A lot of our young people are out carjacking, and they could be building the cars. A lot of our young people got guns and they could have hammers,” he said.

Green also wants to spend $77 million to build “block club infrastructure” with $1 million grants to each of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

“Empower people on their blocks to beautify their blocks. ... They’re gonna have phone trees so that folks can be the front-line responders and really take ownership over what’s going on in their communities,” Green said.

Chicago mayoral candidates Ja’Mal Green and Ald. Roderick Sawyer share a laugh during a mayoral forum on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023 at the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall.

Chicago mayoral candidates Ja’Mal Green and Ald. Roderick Sawyer share a laugh during a mayoral forum on Thursday hosted by WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Sawyer said Green’s “great ideas” won’t ease the “‘crime anxiety’ that a lot of us are feeling right now. … We don’t want to come out of the house because we don’t feel that we’re gonna be safe when we go to the store, we go out to dinner, when we go to the theater.”

His plan is to fire Chicago Police Supt. David Brown and work with the new civilian oversight panel to find a new superintendent from within the Chicago Police Department — someone with the support of rank-and-file officers.

“Right now, the police feel that they’re working in a toxic work environment. They’re not afraid of criminals — they’re afraid of their superiors. They’re afraid of what may happen in the event that a police officer makes a mistake or does something. Maybe not turn a camera on in time. Because right now, they feel that the retribution will be over the top,” Sawyer said.

To prevent the officer burnout that many blame for a mass exodus of cops and a spike in officer suicides, Sawyer said he would switch officers to four days on, three days off schedules and allow them to retire with maximum pensions after turning 55 years old with 20 years of service.

Without mentioning CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. by name, both Green and Sawyer promised “new leadership” at a mass transit agency that has lost half its pre-pandemic riders, in part because it is viewed as unsafe and unreliable.

Green wants to declare a “state of emergency” on the CTA to free up money for “social workers and peacekeepers” and more maintenance employees on trains.

Simons asked about Wilson’s proposal to boot people off trains who are caught sleeping on them.

“I’m not surprised. There are rabbits out there he wants to hunt,” Green said, referring to a comment about chasing criminals that Wilson made at a previous forum.

Sawyer described the CTA as an ugly, unsafe and unreliable mess.

“We don’t want it to continue to smell like urine and weed,” he said.

With 22 Chicago public high schools and 95 elementary schools largely vacant — with fewer than 250 students — both candidates were asked whether they would close schools when a moratorium on school closings expires in 2025.

Sawyer said he’s open to it. Green said he’s not — not as long as some of the 50 schools closed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel remain vacant.

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