Few things are more enticing for an old political reporter than an invitation to moderate a mayoral candidate forum. So when Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, a coalition of parents and public schools, asked me to question the candidates at an event they were putting together with two other sponsoring groups, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.

And they exceeded all expectations in putting together a top-notch forum this past Wednesday night, December 15. The crowd was large and enthusiastic at Walter Payton College Prep, a wonderful venue where the technical set-up allowed us to stream the event live on our website.

The sponsors also did a masterful job of promoting the forum after establishing a tough but fair requirement for participation: 25,000 signatures on a candidate’s nominating petition. Four of the eligible candidates—Gery Chico, Miguel del Valle, Carol Moseley Braun and James Meeks—engaged in an informative, entertaining, lively and civil discussion of school vouchers, TIF dollars, academic programs, tax proposals and various ideas for reforming the system, elevating student achievement and choosing a new leader to run the system so interim boss Terry Mazany can go back to his day job at the Chicago Community Trust.

Two eligible candidates didn’t attend. Congressman Danny Davis was in Washington for a key vote. That’s an excused absence. But frontrunner Rahm Emanel chose not to participate in this forum or two others this past week, and that’s troubling. I said before, during and after the forum that Emanuel is entitled to run his campaign any way he wants—political tactics and strategy are his call, not mine.

But it’s perfectly appropriate for the head of a good government advocacy group to point out that the man or woman who wants to lead Chicago should demonstrate a commitment to openness, accessibility and accountability by taking his or her campaign into the neighborhoods for unscripted events, standing side-by-side the other candidates and laying out his or her vision for the future of a deeply troubled city in front of large crowds of voters.

A couple debates at the end of the campaign and a plethora of TV ads don’t seem to reflect the spirit and the opportunity of Chicago’s first wide open election in more than two decades.

So let’s hope that all of the leading candidates make it to most of the forums and debates scheduled for January and February so the voters can see, hear and measure them, standing together. I’ll be leading some, participating in others and watching them all, on and off the stage.