Early voting begins in Chicago this week for aldermanic and citywide offices, topped by a high-visibility race for mayor with incumbent Rahm Emanuel facing four challengers:
Businessman Willie Wilson, Ald. Robert W. “Bob” Fioretti, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and activist William “Dock” Walls III.
The campaigns are in high gear, with political ads, debates, news conferences, impromptu skirmishes and — for the benefit of serious voters — candidate questionnaires that provide unhurried opportunities to read and think about where the contenders stand on key issues.
The sharpest disagreements in our Better Government Association questionnaire center on familiar themes: Improving public safety, reviving neighborhood schools and reforming the city’s controversial Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program.
Here are some highlights:
— Public Safety: We asked about the relationship between police and the communities they patrol, ways to improve training, and overall department management.
Emanuel said “more than 9,500 Chicago Police personnel” have undergone training aimed at “developing higher levels of trust between communities and police.”
He added: “When police misconduct does occur, we are committed to responding swiftly and fairly and providing a new level of transparency about the process.”
Garcia proposed hiring a thousand more cops and “ensuring that they are appropriately trained to implement community policing.”
Fioretti said: “Right now, as in many communities, the relationship between police and members of the community is strained, and that simply cannot continue . . . officers must be trained in the complexities of our neighborhoods.”
Responded Walls: “We need a fresh start between police and residents. The city of Chicago should develop an even-handed media campaign, characterized by wholesome messaging, which encourages residents to abandon the ‘no snitch’ policy while encouraging the police to abandon the ‘blue code of silence.’ “
Wilson called for a comprehensive reorganization of the police chain of command: “I propose to have four district commanders, each reporting to me.”
— Education: We asked candidates about their vision for public education and thoughts about last year’s controversial school closings.
Emanuel claimed that “Chicago Public Schools have never been stronger . . . but we should not feel satisfied,” adding that he’s imposed a “five-year” moratorium on additional school closings.
Fioretti’s response: “I would make certain not one more neighborhood school will close. I am open to the possibility of reopening neighborhood schools as well as finding a solution to use these facilities as community centers or for vocational training.”
Garcia called for smaller classes and said “my plan involves giving the school system back to the people through an elected school board.”
Walls agreed, saying, “The Board of Education should be elected by the public.”
Wilson said improving education should be a community effort that includes residents, teachers and administrators, and he favors using some of the 50 shuttered schools to facilitate “re-establishment of a vigorous trade school and alternative school programs.”
— Tax Increment Financing: We posed this question: “Are there ways the program could or should be reformed, and if so, how?”
Emanuel cited his efforts so far, including elimination of unnecessary TIFs and greater transparency by creating an online TIF portal and database.
The incumbent added: “I established the city’s first-ever TIF surplus policy . . . to formalize and expand the practice of declaring a TIF surplus.”
Fioretti labeled the current TIF program “fundamentally broken” and proposed a moratorium on new TIFs.
Wilson called TIFs a “slush fund for insiders” and suggested the program be used to improve local communities and “not just downtown.”
Garcia said TIFs can be a “valuable tool” if they’re limited to their original purpose — helping blighted urban areas.
Walls agreed, saying they shouldn’t be used to “build private projects” like the DePaul Arena or the Marriott Hotel.”
Chicago voters are obviously considering a lot more election issues, including additional “good government” reform topics, and you can view our entire questionnaire here.
This is part of our ongoing commitment to informing and engaging the public.
Now it’s your job to gather the facts, think about what’s at stake, and vote.
Election Day is Feb. 24.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.