Exactly a week after federal authorities charged powerful Ald. Edward Burke with attempted extortion, the topic of the embattled 50-year machine politician — and his ties to some of Chicago’s mayoral candidates — took center stage at a Northwest Side forum Thursday night.
The event, held at Steinmetz College Prep in Belmont Cragin, marked the first time the large field of candidates shared a stage since Burke was charged. The longtime alderman is accused of attempting to shake down a restaurant owner in his ward who was seeking help with a permit, for a campaign contribution and business at his private law firm.
All but three of the 15 candidates running for mayor participated in the entire event, crowding onto an auditorium stage for the frenzied forum.
The most glaring exception: Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who the Chicago Tribune has reported was the intended recipient of the campaign contribution that federal prosecutors say Burke illegally solicited. Preckwinkle backed out at the last minute, organizers said.
The three remaining candidates on stage most closely associated to Burke — state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, City Hall veteran Gery Chico and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley — all were asked directly about their ties to the 14th Ward alderman.
“Many of you have personal and professional connections to Burke,” said WGN reporter Tahman Bradley, one of the moderators of the event that was televised on the network. “How do you assure voters that you are the candidate to change a political culture dominated by clout and corruption?”
Daley, the brother and son of two former mayors whose family long has cut political deals with Burke, said the corruption charge is reason to fundamentally reform City Hall. He reiterated his plan to reduce the council to 15 aldermen, eliminate outside income for aldermen, and put an end to the veto power aldermen enjoy over permits and projects in their wards.
“Almost all the people on this stage try to separate themselves from people who get in trouble, OK?” Daley said of Burke. “Just about everybody up here is going to try to say they’ve never heard of Ed Burke, and just about everybody has.”
Mendoza, who has credited Burke with her start in politics as a state representative, and later as city clerk and comptroller, also said the job of alderman should become a full-time position with no outside income.
“We can’t have elected officials who are running for office to profit themselves,” Mendoza said, without addressing her ties to Burke.
Chico, who counts Burke as a close friend and mentor, repeated his plan to have aldermen stripped of their veto power over ward projects and permits.
“It’s way past time that any one individual has that unilateral power to grant a license, a permit or a zoning change,” Chico said, without mentioning Burke.
The 12 candidates onstage all were asked whether they believed Burke should resign as alderman, after already having given up his powerful post as Finance Committee chairman.
Of the three closest to Burke, Daley and Chico both answered no and said, “It’s his decision.” Mendoza had a different answer.
“Yes,” she said. “And the voters will choose for him if he doesn’t.”
Of the rest of the field, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, public policy consultant Amara Enyia, Southwest Side attorney John Kozlar and businessman Willie Wilson said Burke should resign.
Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas both said the decision should be left up to voters. Former Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, state Rep. LaShawn Ford and former Ald. Bob Fioretti also said Burke should not resign.
All 12 of the candidates said they favored term limits for aldermen and said they should be banned from earning any income outside of the salary for their elected office.
While Burke dominated the opening of the forum, the candidates refrained from making specific Burke-related attacks against other candidates. Mendoza wasn’t attacked for getting married at Burke’s home, Chico didn’t face criticism for contributing to Burke’s political funds and Daley’s long-standing ties were not mentioned.
Several candidates, however, noted Preckwinkle’s absence — saying she was not there because she didn’t want to face criticism from her fellow challengers.
Mendoza said Preckwinkle was afraid to answer for her ties to former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, who lost a bid for re-election last year after a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois investigation showed property valuations under Berrios favored the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Chico slammed Preckwinkle, along with Mendoza, for raising too many taxes. And Wilson criticized Preckwinkle and Mendoza for running for mayor while running for another office at the same time.
Bradley, one of the moderators, was sure to tell the crowd that Preckwinkle had bailed on the event within “the last few hours.”
Preckwinkle was set to participate in the Thursday forum until Wednesday, according to Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, one of the organizers of the event. As she ended a Thursday news conference, Preckwinkle did not respond to questions about why she would not take part in the forum.
Of those in attendance, Chico went on the offensive the most, attacking front-runners Preckwinkle and Mendoza for raising taxes, a move that echoes his first TV ad that began airing last week. He’s pointed to Mendoza voting as a state lawmaker to raise the income tax, and Preckwinkle’s backing of a county sales and parking tax increases in addition to the controversial and since-repealed pop tax.
Chico, who finished a distant second to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the 2011 mayor’s race, took both of them on during his opening remarks, just a minute into the forum.
“What I’m seeing right now from people like Toni Preckwinkle and Susan Mendoza is raising our taxes,” Chico said, mispronouncing the comptroller’s first name. “We’re seeing soda taxes, sales taxes, property taxes go through the roof onto the backs of our working families and citizens. I’m fighting to be mayor so I can protect them and maintain their quality of life. We are not an ATM machine for lazy government.”
When it came for Mendoza’s turn to introduce herself to the crowd, she wasted no time taking a shot at Chico for calling her by the wrong name.
“My name is Susana Mendoza — just to be clear Gery — Susana, with an ‘A.’ The ‘A’ is not silent, and neither am I,” Mendoza said to a round of cheers. “I’m running for mayor because the future of Chicago is at stake.”
Some of the 90-minute forum’s most poignant moments were centered on the city’s ongoing bouts with violent crime.
All candidates were asked whether they would retain police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, whom Emanuel picked for the job after firing McCarthy amid the fallout of the Laquan McDonald fatal police shooting.
Chico and Fioretti called for Johnson to be fired while Brown, Ford, Kozlar and McCarthy said he would be welcome to reapply for the job. Daley, Mendoza and Lightfoot said it would be inappropriate to politicize such a personnel decision, with Lightfoot noting the next mayor will take over as summer crime season is heating up.
Enyia and Wilson were noncommital and didn’t say specifically whether Johnson should stay or go.
Vallas said it was “pretty cowardly to call for his resignation” from candidates who failed to criticize Emanuel, as he looked down the stage at Chico. He then slammed Emanuel for allowing the department’s detective and sergeant divisions to be “decimated” by retirements and departures.
“Johnson came from Cabrini Green, and he rose through the ranks, and he didn’t want the job in the first place,” Vallas said, noting that Emanuel picked him for the top cop position after he didn’t apply. “What makes you think he’s going to want to stick around?”
Some candidates also were asked what they would do about the city’s rampant car-jacking problem. The diverse viewpoints in the deep mayoral field were on full display with Daley’s and Enyia’s back-to-back answers.
“This is probably the single biggest issue facing this city, and every neighborhood is affected by it. We had almost 3,000 shootings last year, 500-plus murders,” Daley said, calling for stronger sentencing, stricter gun laws, better training for officers and more technology. “If it was up to me, I’d have a camera on every block of this city. I’d use drones to help the police officers and help the people be safer.”
Enyia took a different approach.
“It is amazing to me that we can find $40,000 to incarcerate one individual, but we cannot find sufficient funding for our schools and then we complain about crime,” Enyia said to applause. “There is a root cause to crime in this city, and it is directly related to investment. Preventative measures mean children have to have options, both in school and in training, so they can function in the economy legitimately when they leave. If we do not provide that infrastructure, which is the city’s responsibility, then we cannot wonder why young people are doing carjackings.”
Near the end, the forum took a more light-hearted tone when moderators asked candidates to select a hypothetical running mate from the group of contenders onstage.
After some hesitation, Brown chose Lightfoot, as did Daley. Chico said he would go with the “good-looking bald guy” at the end of the table, referencing Vallas, to which Daley joked that he thought he was about to pick him.
Enyia chose Ford as someone whom she’s worked with in the past and seems genuine. Fioretti also chose Ford, who chose both Enyia and Fioretti. Kozlar picked Enyia, calling her a “genuine person.”
Lightfoot said there were a number of people she admires but wouldn’t pick anyone who didn’t get into the race before Emanuel left, then declined to choose any one person, drawing a loud round of boos from the crowd.
McCarthy and Vallas similarly said they wouldn’t choose someone who preceded Emanuel’s exit, but McCarthy said he was torn between Lightfoot and Wilson. Vallas said he’d be comfortable with Enyia, Wilson or Lightfoot.
“I’m not torn at all,” Mendoza said, before tapping Enyia as someone with bold ideas who loves and cares about people. “She represents the future.”
Wilson ran out the 30-second clock on his answer, ultimately naming no one.
“There’s a lot of people I like and a lot of people I don’t like up here,” he said as the audience laughed. “I’d go to citizens first and ask for suggestions.”
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