Chicago mayoral candidates demand voter access and equity for upcoming election

By Ariana Puzzo
Medill Reports

“If we’re going to get the confidence of the people of Chicago, what we have to do is do everything legitimate,” said the former Chicago police superintendent and mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy.

The opposite is done in Chicago to promote voter turnout in some areas, McCarthy said at Monday’s mayoral forum. He said the city’s February election is demonstrative of the issue of legitimacy, citing low voter turnout and how it is an effort to “swing the election.”

“The voters don’t have the rights that they need because of the way that the system is designed,” McCarthy said. “So, this goes way past just what happens inside with those machines and to the entire system at the same time.”

Seven of the 14 mayoral candidates at the forum spoke about voting access at the forum at Northwestern University School of Law. The forum focused on other topics including education equity in Chicago Public Schools and police accountability. Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights co-hosted the event with the National Lawyers Guild at Northwestern.

Moderator Alden Loury, the Senior Editor for WBEZ’s desk on race, class and communities, asked several candidates how they will guarantee voting rights for disenfranchised citizens.

Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and attorney Lori Lightfoot agreed with McCarthy that the February election generates low voter turnout. Vallas said the city must be “aggressive” in registering voters, including CPS high school graduates.

Lightfoot said efforts must be made to determine which citizens do not have access to the ballots and find alternatives without requiring them to physically go to polling stations.

“[Elections] matter a lot, but it matters only if you show up and vote, you educate yourself ahead of time, and you speak your values,” Lightfoot said.

City residents are thanked by mayoral candidates for attending despite snow and record-dropping temperatures. (Ariana Puzzo/Medill)

Candidates addressed how they will reform police union contracts that include provisions enabling unnecessary restraints on investigations and the facilitation of false reports.

Attorney John Kozlar said he wants to implement a 60/40 plan. The plan would implement a policy that requires 60 percent of the police officers serving a district to reside within its limits. The plan, he said, would help officers be seen as community members rather than outsiders.

“There’s too much tension between the police department and the communities – they’re not listening to each other,” Kozlar said. “You’re going to know the area better, you’re going to know the streets, you’re going to know the neighbors. So, that’s when everybody can work together.”

Amara Enyia, the director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said an issue she has worked on entails tracking police officer records “beyond the five-year provision” before they enter the force.

“We need to know the track records of the police officers … and if they have had an extensive disciplinary history because that can also inform how they conduct themselves when they are on the job,” Enyia said.

The closing topic was education equity as it relates to last month’s attempted closing of the National Teachers Academy, a Level 1+, South Side elementary school. The candidates answered how they plan to change the “engagement process” in CPS so students, families and educators can be substantially involved in policy decisions that affect students of color and those with disabilities.

“If you look at the statistics, you know what the quality of education is by zip code,” Lightfoot said. “In Chicago, zip code is a proxy for race.”

Lightfoot said parents and teachers cannot be treated as “unwanted guests” any longer and there needs to be opportunities for parents to be engaged in the quality of their children’s educations. Lightfoot said that is her reasoning for supporting a fully-elected school board. Lightfoot added that the first thing that needs to be done as mayor is “healing the damage that has been done,” which includes seeking an apology from Janice Jackson, the chief executive officer for CPS, to NTA.

“She needs to apologize to other communities that have been harmed by the practices of CPS,” Lightfoot said. “Whether it’s the closure of schools, whether it’s the sex abuse scandal where they sat on their hands for almost six months and did nothing to protect our children; there’s a lot of work that has to be done.”

There also needs to be tools employed to consider racial and equity impacts when making changes in educational polices, Lightfoot added.

The candidates and those hosting the forum stressed the need for a leadership change on Feb. 26.

“It’s obviously easier to criticize when you don’t have a policy-making position and it’s much easier to be critical from the outside, but we really have lack of strong leadership right now,” said Timna Axel, the communications director at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

Kozlar said Chicagoans often elect the same people, which brings no changes.

“With all of this political experience that some of these individuals have, why are we still talking about the same problems?” Kozlar said.

Photo at top: Mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy (R to L) stresses the need to gain the confidence of the people of Chicago by ensuring their voter rights. “In Chicago, zip code is a proxy for race,” said attorney and candidate Lori Lightfoot regarding education equity. Attorney John Kozlar proposed a 60/40 plan for 60 percent of police serving a Chicago neighborhood would live in it. (Ariana Puzzo/Medill)