Who is the most tech-friendly candidate for mayor of Chicago?

By Yixuan Xie
Medill Reports

Early voting in Chicago’s elections began Tuesday, setting the stage for the winning candidate who will have the opportunity to accelerate Chicago’s already burgeoning tech scene.

Chicago tied for the second most innovative U.S. city with Boston and has become one of the nation’s leading tech hubs, according to a KPMG report released in March.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been an ardent supporter of the tech community since he took office in 2011. He helped create ChicagoNext, an organization that is dedicated to driving Chicago’s tech growth, supported the launch of the city’s biggest tech incubator 1871, and invited many tech companies to move to Chicago.

Will Emanuel’s replacement be as tech-friendly as he is? Eight of the 14 candidates on the ballot shared their tech-related experience and ideas of further boosting Chicago’s tech scene during individual interviews with another two who responded via emails.

Former Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, public policy consultant Amara Enyia, former Chicago Public Schools Board President Gery Chico talked about education as a tech driver.

Fioretti highlighted his experience as one of the leading proponents who brought the first Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) school into the city.

“We need to train, invigorate and inform people about how to use technology,” Fioretti said.

Lightfoot put more emphasis on connecting STEM schools with employers to continue the pipeline into the tech community.

In addition to education, Lightfoot also said it is important to publicize the existing accomplishments of Chicago’s vibrant tech industry and have tech incubator hubs in neighborhoods across the city, not just in the downtown area.

“We have a very thriving tech industry, but frankly a lot of people don’t know about it,” Lightfoot said. “And what I worry about is that a lot of young people are leaving the city because they think they gotta go to California or New York or elsewhere to be a part of our thriving tech community.”

Enyia is currently serving as a senior advisor to Blue 1647, an innovation and incubation hub that’s focused on developing pipelines into the workforce in advanced manufacturing, information technology, coding, cyber security and other high value-added sectors. In her recorded answer sent by email, she said she would expand Blue 1647’s workforce training model to the city.

“I’ve worked this model for several years. The model trains people from childhood to adulthood and key skills areas that are necessary for the economy of the future,” Enyia said. “So we should certainly be expanding that model across the city as well as making sure that we’re really doubling down on supporting entrepreneurs who want to move into the tech space with tech based businesses.”

Chico said he wants to bring technology to a whole new level of operating government after putting app development, software programming, coding in schools, and integrating schools with companies.

“So government right now in the United States is kind of slow, inefficient and wasteful,” Chico said. “But if we can bring technology applications in the way we do our business, we can save money, move faster and repurpose our resources to other things.”

Having worked with tech companies such as Cisco Systems for years as owner of the law firm Chico & Nunes, Chico described himself as knowledgeable about “what they bring to the table”.

“It’s not just mega companies, the giants. It’s also small entrepreneurs. We have to make money available, low interest loans, grants to make them, how about this, repopulate a lot of vacant storefronts,” Chico said. “So much we can do with it. It’s going to be one of the major planks of our resurgence.”

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas said current tech scene in Chicago, while impressive, is not moving at the same pace as other cities because the government has been resistant, slow to evolve or take advantage of technology.

“We have this pay-to-play government infrastructure, which is all designed to raise money for campaigns and also to put money in a legal way, occasionally people get caught but in a legal way, into the pockets of individuals who are in elected office or individuals have moved in and out of elected office like we had Gary Chico today,” Vallas said.

Besides continuing to create conditions that will encourage technology companies, incubators, and business innovators to come and expand in Chicago, Vallas stressed from a governmental standpoint, the city have to be prepared to pay the political cause.

“That means wherever there are advantages to reduce costs, to bring efficiencies and to have the type of city services that are responsive in real time, wherever you have an opportunity to improve those things, to make those things reality by the use of technology, you have to be willing to do it and you have to have the courage to do it,” Vallas said.

Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley wrote in an email about his experience of working on federal policy in the Clinton administration during the beginning of e-commerce and the first internet boom and leading a large tech company as president of SBC Communications. He has set a goal of growing Chicago back to a city of 3 million people and developing Chicago’s economy and tech sector will be crucial to realize the goal, Daley wrote.

Daley recently released a plan to grow Chicago’s economy through coordinated investments in advanced manufacturing, which uses innovative technology to improve manufacturing processes while rapidly prototyping new designs, and creating new products.

“Chicago has a proud and productive history in manufacturing, but the next generation of manufacturing requires more technology and highly skilled workers,” Daley wrote. “I want to see Chicago become the national leader in advanced manufacturing by growing our ability to innovate, train new workers and build new companies.”

Attorney John Kozlar, as the youngest candidate, said he will focus  on creating a new city government who is going to incorporate a lot of youth to make Chicago a central tech hub just like Seattle and the Silicon Valley.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who just had a meeting with the tech community, said she will continue to work with them and be supportive of making it easier to start, maintain and sustain tech businesses.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford set his goal as making Chicago the most funded tech program by bringing the business community together.  If elected, he will make sure that everywhere people go has free internet, Ford said.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said tech industry is something that she is very passionate about and she completely transformed the entire city sticker program and modernized it using a whole new technology infrastructure when she was City Clerk.

“We want to use a lot of smart infrastructure and better planning, for example, our bike lanes and bus lanes and things like that,” Mendoza said. “So we’ve got some cool initiatives.”

Photo at top: Ten Chicago mayoral candidates on the ballot laid out their vision for Chicago’s future tech scene. Top row from left: Lori Lightfoot, Paul Vallas, Susana Mendoza, Gery Chico, Amara Enyia. Bottom row from left: Bill Daley, Bob Fioretti, La Shawn Ford, John Kozlar, Toni Preckwinkle. (Bill Daley’s photo courtesy of the “Daley for Mayor” campaign. Other photos by Yixuan Xie/Medill)