All nine candidates for mayor of Chicago debated Thursday night. While we wish they could have appeared on the Hollywood Squares set, with Mayor Lightfoot in the Paul Lynde seat, they in fact stood behind podiums in the studios of ABC7, which broadcast the debate. Here’s how we think each candidate fared, as far as advancing or diminishing his or her campaign.
SOPHIA KING: A
King presented herself as a candidate who can bridge the city’s ethnic and ideological divides. The alderwoman of the Bronzeville-based 4th Ward pointed out that she represents a multicultural population. Her constituents’ No. 1 request: more police. “We can uplift police and hold them accountable,” King said. “We can have safety and justice.” King wants to transfer officers to high-crime neighborhoods, and train responders for non-violent issues, which make up 50 percent of 911 calls. On the sanctuary city issue, she argued for also supporting struggling Chicagoans, saying she had opened the 4th Ward to the homeless: “We can’t only be welcoming to migrants and not be welcoming to the people in our city.” King never called out an opponent by name, but did say “We need a mayor that attacks this city’s problems, not its people.” Take that any way you want. A single-digit candidate little known outside her ward, King made a positive impression in her citywide debut.
PAUL VALLAS: A-minus
Vallas got numbers. The Chicago Public Schools spend $30,000 a year per student, but only 60 percent gets to students. Reduce staffing in the central office. Property taxes have grown $847 million since 2019. Cap ’em. Transfer $1 billion from Tax Increment Financing funds to pay for affordable housing. Besides establishing himself as the wonkiest candidate in the field, Vallas refuted Lightfoot’s caricature of him as “Republican.” Vallas, whose son Mark died as a result of opioid abuse, proposed establishing drug addiction centers in every police district. Public safety remains Vallas’s signature issue: Asked how to keep taxes down, he suggested hiring more police officers, which would result in less overtime and fewer private security contracts.
KAM BUCKNER: B-plus
State Representative Buckner rode the Red Line to the debate, earning points for sharing an experience that traumatizes ordinary Chicagoans every day. He criticized the CTA for spending $30 million on security dogs, “like this is 1960s George Wallace.” Along with Brandon Johnson, Buckner is one of two truly left-wing candidates in the race. On the issue of youth mental health, he clicked off the “treatment not trauma” line, promising to open 20 mental health clinics — four of them open 24 hours. On opioids, he boasted that he had sponsored a bill allowing for distribution of fentanyl strips. Buckner got in the sharpest shot at the mayor: The city has been “bleeding businesses,” including Boeing, he said. “Many thought this administration would raise the bar. All we’ve seen is they’ve raised the bridges and the murder rate.”
BRANDON JOHNSON: B
Johnson also personalized the issue of opioid addiction, saying his older brother had died “addicted and unhoused.” Because of that experience, in his first 100 days as mayor, Johnson would hire mental health responders to free up law enforcement officers. (He also used the “treatment not trauma” line.) Asked about migrants, he condemned “a sick culture of states using real lives as a political football,” and proposed an Office of New Americans to support families seeking asylum. Johnson sees Garcia as his main competitor for progressive votes, so he sniped at the congressman’s public safety plan: “Garcia did not release a public safety plan, he released Lightfoot’s. As a teacher, I’d call that plagiarism.”
JA’MAL GREEN: B-minus
If you’re among the small number of Chicagoans planning to vote for Green, he didn’t give you a reason to change your mind. If you’re among the much larger number planning not to vote for Green…he didn’t give you a reason to change your mind. Since his name will appear first on the ballot, Green got to answer a lot of questions first, but didn’t use his spotlight to present practical plans: He wants to attack the root causes of public safety by investing in neighborhoods and providing jobs; he wants to “stop treating drugs like a criminal issue when it’s a public health issue” by establishing safe injection sites and distributing clean needles; he wants tax breaks for developers of vacant land, and a city-owned bank. The 27-year-old activist’s heart is in the right place, but that place is not the fifth floor of city hall.
JESUS “CHUY” GARCIA: C
Garcia is the front runner, with a new poll showing him getting 28 percent of the vote in the Feb. 28 primary, compared to Mayor Lightfoot’s 21 percent. So Garcia acted like a front runner: he was measured, he was dignified, and he didn’t say anything interesting. He wants a “fully staffed, fully funded, modernized” police department, with more civilian responders to free up officers for violent crimes. (Who doesn’t?) As an immigrant, he wants to continue Chicago’s “history of welcoming people fleeing violence.” Businesses fleeing Chicago? “We can stop the bleeding by making Chicago a safer city.” Closing remarks? “We need to reassume our position as a world-class city with equity and inclusion.” Garcia is so confident he didn’t bother to say anything negative about his opponents. He’s got his campaign in Powerglide, cruising to victory.
RODERICK SAWYER: C-minus
There was an empty podium on the stage Thursday night, and Alderman Sawyer was standing behind it. Sawyer has a distinguished record on the City Council, but as a candidate, he lacks charisma — sort of like his father, who was nicknamed “Mayor Mumbles” for his inarticulateness. Sawyer touted his record as chairman of the Mental Health Committee, in which capacity he visited every clinic, finding them “underutilized” and “not serving children.” His best idea: encouraging developers to use the Affordable Housing Zoning Bonus to build housing on the South and West sides, rather than in Fulton Marker, where the marketplace won’t support it.
LORI LIGHTFOOT: D
Want to know why an incumbent mayor is polling at 21 percent? Lightfoot showed us why. Angry, defensive, and combative, Lightfoot spent as much time lashing out at Vallas and Garcia as she did promoting her own record, which she said includes progress toward making Chicago the “safest big city” in the nation, with homicides down 14 percent and 950 new police officers hired. Kimberly Clark, Kellogg’s, and Google opened offices in Chicago. The city just made a $242 million pension payment. Those facts and figures are not what voters will remember about her debate performance, though. They’ll remember that when Vallas told her, “You can’t grandstand and say we’re a sanctuary city and not have a plan,” she responded, “I think I just heard Paul Vallas say we should not call out racist, xenophobic governors who are treating people like freight.” They’ll remember that she pivoted from agreeing with Garcia that Chicago should collaborate more with other governments on fighting drug abuse to telling him, “Our administration is already doing that. Congressman Garcia, you must have missed that when you were cutting deals with Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto crook, Mike Madigan, the indicted speaker, and red light camera operators.”
WILLIE WILSON: F
Wilson seemed to be on a different stage than the rest of the candidates. A different city. State? Country? Planet? He began by declaring himself “pro policeman,” and against rules and regulations that prevent cops from fighting crime: “Take the handcuffs off police, put them on people that’s actually doing it.” His solution for every civic ill? Run Chicago like a business and cut taxes. His attitude toward immigrants? “I cannot let anybody in my house unless I know who they are. We are a nation of laws.” In his closing statement, Wilson said criminals who flee police should be “hunted down like rabbits.” Vallas sounded like a founder of the Antifa movement in comparison.