Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was forced to dodge political attacks coming from every direction at the first televised mayoral debate Thursday (Jan. 19), as her rivals attacked her policies, which she defended vigorously.
CBS News Chicago reports that the first three questions centered on the Windy City’s crime problem. WLS political reporter Craig Wall asked the field of nine candidates how they would improve public safety.
As of Dec. 10, there were 661 murders, down 15 percent from 2021 but still high, the Chicago Police Department reported, according to WTTW. By those final days of 2022, overall reported shootings totalled 2,718 – a decline of 20 percent from the previous year. But car thefts doubled from 2021 to 19,238.
"Of course, my primary goal is to make sure that Chicago is the safest big city in the country – and we've made progress year over year, ending down 14 percent in homicides, 20 percent in shootings," Lightfoot said. "But I recognize that people in the city don't feel safe, so we've got to keep working on the strategy that we know is making progress – taking guns out of the hands of criminals; holding violent, dangerous people accountable; and making sure that we hire more police."
Community activist Ja'Mal Green questioned Lightfoot taking credit for crime reduction and the statistics she quoted.
"I'm trying to figure out – how do we continue to allow the mayor to lie about the numbers?” Green asked. “We are not down when it comes to before her administration started. The year before last, it was a 25-year high. So of course, we're going to have some sort of a decrease. We've had 700-plus homicides for three years in a row under the mayor, and she has not been connected to the neighborhoods or to what's going on on the ground."
Green and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson called for pouring more resources into high-crime neighborhoods and youth programs in those communities. Several other candidates on the platform said a stronger police presence is needed with a focus on community policing and reforms that protect residents from overly aggressive tactics.
Managing the sudden influx of migrant asylum seekers was another major topic. NBC News reported Jan. 9 that Chicago has absorbed 3,800 migrants from Texas since August.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas accused Lightfoot of using a megaphone to declare Chicago a sanctuary city for undocumented migrants.
"The first thing is to stop baiting other governors and stop grandstanding. I mean, you can't basically grandstand and say, 'We're a sanctuary city – we're inviting everybody in,' and then not have a plan when people do come in," Vallas said, adding that as schools chief he accepted children regardless of their immigration status and supported their families “without having press conferences.”
Lightfoot has harshly criticized the Republican governors of Texas and other border states for their political stunt of not coordinating the bussing of migrants to sanctuary cities, including New York City and Washington, D.C.
"I think I just heard Paul Vallas say that we should not call out racist, xenophobic practices of governors like Greg Abbott, who are treating migrants like freight,” Lightfoot responded. “That may be your idea of a welcoming city. It's not my idea, and it's not the idea of people across the city who understand that we've got to stand up and live our values every single day."
During the debate, Lightfoot highlighted pro-business policies that she said makes Chicago a desirable location.
But Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia rejected her take on the business environment in Chicago, adding that the city’s crime problem makes many businesses look elsewhere. “We can stop the bleeding by making Chicago a safer city,” he argued.
Mayoral candidates, Chicago alderman Sophia King , Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner , businessman Willie Wilson, and alderman Roderick Sawyer were also on the debate platform Thursday.
Lightfoot made history in 2019 when she became the city’s first elected Black woman and openly gay mayor. A political outsider and former federal prosecutor, Lightfoot won 74 percent of the vote in a runoff against Toni Preckwinkle to become Chicago’s 56th mayor.
Early voting for mayor begins Jan. 26 at two Downtown locations and across the city Feb. 13. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will head to a runoff on April 4.