Education, jobs, business development and public safety dominated the questioning Tuesday as four of the eight candidates in the race for 29th Ward alderman squared off during a forum sponsored by the Chicago Westside chapter of the NAACP.
During a 90-minute forum, Ald. Deborah L. Graham, Mary Russell Gardner, Beverly D. Rogers and Roman Morrow shared their views – but not many specifics – on how they would improve schools, bring jobs and businesses to ward, enforce curfew for youth and improve Austin’s overeall quality of life. At times the event turned testy as Gardner took swipes at Ald. Graham’s efforts on behalf of Austin during her eight years as a state representative and in her nearly one year as alderman.
Candidates not participating in the 90-minute event were Oddis “OJ” Johnson, C B Johnson and Thomas E. Simmons. Jill R. Bush said she had another commitment but arrived near the end of the event to greet voters.
About 80 people attended the forum, held at Friendship Baptist Church. Some walked away unimpressed with the candidates and their views, particularly on education.
“There was nothing said that helped me make up my mind. I need to know what they want to do to protect us as teachers. These are our careers,” said Jeff Blackwell, an Austin resident who teaches 7th and 8th grade special education at William King Elementary School.
One of the panelists, Janeicia Williams, a 6th grader at South Loop Elementary, thought it was interesting when Gardner took jabs at the alderman. But “judging by what they said, there was no one there who I would vote for,” said Janeicia, whose questions focused on education and enforcing the curfew.
Chiquita Carroll, who has a son in 7th grade at Ella Flagg Young School, wanted to know what each candidate would do to create after-school programs that would be challenging, creative and filled with opportunities. Carroll said the candidates didn’t address her concerns and others.
Joyce Mitchell, who pulled her son and daughter out of Flagg and now send them to Hope Institute Learning Academy, wanted to hear what candidates would do to bring a community center to the area.
“There hasn’t been anywhere for our children to go in years, and our concerns are falling on deaf ears. There is no action behind their words,” said Mitchell, who takes her two 4th graders to programs in Maywood.
All four candidates said they opposed privatizing city jobs, with some calling for a full audit of how the money from privatization, including the city parking meters, was being spent.
Graham, Gardner and Rogers said the school board should include elected and appointed members; Morrow called for an elected panel. The mayor appoints the Chicago Board of Education.
In dealing with vacant lots and abandoned property, Morrow said community members should do that work themselves. Rogers said developers should be brought in to turn vacant lots into businesses. Graham said vacant lots could be turned into gardens similar to what Root Riot Urban Network created near Austin Town Hall last summer. She also said abandoned homes should be rehabbed and put back on the market. Gardner noted there have been a lot of foreclosures because people have lost their jobs.
To improve the workforce in the 29th Ward, Graham implied that job training programs need to teach math and life skills, such as showing up on time to help people get apprenticeships. Rogers said putting together good job training programs would be invaluable. Morrow called for the reintroduction of former Ald. Dorothy Tillman’s “70-30” proposal, with 70 percent of new jobs in Austin going to ward residents and the remaining 30 percent going to non-residents. Gardner said she would build relationships with the business community to bring in jobs.
Karl Brinson, president of the Westside NAACP chapter, urged those in attendance to hold their alderman – and themselves – accountable for what happens in the ward.
“We need to ask questions. We created many of them (problems) because we did not hold our elected officials accountable. We need to move forward in a positive and more productive way.”