NAACP election forum sparks debate

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The fourth election forum sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Westside Branch caused quite a stir as candidates competing for positions on the March 20 ballot discussed issues affecting Austin.

More than 10 contenders came to the Feb. 25 event, including candidates for the 7th Congressional district, the 4th and 5th state Senate districts and the 8th, 9th and 10th state representative districts. U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, state Sen. Annazette Collins and former mayoral candidate Patricia Watkins were among those who attended.

While the question and answer sessions drew a crowd that, in most cases, filled the room at the United for Better Living Community Center, 4540 W. Washington Blvd., attendance varied dramatically for each panel, at times dropping to less than 25 people.

It was the state Senate’s 5th district debate that was the most heated.

The discussion between Watkins and incumbent Collins, received the highest level of division among supporters of the two candidates, causing the moderator to remind the crowd to lower their voices and be respectful to both candidates at least four times during the event.

At one point, a Collins supporter walked out of the room in a sign of outright disagreement, only to return minutes later.

Many questions posed to the candidates were chosen by the NAACP, but questions from the crowd were also chosen. Among the issues discussed, education, legislative initiative funding, ex-offender re-entry and the candidates’ records received the biggest response from the audience.

“I’m running because I can’t live like this,” Watkins said about the issues facing the local community. “People say ‘but once you get down there [to Springfield] you might forget about us,’ and I say, ‘how can I forgot us when I am us?’ The voice of the people are within me.”

Collins touted her record as senator over the last year, citing her co-sponsorship of a bill that would impose a moratorium on Chicago Public Schools’ turnarounds, as well as her support of HB 5723, which aims to amend the state’s criminal record sealing law. Both bills were popular among the crowd.

Collins questioned Watkins’ record, saying her narrow list of campaign contributors suggests Watkins doesn’t have the coalition-building skills needed to affect change in Springfield on behalf of the district.

Watkins countered by saying her donors, which consist mostly of herself, friends, family and her church, represent more of the community than Collins’, whose top five donors are energy corporations.

Watkins said Collins is bought by big corporations and has lost sight of the community.

But those comments didn’t change at least one Austin resident’s mind.

“I’m all for Ms. Collins,” Cherina Williams said after the forum. “She just gave me a job, and if she’s bringing jobs to the neighborhood, then why not vote for her?”

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