Lightfoot fields attacks in crowded Chicago mayoral debate

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) fielded attacks from a number of candidates in the city’s crowded mayoral race during their first televised debate on Thursday evening, underscoring the challenges that lie ahead for the incumbent in her reelection bid.

All nine candidates, including Lightfoot, participated in a 90-minute televised debate hosted by ABC 7 Chicago, Univision Chicago and the Leagues of Women Voters of Chicago/Illinois in which the mayoral hopefuls discussed an array of issues, including crime and public safety, the opioid crisis, youth mental health and transportation accessibility. 

Many of those candidates took jabs at the mayor, suggesting she did not work collaboratively with officials and was out of touch with the city and that the city was facing a “leadership crisis.”

“Many of us thought that this administration would raise the bar. But all we’ve seen is raise the bridges, attempt to raise taxes and to raise the murder rate. We have to do better,” said mayoral candidate and Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner (D), referencing Lightfoot’s decision to raise the city’s bridges following protests that took place following the death of George Floyd in 2020.

Ald. Sophia King, another mayoral challenger, argued that the city needed a mayor who “attacks the city’s problems and not its people,” alluding to to Lightfoot’s confrontations with city and state officials. 

Amid all the attacks against the mayor, which highlighted lingering tensions officials have had with Lightfoot’s leadership style and her handling of crises like the summer 2020 protests, candidates didn’t shy away from taking shots at other contenders, too.

Buckner targeted mayoral challenger Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) several times, accusing the congressman and other members of Congress of not doing enough to assist migrants coming to the city.

“We have to ramp up our permanent supportive housing programs for these people,” Buckner said of migrants coming to Chicago. “And we also have to look at the fact that it takes 150 days for an asylum seeker to get a work permit. The federal government is not doing enough. So Congressman García, we need you and your colleagues to step up, because this is a problem that falls on the laps of Washington D.C.”

Meanwhile, Cook County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson accused García of plagiarizing Lightfoot’s public safety plan.

Johnson also levied an accusation against fellow contender Paul Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), saying that he “further stratified our school district, leaving our schools without the necessary support that they need.”

And the mayor took shots of her own, attempting to tie García to FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried in an echo of an ad her campaign rolled out trying to make the same connection between the two. Bankman-Fried had given a nearly $3,000 donation to the congressman’s campaign, which García later donated. A super PAC associated with the FTX founder also spent more than $150,000 on boosting the congressman, though García has said “by law and by definition, I had nothing to do with” the money given and that it was spent independently outside his campaign. 

Lightfoot also took jabs at Vallas. The former CPS CEO suggested at one point during the debate in a discussion over migrants coming to the city that Chicago was “baiting other governors.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), along with other governors of states near the country’s southern border, have sent thousands of migrants to Democratic-led northern cities such as Chicago in recent months.

“You can’t basically grandstand and say, ‘We’re a sanctuary city, we’re inviting everybody in,’ and then not have a plan for dealing with people when they do come in,” Vallas said.

“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. Well, that may be your idea of a welcoming city. It’s not my idea,” the mayor later shot back.

The debate comes more than a month away from the Feb. 28 election. If no candidate gets more than half the vote during the race, the two top vote-getters will head into a runoff, which is scheduled for April 4.