Three of the five candidates vying to unseat incumbent State Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago) in the crowded 10th District Illinois House race took part in a forum Wednesday night, discussing everything from education to TIFs. Progress Illinois was there for the discussion.
Three of the five candidates vying to unseat incumbent State Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago) in the crowded 10th District Illinois House race took part in a forum Wednesday night and each of them said they support an elected Chicago school board and tax increment financing (TIF) reform.
“Am I for an elected school board? The short answer is yes,” Mark Calonder, the lone Republican running in the 10th District race, said at the forum held at Chicago’s Legler Library on the city's West Side. “It needs to be independently watched, though.”
Just two of the Democratic candidates hoping to represent communities on the city’s Near West Side attended the forum, held less than two weeks ahead of the primary election and co-sponsored by Blocks Together, the Lawndale Alliance, the Raise Your Hand education coalition and West-Siders Against All School Closings. The Democratic candidates in attendance included Garfield Park resident Antwan Hampton, an instructor in the communications department at Northern Illinois University, and Near West Side resident Beverly Perteet, a community activist and former Chicago Public Schools teacher. Smith, the incumbent, and the remaining two Democratic candidates, Chicago Police Sgt. Eddie Winters and attorney Pamela Reaves-Harris, did not attend, although the forum’s organizers invited them.
On the issue of Chicago’s school board, Perteet said its members should be elected, and certain safeguards should be put in place to prevent “influence” and “corruption.”
“We need an independent school board,” she told the audience of about 40 people.
In Chicago, the mayor currently appoints those who sit on the board of education, making it the only non-elected school board in the state. Education laws in the past empowered Chicago's mayor to appoint the board, and the state legislature must ultimately change the rules.
There is state legislation currently pending, HB 2793, that would provide for the election of Chicago school board members. The measure, sponsored by State Rep. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), has been referred to the Rules Committee.
Hampton, who said he supports the bill, called Smith out for not signing on to the legislation as a co-sponsor.
“That’s the problem. We don’t have enough people willing to go against the power of people in Chicago and say, ‘This is what the people want. This is what we should have,'” he said.
The Charter School Debate
On the topic of education, the candidates were also asked their position on charter schools, which are independently run but receive public money and often get private funds through foundations and philanthropists.
Perteet wants to see a moratorium placed on the opening of any new charter schools in the state.
“I don’t believe they should open up anymore charter schools, because we have enough on the West Side,” she said, adding that she “knows for a fact” that charter schools are not outperforming traditional public schools.
But Calonder, a small business owner who lives in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, said he supports charter school expansion, adding that he finds it "hard to believe" that charters do not perform as well as other public schools.
“There is one issue we have to address with charter schools,” he added. “There is a line of corruption with a lot of these companies that started these charter schools … We’ve got to be careful that, once again, we’re doing this right and there’s some oversight.”
For his part, Hampton said public money should not be put towards charters.
The 10th District incorporates West Side neighborhoods like Garfield Park and West Town but also stretches close to the lakefront, and the race to represent the area is a notable one.
Incumbent Smith faces federal charges for allegedly taking a $7,000 bribe, and was kicked out of the Illinois General Assembly back in August 2012. He was, however, voted back in during the November 2012 general election. Despite the state rep’s federal indictment, powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan is backing Smith. Madigan’s spokesman Steven Brown told the Chicago Sun-Times last month that the House Speaker is in support of incumbents. During the interview, Brown also made a point to stress that a person is “presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
Winters is seen as the one for Smith to beat in the Democratic primary election scheduled for March 18. Following Smith’s expulsion from the House, Winters held the lawmaker’s seat in the Illinois General Assembly from September 2012 to January 2013.
Meanwhile, elected officials including U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL,7) and Chicago Alds. Joe Moreno (1st), Michael Chandler (24th), Jason Ervin (28th) and Emma Mitts (37th) are in support of Reaves-Harris.
Talking TIF Reform
During the forum, the candidates were also questioned about Chicago’s controversial TIF program, which is intended to spur economic development and create jobs in "blighted" neighborhoods by awarding subsidies to developers planning projects in a district. Millions of TIF dollars, however, have also been funneled to private companies for developments in the Loop and other thriving parts of the city.
Other municipalities in the state utilize TIF programs as well, and the state legislature governs TIF laws.
The candidates were asked what they would do, if elected, to ensure TIF programs are accountable and transparent.
Hampton, who said he is in favor of the economic development program, believes TIF districts should be dissolved “the moment the area becomes sustainable.” As it stands, TIF districts typically have a life cycle of 23 years.
“People have been addressing TIFs as if they don’t do good for our community,” he noted. “A lot of the development you see wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for some way to attract business here. My only concern with TIFs is that they need to be reevaluated every five to 10 years. Once a TIF has shown progress, and once an area is stabilized enough so that it can attract business on (its) own, then we can reevaluate and get rid of that TIF. There shouldn’t be a maximum of 23 years.”
Calonder called Chicago’s TIF program a “slush fund”, adding that it is another example of how “incredibly corrupt the city is.” If elected as state rep, Calonder “would change the law” so there is more oversight.
And Perteet said she would “introduce a bill for more transparency” that provides residents with more of a say in how TIF funds are used.
The Community's Take On The Candidates
Audience member Willie “J.R.” Fleming, executive director of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, said he was pleased to hear the candidates come out in favor of some sort of TIF reform.
“I think state legislators need to learn their role when it comes to the allocations and appropriations of TIF monies by the city of Chicago,” Fleming said. According to Fleming, TIF funds should only be used in the “hardest-hit” communities, like those with large numbers of vacant buildings, which is an issue facing the 10th District.
“More importantly about the TIF fund, it has to be controlled by the community," he added. "The community should be the one saying how this money should be allocated.”
But Dwayne Truss, an education activist from Austin and a Raise Your Hand board member, said he would have liked to hear the candidates talk more realistically about how they would work to pass legislation in Springfield.
Passing bills, specifically those designed to impact folks in the most struggling Chicago communities, is not that simple, Truss noted.
“There’s only so many black legislators (in Springfield) and a couple of them are not even in Chicago anymore, so you have to reach out to some of the suburban districts [for help],” he said.
Truss and other community members at the forum explained to the candidates that it took years for area lawmakers to get a criminal record sealing bill passed in Springfield. The bill, which was sponsored by West Side State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) and signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn last year, expanded the list of non-violent felony convictions eligible for criminal record sealing, which locks away but does not destroy certain criminal records.
People in the area were advocating for the sealing measure because a swath of the 10th District, and other Chicago communities, have a large number of formerly incarcerated individuals who find it difficult to land a job, which is a contributing factor to high rates of unemployment in those areas.
Overall though, Truss said he was impressed with the candidates’ positions on education issues.
“Even the Republican was not crazy about charter school expansion,” he said. “They all supported an elected school board.”
That being said, Truss was dubious of the candidates’ chances of unseating Smith.
“Derrick Smith is still the frontrunner based on the fact of name recognition,” he added. “He got kicked out of the House and won election again … When many voters go to the polls, they might not even connect the fact that current State Rep. Derrick Smith is awaiting trial.”
At the end of the day, Fleming said he predicts Smith will be re-elected.
“Being one of the people who supported Representative Smith the first time around when the allegations were out there, I think he stands a stronger chance now, because he actually has Madigan, the person who was against him, shooting for him,” Fleming said. “Now that Madigan’s on the team supporting Derrick … my prediction is he’s going to be back in there.”