Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis met with residents of the McKinley Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side Monday night and discussed how she would run City Hall if she were elected to be Chicago’s next mayor.
Lewis touched on a myriad of subjects ranging from budgeting, tax increment financing (TIF) and housing to confronting violence in Chicago at the Monday night forum, held at the New Era Windows Cooperative, 2600 W. 35th St., as part of the ongoing “Conversations with Karen” series.
“What qualifies me to be the mayor, is that I care deeply about this city and I care deeply about the entirety of the city,” she said.
“We need to have a mayor who has a vision of what this city can be like, and I honestly believe this city could work for everyone in it, not just a few,” Lewis said.
At the onset of the meeting, Lewis joked that, for starters, she’s old enough to be the mayor. But she also added that she would implement a transparent administration and participatory budgeting.
“If the Board of Education and the city would involve people in the process of actually developing the budget, then you could see where the money is, where it’s going and make better suggestions,” Lewis said. “Democracy, what a concept.”
She also called for an audit of every TIF district in the city.
“We need to open the books on the TIFs, so every district and every neighborhood knows what money is sitting there available,” Lewis said.
Tax increment financing is a form of public financing by which portions of property taxes are used as a subsidy for community development projects. Projects with funding from TIF districts are approved by the Chicago City Council.
Instituted in Illinois more than 30 years ago, TIF districts are designed to encourage development in blighted areas. But for years critics have condemned a lack of community involvement in potential developments, saying taxpayers should have more input into which projects their taxes help fund.
“In every single neighborhood that have TIFs, people ought to how that money is being spent, where it’s going, how it’s being used and whether it needs to go back to the agencies from which it came from,” Lewis said.
“The more information you have, the better decisions you make.”
When asked how she would confront the city’s violent crime problems, Lewis said her administration would develop a comprehensive plan to increase wrap-around services for disenfranchised neighborhoods.
“The issue becomes how do we invest appropriately, when and where, in our children,” she said. “The key is that if we don’t have real jobs, if we don’t have a minimum wage that can feed a family, then we’re going to continue to see frustration, anger and violence taken out.”
Lewis also called for an increase in affordable housing in the city, and more integrated neighborhoods.
“We need to incentivize developers to build affordable housing and mixed-income housing… These communities have a right to exist. I think that’s been missing in what’s going on right now,” she said.
Click through to view video of Lewis speaking at Monday night's forum.
Susan Mullen, 57, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher and resident of the McKinley Park neighborhood, said she attended the forum because every year her classes “become more and more overcrowded” and she wanted to hear Karen’s opinions on funding public education.
“The way things are going now, it’s almost like they’re trying to disenfranchise the next generation by underfunding schools, and somebody has to stop that and I think Karen can,” Mullen said.
Lewis, who has donated $40,000 of her own money to her campaign fund, has to gather 12,500 signatures of registered voters in order to get on the ballot. Nomination petition sheets for the February election could begin circulating as early as August 26 and have to be filed no later than November 24.
Ben Folgers, 23, who is also a CPS teacher and resident of the Southwest Side neighborhood, said he attended Monday’s forum because he supports Lewis and was disillusioned with Emanuel’s administration when a record-breaking number of schools were closed last year.
“Closing those schools was a deal-breaker for me, and I think Karen would increase funding for CPS,” Folgers said.
Meanwhile, Lewis has still not announced her official candidacy for the mayoral run, but said she is confident with her fundraising.
“We have to see that our benchmarks are met, our petitions are done and we have enough money raised. But it's going great,” she said. “When we hit those benchmarks, we’ll be unstoppable.”