A week before Chicago's municipal election, three of four aldermanic candidates in the 36th Ward participated in a public forum Tuesday night in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.
Those vying for the Northwest Side ward seat, left vacant by Ald. Nick Sposato (36th) who is running in the 38th ward due to the city's ward remap, include business owner Christopher Vittorio, reference librarian Alonso Zaragoza, and Omar Aquino, a former employee of U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D, IL-8). Business owner Gilbert Villegas is also running for the seat, but did not attend Tuesday's event.
Roughly 50 residents of the 36th Ward, which includes portions of the Belmont Cragin, Portage Park, Montclare, Galewood, Dunning and Hermosa neighborhoods, attended the debate hosted by the Communities United organization.
During the forum, each candidate said the ward has been neglected by the Chicago City Council.
"This community is not getting the same resources that other communities are getting," said Zaragoza, who was born and raised in the area. "We're being ignored. We've been ignored for the last 20 years in this community, whether it was by Emma Mitts, whether it was by Ray Suarez, all these politicians are just being politicians and are not serving our community."
Vittorio, who was endorsed by the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, agreed, saying, "We don't have politicians that are willing to commit to what's right."
Aquino, who is backed by Duckworth, Ald. Ray Suarez (31st), Secretary of State Jesse White and Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, said, "We don't get the city services and so forth that we deserve."
One source of contention for several attendees Tuesday night is overcrowding in neighborhood schools, including Hanson Park Elementary School, where the forum was held. Two audience members asked the candidates if they would help the elementary school attain an annex.
Vittorio said it starts with having a politician that stands for neighborhood schools and added that "this is something that has to be lobbied with the state."
Aquino said he would work with other elected officials and search for alternative funding sources for struggling neighborhood schools.
"I would work with our state electeds... I would work with our congressman as well, for federal funding. We have to look for multiple sources of funding. I would also take a look at reforming TIFs, to see if there's any excess money there that can be brought back to our schools in our community," he said.
Zaragosa took the opportunity to jab his opponents, saying he's "the only candidate here who's actually gone to Chicago Board of Education meetings over and over again regarding budget cuts and getting more resources for our community."
"As alderman I'm going to be downtown all the time. I'm going to be at those board of education meetings letting Barbara Byrd-Bennett, or whoever is the board president after this election, letting them know that we need this to happen," he added.
Aquino, Vittorio and Zaragoza all said they support an elected school board, but Zaragoza added that he has collected signatures for a non-binding elected school board ballot referendum.
"I'm the only candidate to actually go out and knock on doors to get signatures to make sure that an elected school board gets on the 36th Ward ballot," Zaragoza said. "I'm for an elected school board, it's something that, it's time has come... But if you haven't been working to get it on the ballot, it's hard to say you're for it. Don't just say you're for it, but be about it and make it happen."
A member of the audience also asked each candidate for their stance on charter schools.
Saying "that's an easy one," Vittorio said he supports neighborhood schools.
"I firmly believe that if we were to close down all of our neighborhood schools and open up charter schools, we'd see the same results. They benefit from certain ways they do business, expelling students and keeping their numbers up," he said, adding that low-performing neighborhood schools should be provided more resources.
Aquino, who referred to himself as a "product of CPS," called for a moratorium on charter school expansion.
"I personally believe that charter schools are really a tax haven for the rich," he said. "They take needed resources from our neighborhood schools."
Zaragoza is also against charter school expansion.
"I'm not only against charter schools, but for the last five years, almost six years, I've been working against those charter schools and for our neighborhood public schools," he said. "We had a rally at Riis Park, we had a rally at Emma Mitts' office, we had a rally in Logan Square, and I've been there."
Here's for more from Tuesday's candidate forum:
The candidates were also asked abou their thoughts on the city's red light camera program.
Vittorio said he is "100 percent against red light cameras," but also noted that the city would need to find a funding source to make up for revenue lost when the cameras are phased out.
"This was clearly implemented to generate revenue. To be honest, you can't just pull them all out, the city does depend on that revenue, so we need to kind of start weeding them out," he said. "Another problem is, and again this comes down to our politicians making poor decisions, we own the equipment. So, to just get rid of the program, we need to find a more productive way to get back some of our money that was invested in the program."
Aquino said the red light cameras is a "tax on us," and suggested raising property taxes through a "progressive tax swap" as an alternative source of revenue.
"They don't fool anyone. They say [red light cameras are] for safety and what not, but it's another revenue-generating scheme," he said, adding that a "progressive tax swap is a more equitably way to generate money."
Zaragoza said red light cameras, speed cameras and the price of the city's parking meters have "a big impact" on the 36th Ward and pledged to "make sure these things are taken care of."
"Maybe they can afford it over there in Logan Square and Lincoln Park, but not here," he said.
When it comes to the mayoral election, Zaragoza said he supports Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, while Vittorio said he is undecided. Aquino said he hasn't decided between Garcia and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Early voting for Chicago's municipal election kicked off February 9 and election day is February 24.