Aldermanic candidates for the 31st Ward, including incumbent Ald. Ray Suarez (31st), debated Wednesday night and discussed their platforms for next month’s municipal election.
Those challenging Suarez, who was first elected alderman of the Northwest Side ward in 1991, include lawyer and professor Sean Starr, former reporter Milagros Santiago and Irma Cornier, a community outreach coordinator at NewLife 316.
More than 50 residents of the ward, which includes portions of the Belmont Cragin, Portage Park, Hermosa and Logan Square neighborhoods, attended the debate hosted by the Belmont-Cragin United community organization.
During the forum, each of the candidates was asked what he or she would do to combat crime and violence in the ward.
Belmont Cragin saw six homicides in 2014, including two on November 9, according to RedEye Chicago’s homicide tracker. On New Year’s Day in Belmont Cragin, two men were shot at about 10:50 p.m. in the 5600 block of West Fullerton Avenue, according to Chicago police. A 25-year-old man was reportedly shot in the side and a 42-year-old man was struck by a bullet in the leg.
Suarez, the vice-mayor of the city, boasted that his ward has seen a 27 percent drop in crime since 2013 and highlighted his annual anti-violence rally and peace march.
But he also called for members of the community to “get involved to become part of the solution.”
“I don’t mean people to be police officers, but I mean people should get involved. Call the police, look out the window, call your neighbor,” Suarez said. “We’ve got to form together to form a watch because a lot of us complain that when we go visit areas on the Far Northwest Side or the Far Southwest Side, when you park your car, police come, and you know why? Because people don’t recognize you and they call the police. What I’m saying is we’ve got to get together as a group and form a teamwork, and be part of the solution.”
Starr said battling crime was one of his “four platform points” and that, if elected, he will institute “a five-point crime reduction plan” within three months.
He discussed two of the points in his plan during the forum, community policing and economic development.
“I want to identify ambassadors, people who are OK and feel comfortable around police to communicate with police and who will communicate with me,” Starr said.
“Second thing is more jobs and more job training in the ward … If people have jobs, if people are able to work, there is less crime in the community.”
Cornier said she also wants to increase community policing, detailing a plan to bring a community center to the ward, if elected.
“We’ve never had a community center in the 20 years that I’ve been here,” she said. “If we had that community center, we could focus on these kids, we could focus on the youth. What’s happening is these gangs are recruiting the kids, they’re door-knocking, they’re organized, they’re highly sophisticated.”
Santiago, who includes an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL-4) in her campaign mailer, said she wants to improve the relationship between the community and police.
“I have chased criminals myself down the alley, that’s how bad it is … We have to create a new way of improving the relationship between the community and the police so that there is commitment from both sides to tackle the crime,” she said.
Here’s more from each of 31st Ward candidates:
When the candidates were asked whether they have run an ethical political campaign, Starr took the opportunity to accuse Suarez and Santiago of being “backed by big political machines.”
“I am running as an independent, progressive, populist candidate … I haven’t taken any donations from corporations or any donations from anyone who has an interest in the ward that I would be beholden to,” he said. “There’s certainly two candidates in this race that can’t say that.”
According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, Suarez’s campaign has accepted $2,500 donations from Eastern Accents, Millenium Auto Sales and Armitage Produce, as well as a $2,000 donation from AABBITT Adhesives.
In response to the question about running an ethical campaign, Suarez said he “always has and he always will.”
But Santiago, whose campaign has reported one individual donation of $2,150, took the opportunity to take a jab at incumbent Suarez.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the millions of dollars that my dear vice-mayor has, but I’ve been trying to raise money,” she said. “But you know what, a race is not won by the money that you have … You can win on a positive agenda, you can win on a conviction that you could be a good leader and take this ward in a different direction.”
Cornier’s campaign has accepted more than $2,000 in individual contributions and she has contributed at least nearly $4,000 of her own money, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Cornier said she believes in “good government and transparency.”
“Transparency is extremely important,” she said, adding that Santiago may not have reported all of her campaign’s expenditures.
When the candidates were asked about their opinion of charter schools, Suarez first pointed out that there are none in the 31st ward.
“If a charter school came into my area and had a good reputation, and if I can keep 500 or 600 children in my community, where moms and dads and grandmas can take part in their education, I would have to support that, even though my commitment is to the public school system,” he said. “Because bussing kids, in my opinion, is not a good idea.”
Starr’s wife and mother are both teachers in the Chicago Public Schools system. He said the city has been “systematically starving neighborhood schools.”
“I don’t agree with taking public money and putting it into private hands,” Starr said, adding that he is against charter schools.
Santiago said neighborhood schools are a priority, while Cornier said she is in opposition of charter schools.
Starr, Santiago and Cornier each said they support an elected school board.
When it comes to the mayoral elecion, both Starr and Cornier said they support Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Suarez said he supports Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Santiago said she would like hear more from each candidate before she makes a decision.
At the end of the forum, Suarez said he “deserves the chance to be elected again.”
“My record speaks for itself,” the incumbent alderman said. “I have a tremendous record of education and bringing money to this community to help our schools … I brought Walmart to this community, Wendy’s just came to this community. I have a record.”
Santiago, for her part, said people in the ward need new leadership.
“I am committed to people,” she said. “If I am elected, I want to make sure that every single project that is brought to the ward is consulted by the residents. I think the residents have to have a voice in everything that’s happening.”
Cornier again accused Santiago of dishonesty in campaign expenditures and said she is a progressive who cares about the community.
“I believe we just need change,” she said.
Starr noted that doesn’t agree with the way Suarez votes or the way the alderman runs the 31st Ward.
“I think I can provide a unique leadership here that this ward hasn’t seen in a long time,” he said. “I’m uniquely qualified to lead this community … I’m very clear about what I stand for, I’m progressive, I’m a populist and I will represent every single person in this ward.”
Chicago’s municipal election will take place on February 24.