Lightfoot bears brunt of criticism at mayoral candidate forum on issues affecting disabled Chicagoans


Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas (left) and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who are both running for mayor of Chicago, share a laugh during the Disability Mayoral Candidates’ Forum Saturday, where seven Chicago mayoral candidates shared their plans to make the city more accessible to people experiencing disabilities at Access Living in the River North neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A newly narrowed crowd of mayoral candidates sat together for the first time Saturday afternoon for a conversation on issues affecting the city’s disabled community.

Seven candidates — community activist Ja’Mal Green; Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson; state Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago; former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Paul Vallas; Ald. Sophia King (4th); U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-Ill.; and incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot — were seated in a row at a long table for the mostly cordial debate at the Access Living forum in River North.

Garcia said he was “running on fumes,” having flown to Chicago following days of voting that resulted in U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s, R-Calf., election as speaker of the House early Saturday.

Missing from the forum were two candidates. Businessman Willie Wilson and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) had both failed to fill out a required questionnaire to participate.

Lightfoot bore the brunt of criticism at the forum and faced it almost immediately.

“We need someone who can lead with communication and not altercation,” King said in a barb aimed at Lightfoot in her opening statement.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is running for re-election, reacts during the Disability Mayoral Candidates’ Forum on Saturday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Responding to questions about how the city serves residents with mental health conditions, Vallas and Green both attacked Lightfoot for not reopening mental health clinics on the South and West sides that were shuttered during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s term in office.

Lightfoot, who as a candidate had promised to reopen the clinics, stood by her team’s strategy of providing “culturally relevant” mental health care, which she said her administration has made available across Chicago. Lightfoot said she had also increased funding for mental health care in the city’s budget, much of which was set aside for grants to local clinics.

“When I heard from the experts, and what I heard from patients, was that they didn’t want the clinician care that our clinics offer,” Lightfoot said. “What they wanted was culturally relevant mental health services in their neighborhood.”

Garcia suggested the city work with the county to combine their efforts on mental health to bring more resources to local clinics.

“We cannot continue to work in silence,” Garcia said. 

Mayoral candidate and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia speaks during the Disability Mayoral Candidates’ Forum on Saturday in River North.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Criminal justice reform proved to be a hot button issue and saw the candidates finding ways to differentiate themselves.

Lightfoot said there were “no resources” for formerly incarcerated people when she took office but argued that a Reentry Council she created had made strides.

“Simply hiring someone to lead an office is not going to change [things],” Vallas shot back at Lightfoot. The former schools chief said the city needed more education and job training opportunities for people leaving prison.

Vallas said he would use police resources to combat several citywide issues, including a plan to put mental health centers at police precincts across the city and to drop the private security hired by Lightfoot’s administration to patrol the CTA, saying he’d reallocate those funds to post cops at stations and on trains instead.

Johnson called Vallas’ plan a “failed approach,” given past brutality that he said that disabled Chicagoans, and the city’s residents at large, have faced at the hands of police officers. 

State Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) adjusts the tie of community activist Ja’Mal Green as Ald. Sophia King (4th) looks at Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson during the Disability Mayoral Candidates’ Forum on Saturday in River North.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Johnson and Vallas, along with Green and Buckner, were able to find common ground in a desire to fund a city program to clear sidewalks of snow in the winters, which the city currently calls a “shared community responsibility.” The frozen paths can be treacherous to navigate for residents with physical disabilities.

Lightfoot touted the impact of the Red and Purple Line Modernization and Red Line expansion projects on improving the transit agency’s accessibility, as well as recently securing a federal grant to help pay for more improvements.

Buckner promised to make the CTA “100% accessible” if elected. 

“The [Americans with Disabilities Act] has to be our floor, not our ceiling,” Buckner said. 

To close the forum, moderator Andrés Gallegos, the chair of the National Council on Disability, urged the audience to use what was said to help make their decisions in the race next month.

“Get out and vote like your life depends on it,” Gallegos said. “’Cause it very well might.”

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