Mayor Lori Lightfoot pounces on challenger Paul Vallas during punchy women’s forum

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot mixed it up with her challengers Saturday over abortion rights, anti-violence funding and economic development at a punchy candidate forum.

The mayor used a question at the Chicago Women Take Action forum about Roe v. Wade being overturned last year as an opportunity to attack former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and Ald. Sophia King. Recalling the days after the Supreme Court’s draft decision in the Dobbs case leaked, Lightfoot lambasted Vallas for not releasing a statement in the immediate aftermath.

“Remember how you felt when you heard about the draft (Dobbs) decision? It was like a punch in the gut,” Lightfoot said. “All of us took to social media except Paul Vallas, who’s been silent on this for seven months until today. Shame on you!”

Vallas, who earlier in the day released a plan to support reproductive rights, responded by saying he has “always been pro-choice” and pledged to “ensure that Chicago is a reproductive safe haven.”

“Lori likes to invent new facts to suit her narrative,” Vallas said. “That dog doesn’t hunt in this day.”

In the same remarks, Lightfoot also indirectly criticized King for not supporting her most recent budget, which included funding for reproductive rights. King is a former Planned Parenthood Chicago vice chair and opposed the mayor’s budget, she previously said, due to concerns it doesn’t do enough to support public safety.

Saturday’s forum saw eight of the nine candidates in the Feb. 28 mayoral election debate women’s issues, though they differed more on the details than the big picture.

Activist Ja’Mal Green said he’d be “pro-women” and criticized the Lightfoot administration for how it handled the case of Anjanette Young, a social worker whose home was wrongly raided by Chicago Police. The mayor’s administration initially refused to provide her with copies of police video of the raid and later asked a federal judge to prevent CBS Chicago from publishing the video. Lightfoot has apologized for her administration’s handling of the situation but has resisted Young’s efforts to add more restrictions on search warrants.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer answered a question about tackling food deserts by vowing support for local grocers. He also called for more job training for the homeless, noting that “nine times out of 10,” the person refuses the offer for emergency services because they want to be independent and self-sufficient rather than live in a shelter.

Vallas expressed support for keeping school buildings open on weekends, holidays and after school, as well as creating “universal work study” programs to give students a safe place to stay and learn. But on the topic of education, Vallas also took shots from Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, a former teacher, over Vallas’ support for school choice.

“The fact that Paul Vallas, who has privatized public education all over this country, is even on this stage having a conversation about public education, is morally bankrupt,” Johnson said.

Johnson also again called for a tax increase on the city’s highest property sales to fund homelessness services, decrying how “The police budget is one of the biggest budgets that we’ve seen in the history of this city. We’re spending more money to lock them up than house them.”

Businesssman Willie Wilson repeated his promise to “take the handcuffs off the police and put them on the crook,” drawing some gasps at one point when he asserted of people who commit gun violence, “I say they got no rights.”

King went after both Lightfoot and García, saying the mayor only spent a pittance of the city’s anti-violence allocation in last year’s budget, which Lightfoot disputed.

“I must say to Mr. Garcia that if you really believe in bringing us together, you should take back the money that you took from Local 150,” saying the union is backing an ordinance on crane operator regulations that “would exclude the African American businesses from them.”

García, for his part, attacked the mayor for her record on the Invest South/West program that Lightfoot launched as her signature neighborhood investment plan in 2019, with the goal of increasing development in parts of the city that have long suffered from disinvestment.

The mayor frequently lauds the program as a transformational effort to boost neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. But a Tribune review of the program paints a much more complex and nuanced picture.

Among the findings were that while Lightfoot’s administration has spent millions of dollars in public funds and worked to spur both public and private development in neighborhoods that have experienced generations of disinvestment, the mayor has also lumped millions of dollars that were already in the works before she took office or constitute routine government spending, padding the investment total for Invest South/West.

“Invest South/West are the vestiges of the (Mayor Rahm) Emanuel administration with a Lightfoot brand on them,” García said. “You’ve read the stories in the newspapers. … They’re not working because they’re not thought through.”

Lightfoot retorted with a shot at Garcia’s long career as a politician.

“Forty years in public service. Where is your economic plan?” Lightfoot said. “… Of course you have a value statement, but you got to turn that value statement into real action, and that’s what we’ve done for four years.”

State Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner was the only absent candidate. His campaign said he had a personal emergency.