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Different planets 

A tale of two endorsement sessions—the Tribune v. the Grassroots Collaborative

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click to enlarge Last week’s #ReimagineChicago Mayoral Forum, hosted by the Grassroots Collaborative at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park - SARA JANE RHEE/GRASSROOTS COLLABORACTIVE
  • Last week’s #ReimagineChicago Mayoral Forum, hosted by the Grassroots Collaborative at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park
  • Sara Jane Rhee/Grassroots Collaboractive

If there's still anyone out there who doubts that Chicago's a divided city, I urge you to compare and contrast two mayoral endorsement sessions that happened to take place on the same day last week—one at the Tribune's downtown office, the other at a west-side church.

It goes beyond a tale of two cities. Stylistically and substantively the two might as well be different planets.

The Trib session took place in the corporate setting of the paper's editorial board room. The candidates sat at one end of a long table, and the editorial board members—most of whom are right of center—sat on the other side, respectfully listening.

In contrast, the mayoral forum hosted by the Grassroots Collaborative—an association of activists from all over town—was more like a boisterous rally. Organizers packed New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park with activists bused in from Englewood, Roseland, Logan Square, Brighton Park, and other neighborhoods.

They distributed green and red pieces of paper for audience members to wave when they agreed (green) or disagreed (red) with what the mayoral candidate was saying.

Before the forum began, they blasted "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," "Wake Up Everybody," and other great songs of the 70s over the loudspeakers. In case anyone needed to be fired up.

Now, I'm not saying Trib publisher Bruce Dold and star columnist John Kass should perform an air-guitar rendition of "Free Bird" at their next endorsement session, like it was 1975 and they were jamming with their pals in the basement. But fellas, if the spirit moves you—be my guest.

In general, the Trib's editorial board reflects the view from a downtown corporate boardroom. They're like bankers sternly reviewing a loan application, somberly demanding how the applicant will pay for things that, let's face it, the Trib's editorialists probably don't want in the first place. Like our current pension system that pays retirees a relatively decent check.

Generally left unmentioned at these sessions is how the city can afford to hand over $1.7 billion in property taxes to developers. As Mayor Rahm's proposing with his TIF-funded plan to build upscale housing developments in gentrifying areas (yes, I'm referring to Lincoln Yards and the 78, aka Rezko Field).

Apparently, pensions for the middle class are a burden, but TIF handouts for the wealthy are an investment, at least from the perspective of the corporate boardroom.

click to enlarge SARA JANE RHEE/GRASSROOTS COLLABORACTIVE
  • Sara Jane Rhee/Grassroots Collaboractive

"Efforts to cut government costs were a popular idea at the Tribune forum, a time-honored approach for candidates who know tax-weary voters are fans of lowering City Hall spending rather than digging deeper into their pockets" is how the Tribune's news account of the editorial meeting phrased it. Over at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary, meanwhile, there was no talk of gutting pensions. Many in the audience view those as direct payments to people who live and shop in the communities they represent.

Quite the contrary, this group advocated raising taxes on the wealthy and redistributing TIF funds away from gentrifying or wealthy communities.

They billed the event the #ReimagineChicago Mayoral Forum, the first step in drafting a platform intended to "break the pattern of neighborhood disinvestment, gentrification, and displacement" by creating a city "free of racist policies, discrimination, and crooked favors for the rich and well connected."

As one speaker, Ashley Galvan Ramos, a 19-year-old youth leader for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, put it: "We imagine a city where neighborhoods get what they need—don't pretend the money is not there."

I'll say this for the Tribsters—they invited all the mayoral candidates to their endorsement sessions. The Grassroots organizers were more selective, limiting invitations to candidates who already appealed to their constituents. Onstage at the church were Amara Enyia, La Shawn Ford, Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle, and Willie Wilson (Susana Mendoza was invited, but she sent her regrets claiming she was under the weather).

As much as I enjoyed the forum, I'd have invited all the candidates—establishment figures Garry "Big Mac" McCarthy, Paul Vallas, Bill Daley, and Gery Chico included—if I'd had any say in the matter.

Obviously, I have about as much influence on how the Grassroots Collaborative runs its events as I do on what the Tribune writes in its editorials.

Much of the forum was dedicated to moving testimony from residents—like the woman who talked about how she battled suicide after the city closed several mental health clinics.

Parents talked about the devastating impact of school closings and the rising cost of gentrification, which is forcing many residents out of neighborhoods they've lived in for years. That's a pattern that will accelerate if the City Council rubber-stamps the mayor's plans for Lincoln Yards and Rezko Field.

Dramatically speaking, the highlight came near the end of the forum, during the round of rapid-response yes-or-no questions. The candidates were asked whether they support committing at least $25 million to reopening the mental health clinics that Rahm closed; whether they support free tuition at city colleges; whether they support an end to CPS's student-head-count-based funding (so schools don't have to fire teachers if enrollment falls); and whether they'd delay action on the pending TIF projects until after the election. I was the guy in the back waving two green cards when they asked that last one.

All the candidates answered yes to each.

They closed the forum by asking candidates to sign a pledge that among other things would commit them to putting at least one member of the coalition on their transition team.

All but Wilson signed that pledge. He said he'd have to give it more thought. Here's some more unsolicited advice for the Grassroots Collaborative leaders that they're free not to follow . . .

Keep up the pressure. If history's any judge, promises made to activists will be the first our next mayor breaks—if nothing else to stay in good graces with the Trib. v

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