(Bloomberg) — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot faced a wave of criticism for rising crime in the first televised debate as candidates jockeyed to replace her as head of the third-largest US city.
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Rising crime rates are the top issue for the Windy City in next month’s election, sparking outrage among residents and business leaders. Chicago has also faced some high-profile corporate departures in the past year including hedge fund Citadel, plane maker Boeing Co. and the local offices of Tyson Foods Corp.
“Safety is the number one, two, and three issue that’s facing our city,” Sophia King, an alderman on the city council who is running to lead Chicago, said during the debate on Thursday evening. “The number one request I get is for more police presence.”
Crime complaints jumped 41% last year, and rates are up 33% since 2019, the year Lightfoot took office. But progress has been uneven, with the mayor citing a 14% decline in homicide rates last year, while acknowledging more needs to be done.
There are nine candidates running in the city’s mayoral election, which will be held on Feb. 28. If none of them wins a majority of votes, a runoff will be held on April 4.
“My primary goal is to make sure that Chicago is the safest big city in the country,” Lightfoot said, pleading to hire more officers. “I recognize that people in the city don’t feel safe.”
US Representative Chuy Garcia, a top contender in the race who has called for Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown to be replaced, reiterated his criticism during the debate, saying he would hire more officers. He lambasted the city’s record, saying more than three quarters of the city’s homicides go unsolved.
But Garcia was also criticized for having a public safety plan that resembles Lightfoot’s. Candidates also questioned his track record in previous government roles and in Congress, while Lightfoot brought up his connections to disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried.
Paul Vallas, a former chief executive officer of the Chicago school system, criticized the millions of dollars being spent on private security and called for more officers on public transport.
“The bottom line is we are short of police officers,” Vallas said, saying Chicago is down 1,700 officers since Lightfoot took office. He repeatedly called for better security on the trains and buses operated by the Chicago Transit Authority.
Still, Lightfoot has scored some wins recently. At the end of last year, the city’s debt was upgraded by Fitch Ratings Inc. for the first time in more than a decade, while Moody’s Investors Service elevated Chicago out of junk status. That will cut borrowing costs and save the city billions when it taps debt markets.
She also sought to counter criticism that employers have abandoned Chicago on her watch, saying that more than 300 companies have relocated to the city or expanded their presence there in the past two years. She cited moves by the likes of Google — which bought a building that takes up a whole city block — and Kellogg Co.’s decision to move the headquarters of its snacks division to Chicago.
But even the Chicago Bears, the city’s much loved football team, is now threatening to leave.
“We’re bleeding businesses,” said State Representative Kam Buckner. “We saw it with Boeing. We’re seeing it with the Bears. We’re seeing that when mom and pop shops around the city.”
Candidate Ja’Mal Green, a community activist, and King accused Lightfoot of misrepresenting crime statistics. Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, said he recently had to replace a window in his family’s home on the west side of the city because it was pierced by a gunshot.
Vallas also attacked the city’s high property taxes, saying increases have been “draconian” and caused the cost of rent to spike. The high cost of living in the city has been cited as a factor causing a decline in Chicago’s population.
See also: Lightfoot defends ‘tough decisions’ to lead city out of junk rating
(Updates with criticism to Chuy Garcia in seventh paragraph)
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