Eyeing the field

For the first few minutes of last Saturday’s political debate, candidates for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s empty Second Congressional District seat outnumbered audience members. Seven candidates showed up for the debate at the Rainbow Beach Field House, hosted by the NAACP; a handful of people occupied the plastic chairs lined up in front of them. The low turnout belied the size of the issues at stake, as the moderator, Professor Robert Starks, was keen to point out.

“We are heading in for a bonanza,” the Northeastern Illinois University professor told the candidates. He was referring to the potential for hundreds of billions of federal, state, and private dollars that could come to the Illinois’ Second District for various infrastructure projects–the proposed South Suburban Airport, high-speed rail, and more. The concern, as Starks put it, is that this money might pass right over the heads of local residents, providing neither benefits nor jobs. Which candidates, he asked, could make sure that African Americans got a slice of the pie? He wasn’t able to get a very clear answer.

Charles Rayburn, speaking with the impassioned rhythm of a preacher, cited his ties to unions and church leaders as a sign that he would truly work for the community. Patrick Brutus, with over a decade of experience in the public (though not the political) sector, emphasized his on-the-ground experience of actually “doing the work” with city government to build development projects. Anthony Beale, Ninth Ward alderman, showed his political experience, discussing his economic record at a quick tempo with a polished timbre. Beale cited the “community benefits agreement” he pushed Walmart to write in 2010 as an example of his belief that local residents ought to benefit from local businesses.

Though economic development was the topic of the day, there was another issue that had to be aired. The debate’s low turnout was not necessarily a matter of civic apathy; many local residents were likely attending the funeral of fifteen-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, the random victim of a gang-related shooting. Fittingly, the candidates–at least the candidates present at the debate–all vigorously supported gun control. Missing was Democratic candidate Debbie Halvorson, who has been given an “A” rating by the NRA for her positions on gun control. Defeated by Jackson in last year’s Second District race, Halvorson has recently been bombarded with a million dollars’ worth of attack ads from Bloomberg-funded super PAC Independence USA.

Turning the conversation toward the national gun control debate, Brutus noted that one of the most heavily debated proposals, an assault weapons ban, is not necessarily relevant to the needs of Chicago, where deaths from handguns are far more common. Rayburn, wearing a hoodie instead of a suit in honor of Trayvon Martin, agreed: “Kids are being killed one bullet at a time!” There wasn’t much to disagree with there.