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Before the Polls:
Meet Chicago mayoral candidate La Shawn K. Ford

By Tiffany Walden

La Shawn K. Ford

This story is a part of our Black mayoral candidate series, Before the Polls. Click here to read about the other Black mayoral candidates before hitting the polls on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

La Shawn K. Ford’s campaign office looks exactly how we imagined one to look: a humble storefront on Chicago’s West Side with old carpeting, folding chairs and a podium for the occasional impromptu speech. Ford, 46, is standing in front of one the many ward maps decorating the walls of the meeting space. The 8th District representative has an uphill climb ahead of him in the race to be the city’s next mayor. And at this point, the odds don’t seem to be in his favor.

Of the 14 candidates battling for Rahm Emanuel’s seat, Ford is pendulating around the bottom. According to Chicago Magazine’s weekly Mayoral Power Rankings, Ford came in at number 11 during the week of Feb. 11. In a Chicago Sun-Times poll, conducted by We Ask America, Ford landed at number 10 among the 644 likely voters interviewed via phone.

He’s also struggling in the financial department. As of Feb. 12, Illinois Sunshine showed that Ford had raised $80,807, an incomparable amount to competitors Bill Daley and Toni Preckwinkle, with $8 million and $4 million raised, respectively.

With no seeming path to victory, the question remains: why is Ford running for mayor?

“I got calls from grassroot organizations, the people that I supported in the childcare, education, and the LGBTQ community and the re-entry community,” Ford told The TRiiBE about his decision to run.

“I mean, I think that Chicago is ready for an opportunity to really take the fifth floor back from the people that’s been so committed to downtown but not committed to the 76 other communities like the West and South sides of Chicago,” he explained.

The TRiiBE sat down with Ford on Jan. 18 to chat about his background, political stances, and mayoral campaign. Read our conversation below.

(The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

The TRiiBE: Tell us a little about you. Where’d you grow up. How did your upbringing play a role in your decision to go into politics?

La Shawn K. Ford: So I was born in Cabrini [Green] over on the North Side where it’s so gentrified [that] you can’t move back if you wanted to. And then we moved when I was approximately two years old to the West Side’s Austin community, and stayed there for the rest of my life until we had a fire in our family building. From there we moved to Back of the Yards close to Englewood for a couple of years, and then moved back when our building was ready. I was adopted at birth by my grandmother. My mother was 15 when she had me. So my grandmother took custody, adopted me, and that was very helpful in our lives. My mother has been struggling with substance abuse, addicted to heroin, for a very long time – still is. Never met my father. But through all that, I had a loving family [of] aunts, uncles, a sister and people that supported me. So I’ve been able to achieve some successes.

How did you make that decision to go into politics?

Ford: First I was a teacher by profession. So I taught for six years for Chicago Public Schools.

Which school?

Ford: It’s called Bridge Elementary School on Harlem and Irving, near the HIP mall. After quitting teaching, I went on to open my own real estate company. From that, I had a lot of success. I was able to have four offices with over 65 agents. I did a lot of renovations of homes in the city of Chicago. I sold a lot of houses and [gave] people the American Dream. At that point, I had ran for office twice. I lost. I didn’t have enough money to win. At that time, you just had to have the money to win.

Around what year was that?

Ford: I won in 2006, but I first ran [for state representative] in 1998 and in 2000. I got defeated, but then took off and ran again in 2006 and won. I spent my own money, and beat the whole party. I even beat Barack Obama, sort of, because he supported my opponent. So that was a major accomplishment politically.

Since being in office, what specifically have you done to uplift Black Chicago, especially in the Austin area?

Ford: The things that I do really impact Black lives all over the state. So the first thing I would say is we did an African-American Employment Plan, which made sure that Blacks were able to get their fair share of state jobs. That’s big because Blacks are not really getting the number of jobs equivalent to the population, and we’re not getting the number of managerial positions also. So this African-American Employment Plan monitors that and it gives us opportunity to make sure that we put pressure on state agencies to provide those jobs and the ability to move up in state government. We also passed an Equal Pay Rights Bill for African Americans. We know Blacks are not paid at the same rate as their peers. Because of a bill that I wrote and passed, Blacks have more recourse in the Equal Pay Right Amendment so they can bring suit against any employer that we can prove that there has been some discrimination in the pay rate. We also did Ban The Box. That’s a major piece of legislation where we really moved the needle in the country on making sure that when a person has been convicted of a crime, and they have been reformed, they no longer have to answer the question on applications whether or not they’ve been convicted. We did the sealing of felony records. If you were convicted of a felony, after a certain period of time, your felony records can be sealed. That’s pretty big because when you have felonies, it leaves you out of opportunities for housing, employment, and some state services. 

At what point did you decide to throw your hat in the ring for mayor?

Ford: It happened after the announcement of Rahm. I got calls from grassroot organizations, the people that I supported in the childcare, education and the LGBTQ community and the re-entry community. I mean, I think that Chicago is ready for an opportunity to really take the fifth floor back from the people that’s been so committed to downtown but not committed to the 76 other communities like the West and South sides of Chicago.

Folks are criticizing candidates because everybody jumped in the race after Rahm Emanuel decided not to run. Why wasn’t there a plan to run before Rahm Emanuel’s announcement?

Ford:  I don’t know why the grassroots didn’t come before that.

In the Chicago Defender last year, you mentioned that you tried to get rid of Rahm in a legislative way. What ways did you try to get rid of him, and why were you were trying to get rid of him?

Ford: He closed 50 schools. There was 16 shots and a cover-up with Laquan McDonald. And I thought that we needed a mechanism in government to recall the mayor, which is a powerful position. We should have had a way to recall him after the 16 shots and a cover-up, after devastating communities, and closing over 50 schools. That was unfair. It was unjust to the city of Chicago, but the residents had no recourse. They were stuck with him, and he did not have to pay for his attacks on the community. 

So there isn’t one in place right now?

Ford: No. There was a lot of pushback from the Democratic Party against it. So we couldn’t even get a vote on it because people were afraid to vote for it and support it.

Everyone is vying for the Black vote. We suffered a lot under Rahm Emanuel’s leadership. We’ve lost schools. Police brutality. Our population, especially in Austin, has declined tremendously. What is your plan to retain and rebuild Black Chicago?

Ford: I think when you have a fair city, and you eliminate racism and discrimination in the Chicago Housing Authority, and you eliminate racism and discriminations in Chicago Public Schools and [the] Chicago Police Department, then Chicago will be a more welcoming city to Blacks. Right now, I believe the city is more racist to Blacks than any other city in the nation. When you think about the trickery that they have with the fees, fines and tickets in the city, that’s driving people into poverty. There are taxes on water, bag taxes, and all of these are taxes that drive people into poverty and drive them out of the city. So we have to really find a way to tax the rich people that can afford to pay their fair share in the city. Then we have a better shot at bringing people back. Once we improve the Chicago Public Schools, and every community would have access to quality education, it’s going to automatically bring people back into the city. 

We watched Rahm Emanuel shut down all of these schools over the last few years. Most of them were in the Black neighborhoods. In your opinion, what do these closures say to Black youth, and how do you plan to remedy the CPS problem?

Ford: I went to Catholic schools. I went to Our Lady Help of Christians. It closed. I went to Weber High School. It closed. So I know exactly how it feels to have a school closed. The closure of those schools were devastating to the children. These kids were promised a better education. That didn’t happen. They were sent to schools that may have been worse than what they left. Under my administration, we will have what you call an elected school board. Elected school boards will give parents and communities more input on making sure quality education moves into their neighborhoods. 

Chicago has become more and more expensive to live in over the last few years. We’ve seen Black residents and business owners starved out of the city. Why is it that Black neighborhoods never see quality grocery stores, or businesses outside of churches, liquor stores and funeral homes until white folks start to move in? How will you improve our neighborhoods without pushing people out?

Ford: It’s [about] public and private relationships. When you have a government that’s not investing in education to bring in working-class families so that they can pull themselves out of poverty and into prosperity, private sectors are not going to come. It’s the government that holds back communities. When you look at areas like over in Cabrini [Green] or over in Wrigleyville, those areas prosper and they are vibrant because the government has put these TIF grants over in those areas to build up the communities. Because government supports those communities, you have small businesses that grow. When we shift the priorities of city government, and we start building up communities that have been left behind for so long, then we ought to see a big change

How do you do that without pushing folks out?

Ford: That’s why you have to have a more inclusive economy. There are so many people in Lawndale, in Austin, that lost their businesses because one, the government didn’t support the community, and two, they don’t have access to capital to grow and expand their businesses, and three, people are moving because government oppressed their communities. We don’t have to push people out. We can keep the very people that’s living here, that’s been paying taxes for so long, in those communities. 

Governor J.B. Pritzker is getting ready to go into legalizing marijuana. As mayor, what will that mean for Black folks in Chicago who have been imprisoned for marijuana charges?

Ford: I passed the bill to expunge people that had convictions of cannabis. The Senate did not pass it. We’re going to have to move back to pass that bill within the next month or so. It’s not going to be right if we don’t reform our laws before we try to pass some recreational marijuana because there’s too many people right now incarcerated for simple things like marijuana. Any cannabis laws should be coupled with amnesty for people that have convictions.

What will that mean for Black entrepreneurs who want to get into the marijuana industry?

Ford: Even with ushering in this new cannabis law, we have to make sure that it’s affordable too. It can’t be an industry like Philip Morris where you have to be a multimillionaire in order to get in the business. It has to be a situation where you can have small businesses participate in the industry

So many of our politicians in Chicago have been in trouble with the law. There’s a lot going on right now with Alderman Ed Burke and those with ties to him. You pled guilty to single misdemeanor income tax charges. How can the Black community trust that you will be able to handle our tax dollars responsibly?

Ford: The federal government indicted me on 17 counts of bank fraud. They were trying to get me to take plea deal after plea deal. I refused to do it. On the day of trial, they dropped all 17 counts. The feds [asked], “why don’t you take this deal and say that you underpaid your taxes by $3,700.” How many people have to take a misdemeanor if their accountant failed to do the paperwork right? I took a misdemeanor saying that I underpaid my taxes by $3,700. When we gave them the $3,700, they mailed it back and said you did not underpay your taxes. So they gave me the money back.

So that whole situation has been cleared?

Ford: Yeah. That’s behind me, and I’ve been vetted by the feds.

This past summer, Alderman Willie Cochran referred to the Black Caucus as gangsters. What does that statement say about how our Black aldermen operate, and how will City Hall culture change under your leadership?

Ford: Well I don’t see any gangsters in City Hall, especially not the Black ones, because if we were gangsters I think we’d be gangstering some stuff for our communities. As the mayor, we have to create some more stronger aldermen so that they could represent their communities. That’s the goal, to make sure that we empower aldermen in their communities so that they can do the improvements that they need and bring their wards up. Now that doesn’t mean that they have to have alderman prerogatives where they hold up business licenses until they approve them. That will end.

If you are elected mayor, what will happen with the cop academy?

Ford: If elected, that will be on hold. I made a commitment to the community that I will not support that cop academy and it will be reassessed after my administration takes office.

That’s not a clear answer. Do you support the cop academy? With the history of police terror on the West Side from Homan Square all the way back to the 1968 uprisings with Martin Luther King, why should West Siders in particular welcome more police presence?

Ford: I do not support a cop academy on the West Side. As mayor, you would have to know if there’s a need to build a new academy. I don’t know, but I do know right now everything seems to be working. I know that there are a lot of vacant and abandoned buildings right now in the city of Chicago that’s owned by the city that, if you had to move the current police academy somewhere else, that you could [use]. 

Do you have ideas for what you would put in West Garfield Park instead of a cop academy?

Ford: I can envision that being a manufacturing trade school where you lead the unemployed Black youth and people leaving the Department of Corrections right into trade so that they can be employable. Then you start giving people dignity and hope to live. 

If you are elected mayor, what will happen with the privatized parking meters and targeted ticketing practices?

Ford: The parking meters gotta stay probably because it was sold and it was a contract. We probably can’t do anything with that, but we will end the doubling of tickets. That’s ridiculous to have a ticket double from $50 to $100 after 21 days. If you can’t afford $50, how you gonna afford $100? That will end for sure.

If you are elected mayor, what will happen with affordable housing and folks losing their homes to taxes?

Ford: We have to make sure that the Chicago Housing Authority is a partner with the city of Chicago. We get billions of dollars from the federal government to make sure that we provide housing for those that are homeless, and those that are in need of vouchers. There are a lot of vacant and abandoned buildings that people will love to have if they could just get an opportunity to have a job and buy the American Dream.

If you are elected mayor, what will happen with the relationship between police and Black people in Chicago, which Black people have a complete distrust in the department?

Ford: There’s no way we’re going to be able to improve the relationships with the police if we don’t do something about the consent decree that the [U.S. Department of Justice] has ushered in, saying that the police need training and the police should have some consequences for their actions. The federal consent decree also named the Chicago Police Department as a racist department. We have to make sure that we root out the racism in the department by hiring people that are proven to have morals and values, and that’s got to be priority. We also know that the [Fraternal Order of Police] is an enemy to the police and to the community because they refuse to negotiate a contract that’s going to be fair to having the best quality law enforcement on the street as possible. I’m going to have an immediate meeting with them so that they understand that what they’re doing is not only hurting the community but it’s hurting progress for the Chicago police to get the training that they need, to have their protections that they need.

Do you support the leadership of Superintendent Eddie Johnson?

Ford: Superintendent Eddie Johnson was somewhat a part of the cover-up of Laquan McDonald because he was in that department. It’s easy to just say fire him. But then, who [do] you put in his place at that moment? There’s probably rank-and-file that can be put in his place, but you want to be responsible administrator where you’re going to be in position to make a smooth transition.

The community in Woodlawn is pushing an agreement with President Obama and the library that’s being built. Do you support a community benefits agreement?

Ford: Yes. We have to have the Community Benefits Agreement. [We have to] make sure the community benefits from any types of developments that come in, and make sure that the community is not gentrified out.

What was Rahm Emanuel’s biggest mistake in office, and what would you have done differently?

Ford: There are a lot. It would have to be the destruction of the school system. That’s destroying the foundation of communities. It’s destroying generations of families. On top of it, you closed mental health facilities right when you need the support because you’re going through the trauma of a closed school and violence. I wanted to say 16 shots and a cover-up by Rahm was bad, but when you take away education, you take away dignity. You take away even a chance of hope. So that has to be the number one.

What would you have done differently?

Ford: You don’t close the schools. You make sure that you do everything that you can to invest in those schools. You have to make sure that you use your connections in the business community to bring resources into those schools. You don’t close mental health facilities. You make sure that you have things in the community that people need, and not destroy lives. You hear them talking about the major improvement at O’Hare. You hear them talking about building the underground rail to O’Hare. You see the River Walk. All of these are possibilities to keep schools open. So it’s all about priorities, and where your values are.

Ford on elected school boards

In 2015, I sponsored legislation to remove the power of Chicago’s mayor to appoint the president of the Chicago Board of Education and championed the effort to establish a competent elected school board. I strongly believe in the power of collaborative relationships between parents, community organizations and public schools.

Ford on parking fines and fees

Chicagoans are paying too hefty a price for parking tickets, sticker violations and fines. Reforms are needed now to bring fairness to Chicago’s policy on the doubling of parking tickets and fines.

Ford on police

The system has mechanisms in place to allow and protect misconduct. Chicago must put the safety of its families and taxpayers first, and demand that the city of Chicago and the Fraternal Order of Police negotiate a contract that ends the years and expense of costly police misconduct and ends the distrust between our communities and our police.