The TRiiBE sat down with the 2023 Black mayoral candidates to learn more about their political views. Read their Q&A profiles here. Visit The TRiiBE Election Center to learn more about the Chicago municipal election taking place on Feb. 28.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward) is no stranger to Chicago politics. He’s served in the City Council since 2011, when he defeated Freddrenna Lyle, who was appointed by then-mayor Richard M. Daley in 1998. 

Sawyer was born and raised — and still resides — in Park Manor, one of the neighborhoods he represents in City Council, just like his father did. Like Daley, Sawyer is the son of a former Chicago mayor. 

Following the death of Harold Washington, Sawyer’s father, Ald. Eugene Sawyer, was tapped by a bloc of white aldermen to be mayor over Washington ally Timothy Evans. He served for two years until his defeat by Daley in the 1989 mayoral election. Daley maintained power for nearly three decades, longer than any other Chicago mayor. Sawyer explained that he follows in his father’s footsteps not for family legacy, but as a public servant. 

“I’m not running for mayor because of him. I’m running for mayor because there’s a problem, and I can help resolve it,” he said. 

As part of our 2023 Black mayoral candidate interview series, Sawyer invited The TRiiBE on Jan. 5 to Oooh Wee It Is, a Black-owned restaurant in Chatham known for its Southern comfort food. 

Currently, Sawyer serves as chairman of the City Council’s Health and Human Relations Committee. In addition, he was chair of the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus and the co-chair of the Progressive Reform Caucus. 

He said that his record in City Council and the fact that he has garnered the support and trust of his colleagues in the chamber prove that he’s equipped to be Chicago’s next mayor. 

“I’ve had groundbreaking legislation introduced and passed in City Council, so I have a proven ability to get things done,” Sawyer said. 

During his tenure in City Council, he has championed issues such as the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance that established an elected civilian board of Chicago residents to oversee the Chicago Police Department (CPD), the fight for a $15 minimum wage, the push for an elected representative school board and GoodKids MadCity’s Peace Book Ordinance. 

He’s also voted in favor of unpopular measures, including Emanuel’s 2011 budget, which passed unanimously and closed six of the city’s 12 mental health facilities, and a 2017 move to acquire property in West Garfield Park for a cop academy, which passed 48 to 1.

During our conversation, Sawyer discussed his plans to address violence, mental health, youth, housing, reparations for Black Chicagoans and more. 

He is not calling to increase or decrease the CPD’s budget. Instead, according to his public safety plan, he wants to recruit more police officers, fix the city’s emergency response system, improve officer wellness, invest in comprehensive police training and more. In addition, he supports Treatment Not Trauma, wants to address the root causes of violence and calls for revitalizing neighborhoods that have seen decades-long disinvestment.

As an alder, he voted in line with mayor Rahm Emanuel 100 percent of the time from April 2017 to November 2018.  

Read our full interview with Sawyer, as part of our 2023 Before the Polls mayoral candidate interview series.

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

Quick jump

1 Background

The TRiiBE: How did growing up in Park Manor shape your politics?

Ald. Roderick Sawyer: Growing up in Park Manor and still living here today is quite a testament to the neighborhood and the people there. When I was growing up, I saw it at its best. I've seen it struggling, and I've seen it in challenging times. It never eliminated my resolve to want to stay here and try to improve upon what's here.

I'm very adamant about where I came from. I spend an inordinate amount of time in my neighborhood because I feel strongly about the people here. They formed me into who I am now. So as a lawyer, as a business person and as a resident, it is overwhelming the love I get from my Park Manor neighbors, my Chatham neighbors, because we've all come through that struggle. We were all little kids together, delinquents, playing in the alleys and riding our bikes throughout the area. So for me to stay here and choose to be here is not a testament to me, but it's a testament to the others around me. So that is extremely important.

You are the son of Chicago's second Black mayor, Eugene Sawyer.


When the City Council was selecting a successor after the passing of Harold Washington, there was concern that appointing your father to the role would mean a return to machine politics. Also, most of the support he received from the chamber came from white alderpersons who were obstructionists to then-mayor Harold Washington and his agenda. There were also some accusations from some in the community that accused your father of selling out to white politicians. 


Why are you entering the race? Is it to follow in your father's footsteps? What did you learn from your father about public service?

Well, let's just make some corrections. First, my father was chosen because he was the best candidate for that position. It was a troubling time after our friend Harold Washington died.

My father was both chairman of the Rules Committee and president pro tempore. So that meant he ran the Rules Committee, and when Harold stepped out, he took over the mantle. That was an enormous amount of responsibility given to my father. No one has ever held two committee chairs at the same time besides him. So I give that as a testament of trust from the mayor to my father. The mayor knew that the job was going to get done. Furthermore, when Harold died, my father passed every initiative that Harold sought to pass and was unable to because of his untimely death. Even things that were against his own personal interests.

My father was a devotee of Harold Washington. So all that talk was nonsense about him being beholden to white interests. My father was a proud Black man from this neighborhood [Park Manor] and Greensboro, Alabama. A person that stood there protecting Martin Luther King’s house while he was at Alabama State.  

So all that noise people made back then was very troubling. It was disheartening because my father’s interests were for his residents, the city, Chicago and the 6th Ward. 

To answer your ultimate question, though, my father taught me a lot about how important it is to be a good steward of your community and how important public service is. So in that regard, yes, I am following my father’s footsteps, not as mayor but as a public servant here in an area where I was born and raised, and because of that and what I saw from him, how people held him in high esteem because he helped those that were in this neighborhood. So I wanted to continue in that service. I’m not running for mayor because of him. I’m running for mayor because there’s a problem, and I can help resolve it.

2 Safety & Policing

I read that you feel that crime is our city's most pressing issue. Yet, if elected, you said you would first fire CPD Police Supt. David Brown. Is that still the case? Why or why not?

I think our biggest problem is crime anxiety. That means no matter where you live in the city. If you go outside, you feel there’s a chance that something might happen to you. That’s the anxiety, and that has a financial cost. 

Those that are of means don’t go out because they feel that anxiety. That means they don’t spend money at restaurants, bars and theaters and gyms, breweries and health clubs and all the things that we would expect them to spend money [on].

When I saw David Brown down in Dallas, I was encouraged. I thought he would be a good superintendent because he supported his police officers down in Dallas. I saw that he was hard on crime and a tough guy. Unfortunately, we’re not getting that same guy here right now. This is not the same David Brown.

If elected, I would use that opportunity to use the platform that I worked on for seven years, the Empowering Communities for Public Safety, or ECPS [ordinance].

I'm proud to say I was the lead sponsor of the ECPS ordinance, that I helped bring it to fruition. So we'll be electing community-based members to reestablish the trust between the community and the police and when we do that, people will feel more comfortable about talking to the police. That means they'll give police more information, which means we can solve more crimes, so that's how that works. It's a ripple effect.

So I am a big proponent of that. I will also use that same platform to choose a superintendent that has the respect of the police department, of the rank and file, that has been through the system, that understands what we need in order to have officers laser focus on their job, which is to apprehend bad guys and bound them over for trial.

Do you believe in increasing or decreasing CPD's budget? How do you feel the police budget should be allocated?

We should have the resources necessary to respond to service calls. The City of Chicago is in a service business. That's especially true for the police. Police are a service. They're public servants; they serve you and serve everyone here.

So if we don't have enough officers to respond to calls and it takes more than an hour to respond to calls, that's a problem. That's increasing that same anxiety I talked about. So now I've got robbed, I call the police, and no one shows up. That feels like no one's protecting me. That's that continued anxiety. So it won't make me feel better if no one shows up.  

So here’s what we're talking about doing for nonviolent calls, let's say, unfortunately, you got robbed, but you're okay. You don’t get harmed. They took your wallet, purse or car. You can call 9-1-1, and we can send somebody over to get a report from you, a uniformed officer. It can be a retired officer that knows how to take the report and get descriptions from you and pass on that information to those on the street that can hopefully apprehend that suspect or that offender and get them bound over for trial.

How will you be investing in safety? Based on what you said, does that mean that you would hire more police officers?

I would hire police officers where appropriate. I would make sure that we get past the level of retirements and defections. People are leaving. And ensure that it's not an either-or approach. I believe in getting the officers staffed to the appropriate level. Maybe it's retired officers or civilians that we need to hire to get those officers that we need to get on the street. 

We may just need to reallocate some positions. But that doesn't mean we should not invest in mental health services, job opportunities, employment training, drug and substance abuse, or addiction. No, it's a both-and approach. We need to invest in all of those things.

Are there other ways outside of police that you would invest in safety?

Again, invest in mental health services treatment response that, maybe, someone can de-escalate a situation instead of arresting somebody. We can provide drug addiction services to those that are dependent. We need to invest in both of those things. It's not a do this and don't do that. You do both.

In 2020, you proposed removing CPD from CPS in City Council. Has your opinion on that changed? Why or why not?

Well, let me say this. My goal was not to remove police officers from schools. I wanted to spark a conversation on what police officers do in certain schools and how it sometimes has a negative effect on its students. I’m glad it worked out the way it did because schools now make a choice. They can choose whether they want officers in their school or don’t want officers, and it’s a school LSC [Local School Council] choice. I’m really happy with the way it came out. 

People just misconstrued my goal. My goal was to spark a discussion, which it did. Sometimes you have to do bold things, and that’s why you need a leader that will not be afraid to make a bold decision. I didn’t make a rash decision; I made a bold decision. 

We ended up saving some money. We saved several million dollars for those schools that chose not to have officers in their school and those that kept officers in schools that were happy with their officers. It empowered LSCs and others to make decisions on the future of their schools, which I'm happy that I did.

Many of your colleagues voted in favor of Mayor Lightfoot's proposal to extend and expand the citywide curfew for youth despite critics saying it would disproportionately harm Black and brown youth. You were one of the Black alders that voted against it. How do you suggest that we non-punitively support youth within and outside CPS? How would you fund these plans?

We were thinking about how to keep them away, as opposed to how we engage with them and have them in a safe space where they can enjoy themselves, and when it's time to go home, they'll go home. They're tired, and they had a good time. We provided something good for them, and the organizers made a little money. That's how I made money as a kid. I threw parties. I was a DJ, threw parties, and was involved in that. 

So I don't see that in youth right now. That's why they're so frustrated they don't have anywhere to let off that steam. When you're young, you have a lot of pent-up energy that you need to release, so that's dancing and acting silly for a minute. We needed to provide that for them. So they get frustrated, and they're going to act out, and that's what happened and that's a failure on our part.

3 Mental Health

As an alderperson, you voted to shut down half of the city's mental health clinics during then-mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration. Yet, on your campaign website, you said you support Treatment Not Trauma. If you support Treatment Not Trauma, why did you vote to close those mental health clinics?

When I was elected, I came in as chairman of the health and human relations committee, and the first thing I did was visit the remaining mental health centers. They were empty.  

There were hardly any patients at any level. I visited all of them. They said no alder ever visited them. I’ve visited all of them. The first thing I did was to look at all of them and see what the resources were and if they were busy. Did we need to provide more resources?

Back when I made that vote about the mental health centers, I did an article a couple of years later, and I said if I could take one vote back, the only vote I would take back was the closing of the mental health service [clinics]. We should have dived into that further.

I don’t think they shouldn’t have been closed. We should have dived into it a bit further to find out why the administration wanted them closed. We did not do that; it was a cost-cutting money-saving measure. My eyes were opened when I visited them and realized that we were not using them. We were not advertising for them, and we’re not promoting them. It wasn’t known that they existed and that people could go there for free. 

I realized they weren’t accepting children. Because of our advocacy, they’re caring for children now. They’re expanding their hours, and they’re starting to put promotions on. So I played a role in ensuring the administration became aware of a problem related to our mental health service.

As you know, voters in your ward overwhelmingly supported the Treatment Not Trauma ballot referendum during the 2022 midterm. If elected, how would you fund the specific plans under the Treatment Not Trauma ordinance?

We have funding available for Treatment Not Trauma. The Department of Health has a robust budget. We can fund Treatment Not Trauma, with no problems. Because that money is earmarked for certain things, we can have that money available for things like mental health services. We can use the money that's available now. 

It's not as much a funding issue. It's an intentionality issue. Do people want this to happen? I don't see why you would not want it. You can save someone's life by providing them with mental health services instead of bringing in a police officer. 

A police officer is trained to do a certain thing. Police officers are trained to apprehend and arrest. That's their job. It is needed in certain instances: when someone's robbing you, you want the police. When someone's having a mental health breakdown, you don't want the police. You want a mental health expert. You want somebody that can say, “calm down,” or direct you to proper services. You need that kind of calming, de-escalating voice that could assist you.

Roderick Sawyer // Photo by Alexander Gouletas for The TRiIBE

4 Youth & Education

The COVID-19 pandemic has already highlighted existing disparities in schools with funding and resources, especially for Black and brown students. What policies will you enact in neighborhood elementary and high schools? So Black and brown children won't have to leave their communities to attend school.

We're about to have an elected representative school board that will be autonomous and work independently. In the interim, I will ensure that the schools have all the necessary resources to make them successful. I'm a big proponent of neighborhood schools.  

I want to ensure that we're getting all the resources possible to the most students because that's what's important. The future of our city is our children. I want to ensure that whatever we do, as relates to Chicago Public Schools, is in the right vein, without doing something crazy. I've worked with CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] in the past, and I'll continue to work with CTU going into the future. I'm just not beholden to CTU.  I'm not going to be dictated to by anyone.

How will you fund plans to invest in neighborhood schools?

I've been around a long time, and I've been an LSC Chairman for 12 years as well. I've always been of the opinion that we run a lean, mean ship, as relates to your school finances. Money spent on certain ridiculous things sometimes has to be looked at and has to be eliminated. So you want to make sure that the schools can operate independently, within the confines of their budget based on student formula. That needs to be changed, but that's part of it. I think that's part of a longer discussion that has to be done with the state. I am going to dive into those types of things. Because when I talk about resetting Chicago, these are the types of things that we need to be resetting.

Who will you appoint to this hybrid board?

I would like a mix of educators, community people and those interested in our children's future. I don't think I have a tried-and-true set measure of who I want to appoint as far as people. Still, you want people in the financial industry so they understand how to operate budgets and adhere to them. You want educators, so we have a proper plan for all students, not just the high-performing ones. 

You also want people that can engage parents and other committee members to get involved in what's happening in the schools. Schools should be open all day and evening, with resources and programs for students, and if necessary, parents. Sometimes parents need some additional training or education. So you want all that to happen, and that school should be that center of that neighborhood with all those resources in one place.

You mentioned that you’ve worked with the Chicago Teachers Union. Is there a specific plan or proposal that you have to fund schools? Because I was looking at your website, it wasn't clear what those policies would look like.

Funding comes from a variety of sources: some from property taxes, some from our state and federal government, some from the city of Chicago. We want to make sure that we look at all those funding sources and see how they’re operating.

We keep increasing school funding, even though the number of enrollments keeps going down, something's not making sense. Once I can get there, take a look at it, and dive into it, we'll see what the problem is. Is it heavy on the front end? Does CPS hold too much real estate that's not performing? Is it budgetary issues? Do we have too many assistant directors and assistant commissioners in the front office and need more people on the frontline teaching our children?

I know that many schools have eliminated the APs [assistant principals]. But, for example, that should not happen. We removed assistants in kindergarten and first grade, where now you have a teacher alone with 35 five-year-olds. Not a sustaining method, and it won’t improve education.  

So I would like to look into these things and ensure that we’re doing what’s right by our students, not necessarily by the union [CTU] or front office personnel. We have to focus on what’s important, and it’s those children.

Our readers are curious about taxes. So would what you’re proposing to do require raising property taxes?

No, that's a last resort. I will say that many candidates use this as a selling point about saying "no taxes" or "never tax." You should have a responsible tax policy.  A responsible tax policy, for example, as it relates to real estate taxes, is small, incremental steps in improving taxes. 

If our CPI [consumer price index] goes up, we should have a small raise in property taxes to reflect the increased cost of goods and services. So if that happens, we need to make that incremental change instead of what we've been doing now, saying everything's fine. “No, we don't need to raise taxes ever, ever, ever until after an election to, “oh, we got to raise taxes.” That's irresponsible, and it's wrong. We should be looking at more responsible tax policies, something that people won't even notice a one to two percent increase in their taxes every so often.

If the CPI goes down, then we can look at rebates and maybe refunds for those that pay taxes. But again, only if the financial picture looks like it's warranted, not just because people like to hear it and we don't do it. That's what got us into the problem in the first place about not paying our pension obligations and not raising taxes to do necessary things, as opposed to doing popular things.

5 Housing & Community

Chicago is a city full of vibrant neighborhoods. But it’s becoming difficult for many people to remain in the city. There are new developments that are coming in the center of neighborhoods. I’m speaking specifically about Bally's casino project. You voted in favor of that. So what policies will you enact to support homeowners and renters from displacement and or people experiencing homelessness?

I did vote in favor of that. One, we do have a very robust budget right now for homelessness. The problem is we only spent about 5 percent of the money. We have a lot of money sitting there just waiting to spend on homeless initiatives. We're sometimes looking in the wrong direction. I don't want to spend money that will benefit developers more than it benefits the homeless. That's where I really have a problem, and I stand by that.  

So when people talk about things like Bring Chicago Home, I love what the intention is. But when you peel back the onion, and I peeled back the onion, developers would tend to benefit more than the homeless people will. We can help the homeless right now. We can almost eradicate homelessness except for a couple of issues. 

We have money to house the people that we count. Most of them don't want to go into the types of structures we've been used to building. They'd rather be in that community that they're in off of Roosevelt Road on the expressway because at least they know that they're going to care for each other. That’s where their community is. 

We may not understand it. I've talked to enough homeless people to know that sometimes the help they're looking for is not the help that we're used to providing. If we're saying, I can take care of you and put you in a shelter. They don't want to be in a shelter. They know they've been robbed and raped and assaulted in shelters, they have a bad experience in the shelters, they don't want to go back. 

Let's talk about giving them resources, treatment, opportunity, employment, and training, to get them to a space where we can get them a starter home or starter apartment, and then they can continue to get the treatment or work experience to earn money. That's what I look at. I look at more organic solutions, not just saying, hey, let's plop them in a flophouse down in a mission and we've done our part. That's short-sighted.

I remember being at a meeting where you were with other Black elected officials. At the meeting, you explained how challenging it is for you and your colleagues to represent parts of Englewood because it has so many vacant and abandoned properties. What are your plans to revitalize neighborhoods, like Englewood, with many vacant areas/properties?

What we don't do is give our Black developers and all minority developers, for that sake, resources and opportunities to develop in their backyards and their homes. Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Garfield Park, you name it. We have abandoned areas all over the city, and could benefit from developers coming. No downtown developer is going to come out here, and they'll tell you the same thing. I’ve had a developer tell me if I build in Fulton Market, I can get this much per unit rent or sell it. If I build out here, I can’t get this much unless you can find the difference. What's my incentive in coming out here to build? 

We got African American builders that will build. We’d have to relax some of the union issues, and other issues to give them a leg up to do quality developments here on the South and the West sides. 

We need to start doing that and getting these developers engaged so they can no longer be small developers. They'll have a goal and a mindset to deal more in a neighborhood that helped raise them as opposed to just going downtown.

They can build a block at a time. Maybe two or three developers, then build the entire block then we can do another block. Because I literally have blocks of vacant land in this little area of Englewood that I have. I know my colleagues have even larger swaths of land that could be developed and sold or rented, or whatever the case may be, to homeowners who are working, but they need help to make ends meet. 

We can get them that quality, affordable housing out here. Close to the L line. If they're working downtown, they can pop on the L in 15 minutes, then be at work or school or whatever the case may be. We need to start looking at that instead of just being downtown centric. However, I know how important downtown is to our bottom line. But it's not the end all be all.

Black Chicagoans have been leaving for the city in droves since the 2000s for many reasons. But I wonder what specific policies or plans your administration will enact so we don't lose more Black Chicagoans.

We must have a marketing plan for bringing people back home to Chicago. It should literally be: bring Chicagoans back home. We need to engage with marketing people, preferably Black people. Chicago is a great city. Chicago has plenty of amenities. It's a world-class city. We can trim off the problematic things and get those vibrant. There's no other city better. 

We need to promote that and make an investment. Sometimes you have to invest to get something back. I don't like spending money just to be spending money; giveaways and gimmicks are not my thing. So we're going to make true investments in Chicago, invest in the future of Chicago, ensuring that people know how great Chicago is and the amenities we can provide them. 

Englewood can be restored to great glory. It's intentionality who's at the head, spearheading that, and has that sense of vision to say that we can do this here in Englewood, we can do this in East Garfield Park, we can do this in Lawndale. We can do this and all these other challenging areas, like Pilsen and Little Village. We can do it in areas that have been marginalized in the past. It takes the leader at the top to say, this is what we're going to do, and this is how we will do it.

How do we fund that?

There are a variety of ways to fund it. There's bond funding. There are a lot of different funding mechanisms, particularly in blighted areas. We will work with our partners in the state and federal government. We might have to issue bonds. We had to issue some debt in order to get some of the things done and kick-start it.  There's a variety of ways. We're not broke. We sometimes struggle because we make bad decisions, and we need to make fewer bad decisions and more financially conservative decisions that make sense. You make investments; you don't spend money.

Speaking of investment in Black Chicago and keeping Black people here, should reparations be at the forefront in 2023?

I feel it should be. I've been trying to push reparations for years. After learning more about it, I introduced it to the City Council.The mayor told me: “I wasn't doing "s---" about reparations; that's nothing but a Willie Wilson gimmick.”

Mr. Wilson was helping us financially with getting the word out about reparations. He was learning about reparations as well. We were doing what we could to show how important the repair part was. I’ve talked to epidemiologists and epigeneticists.

The problems that we have currently go back to us being enslaved and going through the Jim Crow Era, and the redlining and all the things that we’ve gone through over decades and decades, and it makes us react a certain way.  

We need to dive into that and find out what that problem is, and once we do that, everybody benefits. So I’m not as interested in something other than the 40 acres and mule money type of thing. That’s more of a federal conversation. Mine is more the health disparities, educational disparities and things like that that are important, and there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason for that, and I don’t think we’ve dove into it enough. There’s a word for that. The mayor [Lightfoot] would not use the word reparations. If you ask her, she would not say reparations.

Your initial plan was just getting a commission?

We've done enough studying. It wasn’t about a study. I wanted a reparations commission equal to Streets and Sanitation and the Department of Transportation. I wanted an executive-level commission on reparations to discuss the repair we need as descendants of enslaved Africans.  

I couldn't get support. I couldn't even get Black support. It was difficult because people didn't understand it. I remember having a few of my colleagues go to a couple of meetings because I had to have off-site meetings, and I could not get a meeting in council. 

Under my administration, reparations will be at the forefront. We got to talk about it. We have to do it. We have to understand, and I want more people to understand. I want white people and everybody to understand it because it's vital for all.

6 Accountability

I noticed that you don't necessarily have large-scale endorsements like your other opponents in the race.

No, because I'm not beholden to anybody in this race.

So who are you accountable to?

I'm accountable to the citizens of the city of Chicago. These are the people I hold in high esteem, and I feel accountable to everyday residents, people that go to work every day, unemployed people, people that are struggling and people that do well. I represent true Chicagoans, those that want good schools, vibrant business districts, safe streets and to enjoy their neighborhoods and go home safely. These are the people that I represent. These are the people that support me.

I had to look at some previous articles and interviews to prepare my questions today because your website doesn’t have a policy platform written out in detail at the time of this interview. How can Chicago voters be confident in you as a policymaker and hold you accountable for your campaign promises?

I've been as prodigious on policy matters as any alderman in the City Council. From anti-privatization to police reform to business initiatives, I've shown my chops in bringing things forward and getting things done. 

The elected representative school board, we were there — labor peace at the airports and childcare. These are things that I was always at the forefront of, leading, not just voting for it — leading, advocating getting votes, whipping votes for it, and passing it. 

My history speaks for itself. I have the background. I have proven that I can work within different committees. I work with DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] members. I work with the conservative caucus. I work with the veteran's caucus, I work with everyone. I ensure that my ordinances get support from all levels of representation on the council. That's what you'll get from Mayor Sawyer.


is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.