On Monday night, Amara Enyia, a municipal planner and daughter of Nigerian dissident activists, greeted her audience of several hundred in a number of languages — including Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, Russian and Spanish — and concluded with a paraphrased passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “[There’s] a time to plant and a time to uproot…a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to be silent and a time to speak. In Chicago at this moment, we know what time it is.”
Thus began her official campaign for mayor of Chicago, with a launch event at the Co-Prosperity Sphere cultural space in Bridgeport — the home neighborhood of Mayor Richard M. Daley and his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, who ruled the city for a total of more than four decades and cemented the power of Chicago’s infamous Democratic Machine.
Enyia says her campaign is built on “love,” but it is certainly underpinned by audacity. It’s a long shot, to say the least, for a 31-year-old with little experience in politics or high-level political connections to attempt to unseat the powerful Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with his campaign war chest of more than $7 million, in the February 2015 election.
But among the crowd gathered in the gallery on this balmy evening, there was a palpable sense of possibility that one doesn’t often find in Chicago politics, where voters are infamously resigned to long-term mayors like the Daleys and a City Council that typically “rubber stamps” whatever the mayor wants.
The crowd listened raptly to Enyia and erupted in cheers as she promised to defend public assets and institutions from privatization, give citizens a voice in government, invest in low-income communities and make people feel that they live in “one Chicago: our Chicago.”
Enyia called for public schools focused on high quality teaching and neighborhood involvement rather than standardized tests and data. Contrary to many politicians who view raising taxes as politically toxic, Enyia defended the concept of taxes as a building block of society. And she called for a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), a minor charge on financial dealings that could be used to fund social services. The National Nurses Union and other unions and social leaders have called for such a tax, though elected officials have largely ignored the idea.
“Small change for them means big change for us,” Enyia said of a FTT. “After all we bailed them out, now it’s their turn… Given the severity of our situation, only the boldest reforms make sense.”
Enyia was introduced by Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary in the north side Uptown neighborhood. LaRaviere made headlines last month with an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times denouncing the way, he described, principals as well as teachers and parents are attacked, ignored and disrespected by the Chicago Public Schools administration and by extension, Mayor Emanuel. In his speech, he condemned the privatization of schools in Chicago and what he described as a “cult-like focus” on standardized testing and data, charging that the city has, essentially, two education systems: “one designed to create masters and one designed to create servants.” The criticisms are particularly stinging coming from the head of one of the city’s “success stories” — with 89 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards, Blaine is Chicago’s best-performing “neighborhood school” that takes all students (as opposed to “selective enrollment” schools that choose higher-performing students).
LaRaviere was a classmate of Enyia’s in an education policy doctoral program at the University of Illinois. He marveled that Enyia got a law degree simultaneously with her education policy doctorate; and that she runs marathons and Ironman triathlons. “She’s the perfect one for a race,” he quipped. He later added, more seriously, “Can you imagine a mayor who actually knows something about education policy?”
Many at the event said they had heard of Enyia’s campaign through social media and become fascinated. While Chicago campaign launch events are usually packed with people affiliated with local power brokers, large unions or community organizations that are backing a given candidate, the crowd on Monday seemed to be largely composed of unaffiliated individuals who had heard about her and wanted to learn more. After Enyia spoke, a throng of people waited patiently to meet her. Some seemed star-struck, yet people also said they viewed her as accessible and friendly; several had already called her to personally introduce themselves.
Enyia has been talking publicly but informally about challenging Emanuel for several months, hosting a series of meetings and listening sessions in neighborhoods across the city, including Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, Edgewater and Washington Park. In February, she sat down with In These Times for her first full-length interview about the campaign. She has also shown up at numerous events and rallies related to education, health and community rights across the city, appearing more as a concerned citizen than a glad-handing candidate.
Ali Lundberg, 25, and Emily Lofquist, 23, met Enyia at one such event at a space called the Comfort Station in Logan Square, a quickly gentrifying neighborhood on the northwest side where, Lundberg says, “I’m tired of seeing my neighbors pushed out.” Gentrification is one of the issues Enyia has pledged to address.
Artist Michael Anderson attended the launch event clutching his portrait of Harold Washington, the legendary first black mayor of Chicago. “They thought Harold Washington didn’t have a chance, but the city got behind him,” said Anderson, noting that he hopes to do a mayoral portrait of Enyia next.
“She brings something for every ethnicity and every race,” said Jurnell Terry, 23, a youth pastor. “Rahm Emanuel is a great politician and businessman, he is right for somewhere like the White House. But here we need someone who is for the people.”
Chris, a 25-year-old theology student who declined to give his last name, has a more critical view of the current mayor. “He’s like…a kind of devil, like they took out his soul!” said Chris. Of Enyia, he said, “She’s got a real heart for the working people of Chicago. If she hones in on that, we could make that majority vote.”
Ayesha Jaco, 33, said she’s planning to volunteer and get involved in Enyia’s campaign. Jaco, executive director of a non-profit in the Bronzeville neighborhood, found out about Enyia’s campaign from social media.
“She brings the sense of urgency needed to bring about accountability in this city,” she said. “We’re so diverse yet so segregated in Chicago, and the way resources are distributed now … we need someone who will bring everyone up to the level of higher-performing communities.”
Enyia didn’t promise to end inequality or poverty in Chicago, but she stressed the importance of people’s power.
“Democracy is when rules are changed and the ground shakes,” she said, as people in the audience spontaneously stamped their feet, making the wooden floor vibrate. “Democracy is when people draw a new line in the sand.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.