The room was chilly, the candidates a bit tired, the moderator partial to Shajan Kuriakose, and the audience soon bored. The alderman, holding to her re-election strategy of not engaging with residents, wasn’t there.
It went downhill very quickly, right after the first answer to the first question. Shajan was to give the second answer, but first the moderator asked him to speak to a specific issue as part of his response. This set the pattern for the evening, with Shajan redirected on six of the thirteen questions asked. The candidates who had already spoken were not given an opportunity to speak to the redirected issue, however, and it just wasn’t fair.
There were the usual questions about red-light cameras (no candidate supports), fiscal transparency (everybody’s for) and political corruption (everybody’s against). Should the 50th Ward have its own high school? This was a question from the WRPCO forum, and there was nothing new from the candidates.
The forum focused on the problems faced by Indo-Americans: cab drivers vs Uber drivers, illegal immigration, relations with the police, lack of English, fear of discrimination, and domestic violence. Unfortunately, all of the candidates succumbed to the victimhood mindset and agreed that it is the responsibility of the larger community to educate itself so as not to inadvertently offend those with cultural grievances. There was no discussion of whether such complaints are valid or why the larger society may not ask such uncomfortable questions as why America’s immigration laws should be ignored or how people who won’t or can’t speak or learn English hope to support themselves or function in a multicultural society. The god of ethnocentrism was on full display.
The solution to domestic abuse, for example, is to agree that it’s a terrible thing and then to educate women not to be ashamed to ask for help after they’ve been beaten to a pulp. It didn’t occur to any of the candidates, unfortunately, that maybe educating men in anger management might be a more effective option. The moderator was just as clueless.
After several such questions, I raised my hand and rose to ask the moderator if the topic of ethnic separatism could be addressed. He said there would be no audience participation, that the format had been decided. In other words, the format was more important than questions arising from topics or responses.
This was the second and final candidate forum. Neither presented an opportunity to create a dialog between audience and candidates. Perhaps I was wrong to expect more, but it seems to me that we go about this part of the electoral process in exactly the wrong way. Voters have a right to expect better than memorized or rote responses. At this stage of the campaign the candidates are tired of talking. The preselected questions reflect the biases of the sponsoring organizations. Candidates make statements that should be challenged, or that call for facts not in evidence, but there’s no opportunity for the voters to engage with those who would be our leaders.
Sorry. Back to the forum.
Ethnocentrism raised its ugly head again in responses to a question about remaking Devon Avenue. Zehra Quadri described her idea of turning large storefronts into indoor malls that would support new businesses until they are successful enough to move to storefronts. Peter Sifnotis noted that the ward is filled with vacancies, and Devon isn’t the only street in need of business. He spoke forcefully about the need to curb needless regulation. Fuji Shioura nailed the problem when he said that he hears complaints all the time about the lack of responsiveness from the Devon merchants to the needs of the community. Fuji also pointed out that the new Mall of India in Schaumburg is Devon’s real competition, and further reason for Devon to return to family shopping for West Ridge residents.
But Shajan again supported the idea that gimmicks like 5K runs and events geared to outsiders will revitalize Devon. He is prepared as alderman to work with landlords, business owners, community organizations, and the newly-formed South East Asian Chamber of Commerce (not to be confused with the existing and ongoing West Ridge Chamber of Commerce) to remake Devon. He did not include residents in his plans, and I don’t think this was an inadvertent omission. He is the merchants’ handpicked candidate, supported by powerful Indo-American political organizations who hope to gain control of the ward through him. Shajan even issued a campaign piece promising to protect the merchants’ interests.
West Ridge is the only community in the city that has to fight its dominant merchant group for control of its main business district. Nobody spoke to that.
There was one further twist. The moderator asked the candidates to combine their closing statements with their answer to the question of what they see as the ward’s biggest problem over the next four years. I’ve never been to a real debate or a candidates’ forum that ended with such a bizarre request, and I hope I never attend one again.
After the forum ended I approached the moderator to ask him a question. He rudely brushed past me, snarling “I don’t want to talk to you.” I said he was an asshole, nearly got into a brawl with his parents, and went home.