Amara Enyia: Under-Qualified or Overlooked?

Mayoral candidate Amara Enyia’s responses at mayoral forums are often met with loud cheers and applause. But outside the forums, a different story is being told.

When Dick Simpson, a UIC political science professor and former alderman, was asked what he thought of the 35-year-old, second-time candidate when she first entered the Chicago mayor’s race, his answer was simple: “I didn’t.”

“I really didn’t think she had a chance until she started getting all the celebrity funding, and that’s when I started paying attention,” he said in an interview.

Enyia has received contributions from two major stars since she announced her candidacy: Kanye West has donated $200,000 to her campaign and Chance the Rapper has donated $400,000.

Their contributions and support were predicted to increase Enyia’s popularity among young people, but whether she succeeded in that is unclear. In a rally held Monday for students that Enyia dubbed a “Party to the Polls,” only 40 people showed up, despite bus pickups at 17 campuses and extensive promotion.

Even though DePaul students fall within the group she has primarily targeted throughout her campaign, some say they are not sure how relevant she actually is to them.

“I had never heard of [Enyia] before the race began, and honestly, I didn’t really notice her until that article by the Tribunecame out about her,” said Emily Burnett, a DePaul sophomore. “And then I did.”

In a race so crowded, many candidates have had trouble capturing the public’s attention—even with the original 21 now diminished to 14. A Sun-Times commissioned poll titled “We Ask America” found that only 3 percent of those polled would vote for Enyia.

Enyia has said she believes that whether people know her or not, she is overly qualified to lead the city—but that people may not be giving her a fair chance.

“My lived experience qualifies me to sit here on this stage,” Enyia said at the CWTA mayoral forum Feb. 2. “I am a black woman who lives on the West Side of Chicago. I have 5 degrees, including a doctorate degree, a law degree, and a masters degree. I speak five languages. I’ve worked at the top levels of government, and I’ve worked with nonprofit sectors as an executive. And I’ve also worked as a grassroots organizer, which is my passion. I have worked across every single possible area locally, nationally and internationally, and yet I will still be told that I’m good and qualified, but only for number two.”

Education

Fixing the broken Chicago Public School system has been one of the mayoral race’s major talking points from the start. As a five-degree-touting scholar herself, Enyia has expressed on numerous occasions how much she values education, and she has made it a top priority on her mayoral agenda; it is the first issue listed on her website.

When asked to explain to a 9-year-old the problem with Chicago’s Public Schools at the CWTA mayoral forum, she didn’t skip a beat.

“You want to be in a school with people who are different from you, that you can learn from and have fun with, but right now, CPS’ school boundaries make it so that in some instances, you’re only gonna go to school with people who look and act just like you,” Enyia said. “And that’s boring.”

Enyia says she believes that the way the boundaries are drawn now is detrimental to low-income students of color, encouraging segregation and putting communities at odds with each other, according to her website. If elected, she has said that she wants to redraw the boundaries to avoid this.

To improve CPS even further, Enyia has proposed a fully elected school board, a concept that many other candidates have supported. While she has admitted it is not a cure-all solution to the city’s education problems, she said in a Chalkbeat reportthat it will address the “responsiveness and accountability parents sense from the board.”

She addressed the primary problem with the current way school boards are run in Chicago at the CWTA forum too, continuing to explain this concept in terms a 9-year-old could grasp.

“Your mom probably is not being heard, because we have a hand-picked school board that only listens to the mayor,” she said. “That’s not right.”

Among those who support the fully elected school board concept alongside Enyia are Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle, Willie Wilson, Bob Fioretti, LaShawn K. Ford, Jerry Joyce, and Neal Sales-Griffin. Candidates Bill Daley, Gery Chico, Susana Mendoza, Garry McCarthy and Paul Vallas have supported a “hybrid” elected school board, with the term “hybrid” varying in meaning.

Corruption

When longtime Ald. Ed Burke was charged with attempted extortion and Ald. Danny Solis was found to have worn an FBI wire for over two years, it seemed to many that perhaps the old Chicago machine was finally breaking. This election is about whether Chicagoans will elect a mayor to repair it or to deliver the final blow.

The candidates have widely been placed into two categories, whether by choice or not: machine or not machine. Old, primarily corrupt Chicago, or Chicago taking a new direction.

Enyia has labeled herself the latter.

She entered the 2015 and 2019 mayoral races while MayorRahm Emanuel was still in the race; Emanuel dropped out last September. Enyia has been a vocal critic of candidates who have ties to the two accused aldermen—specifically Preckwinkle.

Economics

Some of Enyia’s most original ideas pertain to city finances, one of those being a government-owned bank. She was the first candidate to propose this idea, but since then, McCarthy has adopted it as well.

“We need a public bank for Chicago so that we can fund our own infrastructure,” she said at a mayoral forum Jan. 11. “That’s billions of dollars that we now spend with private banks that could otherwise be recirculated into our economy.”

In addition to a public bank, Enyia has maintained that the best way to move Chicago’s economy forward is to invest in neighborhoods and small businesses.

“Until we focus on a growth economy that is inclusive, where people have entry points at every stage, we will continue to have a revenue problem, and therefore, a financial problem,” she said.

Other economic concepts she has proposed include the implementation of resident and worker-owned cooperative (WOC) enterprises, the establishment of forward-thinking ticketing and fee structures, and the creation of a culture of transparency, according to her website.

While Enyia’s proposed policies on economics are clear, her own ability to manage finances was drawn into question after a Tribune investigation revealed that she omitted one-third of her income on her 2017 federal tax return and has been served several money management related lawsuits, among other things. She was sued Tuesday by a former campaign spokeswomen, who claims Enyia owes her $24,000 for four months of work, the Tribune reported.

Enyia claims that these allegations should not make her any less worthy to be Chicago’s mayor. In a press conference Feb. 4, after the original Tribune report was released, she implied that her financial struggles make her more relatable to Chicago voters.

“Over the years, I’ve had to correct tax filings and make arrangements to pay what I owe,” she said at a press conference after the original Tribune report was released, reported the Sun-Times. “These are personal challenges and I’ve set about to resolve and overcome them. It hasn’t been easy and it certainly has not been fun. But, these are challenges that are prevalent across the city. Many working-class people cannot afford their student loans. Many people with families have had to re-file and adjust their tax returns. … That’s what I did.”

Written for JOUR 278, News Reporting

Photo by Xavier Ortega | The DePaulia

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