There was an even better turnout for the challengers than the incumbents, as 45 people crowded into St. Peter’s Church for the CUinFP candidate night on February 23.

CUinFP held a similar forum for the incumbent candidates in January at the Forest Park Public Library.

First up was Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who is running for 7th District Representative against incumbent Karen Yarbrough.

CUinFp president Steve Backman served as moderator, with audience members submitting written questions. According to the ground rules, Welch could not be asked any questions concerning his District 209 school board presidency. However, this didn’t stop him from describing some of the board’s accomplishments.

Welch is a lifelong resident of Proviso Township, who was class president at Proviso West High School all four years. He went on to Northwestern University, where he played on the baseball team. After graduating from John Marshall Law School, Welch worked for the Cook County Public Defender, States Attorney and D.C. F. S. Currently he is a member of a law firm, James J. Roche and Associates, and is an appointee to the Des Plaines Valley Mosquito Abatement District.

He talked about how, in 2001, he saw District 209 “headed in the wrong direction” and ran for the school board. He spoke proudly of the new $40 million dollar Proviso Math and Science Academy, which he touted as the first suburban-based magnet school in the state.

“When was the last time we had something good to say about Proviso?” Welch declared, as he mentioned that applications for the academy’s next class are up 44 percent.

Welch did not mind facing the “tough questions.” He admitted to accepting campaign contributions from Anthony Bruno in the past but said he will not continue to accept these funds. He also said he wouldn’t take money from the gun lobby or the payday loan industry.

He mentioned being friends with Mayor Anthony Calderone, and said that would welcome his endorsement. Welch had copies of the Chicago Tribune’s endorsement of his candidacy for distribution.

Welch sounded a familiar note when he said that education was his top priority. He echoed other candidates in promising to make sure state lottery money went to education. He also promised no raise in property taxes to fund schools, stating that he would prefer an increase in state income tax.

If elected, he said, he would step down as Dist. 209 board president but serve out his term on the board.

James Taft Smith, a candidate for 4th District State Senator, was next up. Smith is a life-long resident of Austin and an ordained Evangelical minister. He is a former Air Force officer, who taught and coached in the Chicago Public Schools. Smith was definitely the only candidate who teaches Biblical Greek on the side.

Smith also emphasized education reform, decrying the fact that “failing students are feeding the penitentiary system.” He also expressed concern that Austin has lost many manufacturing jobs, due to the demise of its “candy corridor.” He said that Forest Park was lucky to have kept Ferrara Pan.

According to Smith, another economic tragedy on the West Side occurred with the takeover of the Community Bank of Lawndale, which had been the only community based bank in the neighborhood. He said that he was glad his opponent, incumbent Kimberly Lightford, had helped cap payday loan interest but pointed out she had also accepted donations from the payday industry.

As for unemployed youth, Smith said, “If we must eliminate the drug industry, we must replace it with something else.” He spoke of being greeted by young people in the neighborhood, “Smith we know you’re for real. Can you get a brother a job?”

Although Smith doesn’t believe in “throwing money” at schools, he criticized changes in the teacher pension fund.

Health care took a hit in Chicago, with Bethany Hospital discontinuing its role as a critical care facility. “We are one of the largest communities in Illinois but we only have one hospital,” he said. Smith echoed other candidates in saying that “health care should be a right, not a privilege.”

Last up was La Shawn Ford, who is running for 8th District State Representative against incumbent Calvin Giles. Ford claimed, “I’m not a huge talker,” but he managed to get off the evening’s best one-liners. Ford is a realtor who formerly taught and coached in the Chicago Public Schools. Like the candidate before him, Ford had a Chicago slant to his views, pointing out that only 1 percent of the 8th District was located in Proviso Township.

Ford said he had a passion for education and also recommended using lottery money for schools, as it originally was intended. “If we don’t educate, we’ll incarcerate,” he warned. He praised teachers who “create doctors and lawyers and all the other professions that make more money than them.”

The democratic primary elections are scheduled for March 21.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.