By Nona Tepper
Chris Harris is running for Forest Park's highest office again, outlining for the first time to the Forest Park Review his platform of long-term planning, economic development and public engagement in the village.
"I ran four years ago because I thought the village could be doing better. We were lacking in economic development, things had kind of stalled, the sales tax revenue was always running lower than expected, and village finances had been in the red," Harris said. "I think it takes some creative thinking and it still needs to be done. Things I've been concerned about for years in this town still need attention. I had people asking me to run and it's in my heart. I want to be mayor."
When he first entered the race, Harris submitted nominating petitions for both the mayor's office and commissioner spot. He said he was convinced to run for mayor after Mayor Anthony Calderone announced he would not be seeking his sixth term come April.
Last election cycle, in April 2015, Harris challenged Calderone for the village's top spot and lost by just 113 votes, according to the Cook County Clerk's Office. Toward the end of that race, Harris said things "got very ugly, very personal" with "internet trolls attacking me." But after the results were in, Harris said he met with Calderone, who told him that "none of that came from him, it was people supporting him, a relative was involved in that." Now Harris said he holds "a lot" of respect for Calderone, who reportedly isn't sure who he will endorse as Forest Park's next mayor.
"He's been the mayor for 20 years. I think he'd be silly not to have a conversation," Harris said. "There's going to be a lot of turnover on the village council and he's been mayor a long time. He knows where everything is, everything that happened in the last few years. We shouldn't isolate him from the process. He should be a part of the discussion."
When asked if current Commissioner Tom Mannix and former commissioner Mark Hosty would be backing his campaign, Harris replied: "I hope not." He said roughly 20 friends and neighbors are supporting his campaign, noting that he does not have a campaign manager — rather, a group of advisors, including resident Karen Rozmus — and is not running with a slate.
"I consider myself an extremely independent person, politically as well, although I think I lean more toward Democrat," he said. "Independence is fading away in this country; representatives are battling party over policy. I think that hurts everybody."
His political action committee, "Citizens for Chris Harris," holds approximately $2,100, with most coming in small donations from "residents and friends" and $1,000 coming from A&P Com, a Chicago-based marketing firm that Harris said he has done some work for. Harris 46, owns his own small marketing agency.
"It's a lot of work to be mayor; it's a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job. I know I have the time commitment to do it and I'm excited about the opportunity if voters feel I'm worthy enough. My background is in business; it's about relationships, making those calls."
He added: "When I came in on the village council, we were in the red. Then in the four fiscal years I was on the board, we were in the black. Now we're back on this trend, in the red again; it's a major concern. Borrowing from other funds that aren't intended for that is not alarming but it's concerning."
During his four years on the village council, Harris said he was part of the team that helped secure the grants for the beautification of Roosevelt Road, which updated the sidewalks and street. He said now Roosevelt Road needs to further develop its business community — particularly after Home Owners Bargain Outlet (HOBO) closed in late 2018 — and said he's been talking with Living Word Christian Center about a bowling alley, laser tag, Safari Land or other family entertainment venue leasing the space.
"The day of the big box retail is dying; you can't expect another Kmart to move in. We were fortunate enough to get that HOBO and that was a devastating loss," Harris said. "I think we need a strong economic development committee backed by the village; everyone needs to be all in on it."
He named fiscal health as the village's greatest challenge and said Forest Park needs to increase its sales tax revenue and renegotiate benefit agreements with some of the car dealerships.
Harris also believes there needs to be more long-term thought about the village's sewer systems, which he described as crumbling. When he was on the council, he said people jokingly called him the "green commissioner" since he was a strong advocate for water soluble pavers and other green development.
"I think we can do better at exploring grants. Last I checked, and it wasn't that long ago, we were getting grant money at like a 60 percent less rate than other towns," Harris said, adding that the village relies on its engineering firm to apply for grant funds.
During his time on and off the council, Harris said he also helped organize public forums, exploring such topics as medical marijuana, effective development of the village-owned Altenheim property and, of course, video gaming. Harris said he was "neutral" in that debate.
"It's settled law. There's nothing we can do. The citizens spoke and the citizens' voice needs to be respected," he said. "Having friends for it and against it, I would love to get everyone in a room and get past this. At community events, let's all come together and support each other as opposed to putting our fists behind a keyboard and continuing to battle."
After serving on the council and running an unsuccessful bid for mayor, Harris went on to challenge state Representative Emanuel "Chris" Welch for the seventh district spot in March 2016. Harris said he was inspired to run because he was unsatisfied with Welch's influence at Proviso Township High Schools District 209. He thought a friend, Antoinette Gray, was going to run, but when she dropped out "at the last minute," Harris decided to step up. Welch collected nearly twice as many votes as Harris, according to the Cook County Clerk's Office.
"I think he spent 10 to 20 times as much as me; every week there was a mailer in a mailbox saying things about me," he said. But now he thinks Welch is doing a "good job of rehabbing his name down in Springfield."
Harris faces challenger Rory Hoskins in the mayor's race. Hoskins is a former commissioner who also went on to battle Welch for the seventh district state representative spot. Hoskins holds $4,400 in his political action committee, "Hoskins for Mayor."
"The great thing about this campaign is we have two people who have been on the village council and there's a record of what they did, record of [how] they voted, how much effort they put in," Harris said. "I hope it'll be civil. I don't see it going negative."