How to Organize a Candidate Forum

How to Organize a Candidate Forum

Aldermanic forum
Blog Post

How I Tried and Failed, and Ultimately Triumphed in the Candidate Forum Challenge

By Vanessa Bush Ford

In December, WBEZ’s Curious City program reports on aldermanic challenges to signatures on petitions to get on the ballot. My alderman, Jason Ervin of the 28th Ward, who is generally successful at bumping off challengers, is interviewed and says that the lack of challengers “shows that the community is solidly behind Alderman Ervin.”

What? As a constituent, this is not exactly how I’d describe the situation. I don’t know it at the time, but this comment will later inspire me to try to organize a candidate forum in the 28th Ward. I join LWV Chicago’s candidate forum committee, get some tips on how to get started, and receive lots of encouragement from Sameena Mustafa, an LWV Chicago director.

By mid-January, I have lined up some supporters, members of my local block club, people I know who are active in the community. Within a few days, after going back and forth with phone calls, I’ve lined up a possible venue, a high school. At this point, the date is very tentative.

Now, I focus on getting co-sponsors, community groups who could help get out the word and help secure the candidates. It occurs to me that some groups may be reluctant for fear of angering the alderman. In a ward that is fretting about the prospects of gentrification, is this community group too new and too much identified with changes in the neighborhood? Is this one too connected to the alderman and his largesse and fearful of ticking him off? Am I overthinking this?

I spend days talking to a few groups about co-sponsoring, but no commitments. I finally get a major community group, one that is sponsoring several forums: at least one for mayoral candidates, another for the alderman’s office in a nearby ward. They have the 28th on their radar, and a set date, but they have no location. They’re happy to partner with LWV but they want to be the lead organization. No problem.

After weeks of fretting and phone calls not being returned, another major community group calls. They want to co-sponsor as well. I’m on a roll. So, now we just need to commit the venue to the date, invite the candidates and help get the word out. I’m so excited at the prospect of a candidate forum in the 28th Ward, but I’m nervously eying the calendar. We need to nail down everything soon so we can get the word out.

Then comes the polar vortex. Schools are closed for two days for the weather and another day for professional development. I get my final answer on Monday, February 4 for an event that would be scheduled for February 7 but I already know it’s probably too late. And it is. Preoccupied with other plans for the election, the lead group won’t consider another date.

When we debrief, Sameena tells me that my experience – except for the polar vortex – is pretty typical. There are lots of moving pieces to organizing a candidate forum, and it’s hard to get them all aligned. Relationships are tricky. Some community groups are reluctant to challenge the alderman, some even favor the current alderman. Some groups need lots of guidance, others don’t. Even securing a venue can be a problem. In another ward, a proposed venue at a senior citizens building fell through when the building management would not allow non-residents to attend the forum.

Generally, the process goes more smoothly in wards where the League has worked with community groups before. Even so, the incumbents don’t always agree to attend. Speaking from her experience having run for office, Sameena comments about the messiness of seeing how the sausage is made, particularly in Chicago politics.

Still, it has been a good year for League involvement with candidate forums. With an estimated twelve forums by mid-February, it is likely the League will have tripled the number from the previous election.

Looking back, even though I didn’t get all of the pieces together in time for a forum, I made some connections, I understand the process better, and next time (maybe there’ll be a run off), I’ll be ready.

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