• Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
  • 43rd Ward alderman Michele Smith, fighting hard for reelection

When you’re an incumbent alderman in a race with three opponents (plus one write-in), it should be pretty good news that you’ve raised the most money and that you’re leading the latest poll by 15 percentage points. And that’s a poll conducted for Aldertrack, an impartial source. Hooray for you!

However, it’s not such great news when that poll shows that although 33.3 percent of 400 randomly-selected voters in your ward would vote for you tomorrow, 33.5 percent say that they’re still undecided; that’s a sign that the election is headed for a runoff, and that’s real trouble for an incumbent. It’s even worse news when Carol Marin publishes an article in the Sun-Times that points out that even though you’ve widely proclaimed yourself a “full-time” alderman, in 2013 you also pulled in an extra $84,000 as a consultant for a charitable foundation.

And so maybe it was not surprising that 43rd Ward alderman Michele Smith was more than a little bit on the defensive at the final candidates’ forum last Thursday night, which took place in a packed meeting room at the Old Town Triangle Association. She greeted constituents with very firm handshakes and vigorous backslaps (which, if you were a reporter, made you wonder how, exactly, you’d pissed her off).

  • Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
  • Caroline Vickrey

During the month of January, Smith and her opponents, Caroline Vickrey, Jen Kramer, and Jerry Quandt, had met to discuss their campaign platforms before the public on five separate occasions and were apparently so sick of one another they’d given up on the pretense of civility and had started to insult one another directly. (One of them had also placed copies of Marin’s article on the front table reserved for campaign literature.) They were joined by Steve McClellan, an Old Town resident who had been booted from the ballot, but who is continuing to campaign as a write-in. The term “full-time alderman” was bandied about quite a bit, as were “transparency,” “availability,” and “consulting fee”; Vickrey began her remarks by announcing that over the past four years, she’d seen promises broken by the alderwoman which she described as “a failure of leadership.” Smith, for her part, responded to each insult or accusation with a very sarcastic, “Well, thanks!” and then quoted Abraham Lincoln on the subject of adversity in politics.

Her opponents, she claimed, are naive and inexperienced and have no clue what it’s like being an alderman. And, yes, it is true, none of them has ever held the job. Quandt is a former international businessman who is now active in the neighborhood CAPS program and has been hosting weekly meetups to discuss ward issues. (“If you want to be elected alderman,” he said more than once, “you have to start acting like an alderman.”) Despite his business experience, he admitted ruefully, he has not been very good at raising money; he lags far behind his opponents.

McClellan, who left the Board of Trade to run a video production company, is entirely new to politics and knows he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this election. Therefore, he could afford to be affable and adorable and tell the audience that he was “all about preservation” and that he was always willing to listen. Everyone laughed appreciatively.

The other two candidates, however, have more relevant experience. Vickrey is an attorney who has lived in Lincoln Park for 22 years and has served on more neighborhood committees than she had time to mention in the 30 seconds allotted for introductions. These included the Oz Park Advisory Council, the board of the Mid-North Neighborhood Association, and the Lincoln Elementary School PTA.

  • Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
  • Jen Kramer

Kramer, for her part, worked for 12 years in the mayor’s office of special events before moving over to Navy Pier, which makes her very familiar with many of the key figures at City Hall. But when she cited that as a political advantage, Smith very sternly reminded her that politics is no longer about who you know but about collecting data, and she is very good at collecting data and presenting it to important people like Forrest Claypool. (Kramer was not the only person in the room who appeared confused. Also, nobody mentioned it, but during her years on the City Council, Smith has voted with the mayor 87 percent of the time.)

The two major controversies since Smith’s election in 2011 have been the redevelopment of the former Children’s Memorial Hospital site at the intersection of Fullerton, Lincoln, and Halsted and the expansion of the Lincoln School building. Neighborhood residents are concerned that the Children’s redevelopment, which includes a residential tower, will bring more traffic to an already gridlocked intersection and that the Lincoln School annex, while it will alleviate overcrowding, will also leave the school without a playground.

Some are also unhappy with the way Smith handled these developments. “Michele Smith rejected a request for a forum to discuss the Lincoln Annex,” Vickrey accused. “We need have have a discussion in the community before there are changes in that community.”

  • Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
  • Jerry Quandt

Like everyone else in the city, 43rd Ward residents are concerned about crime. While most of the crimes in the neighborhood are burglaries and robberies, there have been a few shootings, including one on Vine Street, across the street from Smith’s house, which, Smith’s opponents say, she was slow to publicize. “How many people knew about this?” Quandt asked the crowd. Two hands went up. “My point exactly.”

In more general terms, both Vickrey and Kramer spoke about how, during their canvassing of the ward, they heard many complaints from residents about how difficult it was to get any kind of response from the ward office after they filed a complaint (largest reasons for complaint: potholes and rats) and how the alderwoman herself was not a regularly available presence in the neighborhood.

Smith defended herself by pointing out that the city is in the middle of a very serious budget crisis. “Eighty percent of the budget goes to the fire department, police and emergency,” she claimed. “There’s a huge pension crisis. Even though we’ve tweaked the budget, rats and potholes are tied to larger financial problems.” Furthermore, she said, constituent services in the 43rd Ward were as good as anyplace else in the city, especially considering her office had received 26,000 requests for help in the past year, making it the busiest ward office in the city outside of downtown.

  • courtesy Steve McClellan
  • Steve McClellan

It was hard to say if the opportunity to listen to the candidates speak changed anyone’s mind: about half the audience was already wearing campaign buttons for Smith or Vickrey, though one woman did speak up when she felt the moderator, Anne Giffels, was picking on Quandt. (For some reason, Giffels made the same joke several times about Quandt not picking up his dog’s poop, and Quandt responded that he’d trained his dog not to poop at all. The exchange was nonsensical, but still somehow not funny.)

Mostly, the debate came down to this: the challengers want voters of the 43rd Ward to vote for them because they are not Michele Smith. Smith, for her part, contends that if they think it’s a huge picnic to be an alderman, they should just wait. Whatever the case, Smith’s got a lot of hands to shake and backs to slap because not only does she have to worry now about getting elected, she has to worry about avoiding a runoff.