• Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
  • Alderman Michele Smith

Of all the candidates in this city this election season—both mayoral and aldermanic—you’d be hard-pressed to find a pair who obviously hate each other more than Michele Smith and Caroline Vickrey, who are vying to become alderman of the 43rd Ward. Smith is the incumbent, Vickrey is the challenger, and their enmity has had plenty of time to grow in the past three months because they’ve had to take part in nine separate debates, five in advance of the general election, four more before the runoff. Even Rahm and Chuy have only had to face off five times total.

The 43rd Ward encompasses Lincoln Park and parts of Old Town and the Gold Coast and many, many neighborhood associations, each of which has sponsored its very own debate, heavily attended by concerned citizens. The moderators at least seem to want the candidates to discuss issues that affect their particular neighborhoods. But such enmity cannot be contained. Even a simple question about requiring sprinklers in high-rises—a subject on which Smith and Vickrey actually agree—becomes a jumping-off point for accusations, recriminations, and bitterness. (They’re against it, by the way.) Monday night’s debate at the Public Hotel, sponsored by the Gold Coast Neighbors Association, was no exception. As a civilized discussion of issues facing the neighborhood, it was a total dud. As political theater, though, it was a decent show.

Moderator Joe Gromacki strove for a touch of levity by noting the things the candidates have in common: they are both lawyers, they are both longtime residents of Lincoln Park, and they both have hobbies. There, alas, the common ground ends: Smith is a fan of Star Trek, while Vickrey enjoys exploring national parks, and despite what he said was a meditative morning swim, Gromacki found himself at a loss for a question to address both these interests.

Here are their background stories: Smith was elected four years ago. She says that in the City Council, she has been a leader in addressing the pension crisis and that, in the neighborhood, she has worked hard to serve her constituents. Vickrey, who for the past 20 years has served on a host of neighborhood boards and committees (schools, parks, etc), says she has not. Smith won 46 42 percent of the vote in the original election. Vickrey won 36. Smith has the endorsements of their two defeated opponents, Jen Kramer and Jerry Quandt, as well as the mayor, with whom she has sided on 89 percent of divided City Council votes.

Here are some issues facing the 43rd Ward: closing businesses, development (notably on the site of what used to be Children’s Memorial Hospital), rising taxes, overcrowded schools, noisy restaurants, crime (largely theft), and rats.

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

Here is what Vickrey said to open the debate: “Last week at the debate at Steppenwolf Theatre, I was accused of tax fraud. The Tribune has investigated and found those charges baseless and false. They were lies told to embarrass me and throw off my campaign. I demand that Michele Smith issue an apology.”

And here is how Smith responded: “When you want to be a public official, you have to pay your fair share. You can’t live in a luxury single-family home and write it off on your taxes as a three-flat. I think that’s wrong.”

(For the record, the Tribune talked to the county assessor’s office and a property tax expert, who both said that Vickrey qualified for a property tax reduction because of a home improvement exemption.)

That pretty much set the tone for the debate. Gromacki asked each candidate how she would handle a major development project—like the rebuilding of the Jewel on Division—that lies outside the ward boundaries but affects Gold Coast residents. Both candidates said they would organize meetings to involve neighborhood residents in the process, only Vickrey pointedly added that this was something Smith has not done, particularly with the redevelopment of the Children’s site at the convergence of Halsted, Fullerton, and Lincoln (the busiest intersection in the ward), which she had promised would not be a high-rise with retail, but lo! after a two-year delay is now slated to become a high-rise with retail!

Smith countered that the development would have gone up faster had the Mid-North Neighborhood Association, of which Vickrey was a member, not sued. “Ms. Vickrey likes to pick and choose things to stitch together,” she said. Anyway, Smith added, the neighborhood needs to replace the people and dollars that left along with the hospital when it moved downtown. (These people, it’s true, were sick children and the people who cared for them, but maybe they did get takeout from nearby restaurants every once in a while.)

“It’s not in the alderman’s nature to apologize,” Vickrey explained to the crowd. “A simple apology would have gone a long way.”

“If saying ‘I’m sorry’ will make you drop the lawsuit, I’m sorry,” Smith replied. “But that’s not what this race is about. This is about moving on and how my opponent is so concerned with not moving on.”

Instead of moving on, they rehashed the Lincoln Elementary School debate, or, as Smith put it, “now my opponent wants to talk about a decision made three years ago under circumstances I’m afraid she doesn’t understand.” In summary, the school was overcrowded. Smith advocated for building a $50 million addition. Vickrey thought the plan was needlessly expensive and advocated transferring students to other schools. Smith’s plan prevailed. The Lincoln School Annex will open next fall. “The proposal Ms. Vickrey backed would have closed a magnet school and expelled 3,000 children of color from the neighborhood,” Smith claimed.

Then they rehashed Smith’s consulting gig with the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts, which claimed on its 2013 tax return that it paid her $84,000 for 40 hours a week of work. Smith said this is a sign of how deeply she cares about the arts, and anyway, the work has been tapering off over the past year.

“I’ve been working very, very hard for the ward,” Smith finished. “It’s time for you, Caroline, to put it down and maybe apologize to me.” (This was possibly the biggest laugh line of the night.)

“When you ran,” Vickrey responded, “you pledged to be a full-time alderman without outside income. Other aldermen are open about their outside work. When someone supports the arts, usually [the money] goes the other way.”

They fought about pensions. Vickrey thought the city should wait for the Illinois State Supreme Court decision about whether it could override the state constitution’s protection of pension benefits. Smith called for immediate action. “Unless we get to an affordable solution,” she said, “our city will sink. It won’t be like Detroit. It will be like New York in the early 70s. We cannot file for bankruptcy. The financial institutions bailed out New York. But New York was the financial capital of the world! With Chicago, investors will say, ‘Forget it.'” And, by the way, did the audience know that Vickrey got the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police because when they asked her how she felt about pension reform, she was against it?

“The Fraternal Order of Police is aware of my feelings about pensions,” Vickrey responded. “They said they don’t have a relationship with the alderman.”

Finally, apparently groping for an innocuous question, Gromacki asked the candidates who they supported for mayor.

“I’m supporting the mayor,” said Vickrey.

“I’m supporting Rahm Emanuel,” Smith said, “and he’s supporting me. Ms. Vickrey has changed her answer. She said she supports but doesn’t endorse Mayor Emanuel. She has said she’s looking forward to working with Chuy Garcia.”

“I’m with the mayor!” Vickrey snapped.

“Whoa, Caroline, interrupting!” Smith scolded.

“I though this was a simple question,” Vickrey retorted. “I was waiting for the end.”

“Read the cards we gave you!” shouted some of the members of the audience.

Gromacki shuffled desperately through his index cards. “What do you think of rats?” he ventured. “Rodents, not people.”

As Vickrey and then Smith both pledged to alleviate rats within the ward—or, in Smith’s case, continue to work to alleviate rats within the ward—there was a commotion in the back of the room. Someone had tried to get up and had fallen over. Since this person was unharmed, the debate continued for ten more vitriolic minutes. Vickrey grew increasingly aggrieved, while Smith grew increasingly peevish, although they agreed on the minimum wage ($10 an hour, not $13) and about big-box stores (against it) and, in response to an audience member’s question, that they would pay attention to details.

Finally, with an air of relief, Gromacki announced that they were out of time. It appeared the Neighbor Association still had the room for five more minutes, and no one from the Public Hotel was pounding on the door. Nonetheless, it felt like a reprieve.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect the correct percentage of Michele Smith’s share of the vote in the February election as well as the amount the Meier Foundation reported paying her in 2013.