Unfinished Family Business
The fight to succeed Harold Washington after he died in 1987 was bitter and ugly, and when the City Council, including most of the white aldermen, voted for Eugene Sawyer many saw him as a puppet of the anti-Harold forces. “It was unfair,” says Sawyer. “A lot of people didn’t know me. I’d been the first committeeman to support Harold when he ran, and my ward delivered up the most votes for him. Harold had backed me as president pro tem of the council.”
Chief among Sawyer’s critics was Third Ward alderman Dorothy Tillman. “She called my uncle ‘Mayor Mumbles’ and said he was disloyal to Harold,” says Kenny Sawyer, who’s now challenging Tillman. Eugene Sawyer says other former critics, including Bobby Rush and Danny Davis, later apologized to him. “But Dorothy never did,” he says. “It’s not for me to say why. But I’m not vindictive. I don’t hold grudges.”
Perhaps not, but the former acting mayor, now 68 and retired, has been lending his nephew a hand, giving him advice and making campaign stops with him. He’s greeted warmly. “We forgive and forget about old conflicts,” said the Reverend Sylvester Brinson at a ministers’ breakfast on January 29. “The Sawyers are perceived as a standing family with a rich history–just like the Kennedys.”
Kenny Sawyer, the 35-year-old owner of a catering firm, is hoping the family name resonates with voters. But Pat Dowell, who’s executive director of the Near West Side Community Development Corporation and who’s also challenging Tillman, says he should be judged on his own merits. “The former mayor is a nice man,” she says, “but I don’t know that Kenny has done a lot of work in the ward.”
Tillman didn’t return calls for comment, but one of her backers is another of Kenny’s uncles, Ernest Sawyer, a former CTA vice president who’s now a consultant and, according to his relatives, doing business with the city. He and Kenny are estranged. Eugene and Ernest live just doors from each other in the Taylor Street neighborhood. “My brother’s making an economic decision,” says Eugene, “and I have to understand it.”
Residents of Bronzeville thought they might finally get some answers from Alderman Dorothy Tillman about what really happened to Gerri’s Palm Tavern, the historic jazz club on 47th Street that’s now boarded up, about what would be done with the majestic Rosenwald apartment complex at 47th and Michigan, and about the fate of other stately but crumbling historic buildings in the area. Tillman, who’s notoriously tight-lipped on the subject of building preservation, was expected to be part of a panel at a “Toward the Bronzeville Arts Trust” meeting on January 25 and was supposed to talk about the problem-plagued, half-built Harold Washington Cultural Center at 47th and King Drive.
Tillman didn’t show.
“I wasn’t surprised at all that she wasn’t there,” says challenger Pat Dowell. “I don’t think she wanted to face the piercing and difficult questions that the public was going to ask.” Dowell notes in her campaign literature that Tillman has so far authorized spending $10 million on the stalled center.
Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, says he too was disappointed Tillman didn’t come to the event. “I know she gave the excuse that it was election time and she was busy,” he says. “But I did notice she was not there. We have tried to schedule meetings with her numerous times about the Rosenwald building, and so far it hasn’t happened.”
Tillman didn’t return a call for comment.
New Kid in Town
On January 31 Frank Avila–the maverick lawyer who’s made a name for himself by openly defying Mayor Daley’s machine, something few other Hispanic wheeler-dealers dare to do–called to say he’d slain another giant. This time it was First Ward alderman Jesse Granato, or, more precisely, the alderman’s team of lawyers.
Avila had successfully argued that Manny Flores had the right to run for alderman of the First Ward even though he’s lived in the ward for less than two years. “The law says a challenger has to live in a ward for two years, but I argued that it’s illogical and violates equal protection,” says Avila. “It’s not fair–because an incumbent only has to live there for 18 months.” (If an incumbent gets redistricted out of his ward, he can move back in and then is eligible to run again after only 18 months.)
The board of election commissioners ruled against Avila, but he won on appeal. “The judge granted me everything but my legal fees,” he says, “which is unfortunate for me.”
Flores is a 31-year-old assistant state’s attorney who moved into the ward in February 2002. Before that he lived in Bensenville, Lakeview, Washington, D.C., Melrose Park, and Franklin Park, where he grew up. He’s so new to the First Ward he missed a basic trivia question: who was alderman before Granato? “I couldn’t tell you that, but it’s not an ignorance of mine,” he said. “My knowledge of the First Ward is a current knowledge.”
For the record, Granato answered the question correctly: “Ted Mazola. Before him it was Fred Roti. Before him it was–I don’t remember. Roti was the alderman for a long time.”
Granato says he plans to appeal the circuit judge’s ruling, which means Flores may ultimately be kicked off the ballot. “I’ve been serving these people as a legislative aide or alderman almost 24 years, and I’m only 44 years old,” says Granato. “I grew up in this area. I’ve lived here all my life. I don’t mind the kid going into politics. Maybe he should run in Du Page County.”