On February 24, Chicago voters did something historic by declining to recoronate a sitting mayor, at least temporarily. But that wasn’t the only election here sent into overtime. Eighteen races for alderman were also pushed into runoffs when no candidate won a majority—meaning that more than a third of the City Council is still up for grabs.
Part of this is undoubtedly because a 2012 remap shifted ward boundaries across the city, forcing even longtime incumbents into new territory. But there are remaps every ten years, and it’s been 24 years since Chicago had this many runoffs.
Many voters are tired of the council rubber-stamping the agenda of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, just as it did with the agenda of former mayor Richard Daley. Taxpayers are demanding better service for their money, and a number of once powerful ward organizations are dying as unions try to wield their electoral clout. It all suggests that politics are slowly shifting in Chicago—though in the past they’ve shifted right back. In 1991, for example, the council started its new term with 20 aldermen who weren’t there four years earlier, and then quickly bent to the will of Daley. Well, to paraphrase the old adage, any legislative body can have a bad century.
What follows are snapshots of five races that illustrate the aldermania under way across Chicago as the April 7 runoff elections approach.
Second Ward: Back on the map
The new Second Ward map looks like a crooked smile with some teeth missing. This is not a coincidence.
Allies of Mayor Emanuel drew the map three years ago so that it would be nowhere near the home of current alderman Robert Fioretti, whose criticisms had grown too loud for their taste. After being based on the near south side for more than a century, the ward now includes chunks of 11 different north-side neighborhoods from the Gold Coast to Ukrainian Village. In places it’s less than half a block wide.
After Fioretti decided to chuck it and challenge Emanuel for mayor—eventually finishing fourth in the balloting in February—six candidates vied for the seat. Emerging from the field were the two best connected: Brian Hopkins, the former chief of staff for county commissioner John Daley, a brother of the former mayor; and Alyx Pattison, an attorney and onetime aide to U.S. representative Jan Schakowsky.
Each has hauled in more than $400,000 in donations, a good chunk of cash for a City Council contest. Hopkins has collected money from a number of aides and donors to the Daleys and Emanuel. Pattison, meanwhile, has received contributions from unions, including AFSCME and SEIU, and attorneys in her former law firm, Katten Muchin, which drew up the city’s parking meter deal and now includes Rich Daley on its roster.
At a recent debate, the candidates both vowed they wouldn’t be rubber stamps in the City Council. Then they accused each other of being suck-ups already. Hopkins suggested that Pattison was “under pressure from unions” who don’t want to reform the city’s underfunded pensions. Pattison fought back by going playground on Hopkins: “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Even worse, she tried to link him to Emanuel. “I’m the only candidate who has not wrapped himself in the arms of the current mayor.”
Emanuel hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race. But when pressed, both candidates said they’d voted for the mayor in February and probably would again in the runoff.
Ironically, less than a week later Alderman Fioretti turned around and offered his own endorsement of Emanuel. By that point, the remaking of the Second Ward was complete. —Mick Dumke
21st Ward: Bribes, fines, and maybe even legislators
Marvin McNeil only received 14 percent of the vote in the February election. But the retired city zoning inspector says he’s in a perfect position to oust Alderman Howard Brookins Jr., who was pulled into the runoff after getting 42 percent against McNeil and five other challengers.
“That means 58 percent of the voters didn’t want him,” says McNeil.
For his part, Brookins said he knew from the beginning that this would be a tough campaign. He was first elected in a runoff in 2003 and survived another one in 2007. It didn’t help this time around that his former chief of staff, Curtis V. Thompson, pleaded guilty last year to accepting a $7,500 bribe from an FBI informant. Brookins denies any involvement in that “foolishness” and calls Thompson a “disgruntled employee who was about to be fired.”
But residents are upset about more than federal investigations, according to McNeil—they’re also frustrated with poor service from the alderman’s office. He promises to do better if he’s elected. “The alderman is not the wizard, and the ward office is not the Emerald City,” McNeil says.
McNeil pledges to attract more businesses to the retail corridors in the ward, which includes parts of the Auburn-Gresham, Chatham, Washington Heights, and Beverly neighborhoods on the south side. Brookins says he’s already been doing that, pointing to the Walmart and surrounding retail he helped bring to 83rd Street.
The alderman’s campaign has also launched its own attacks, revealing that the city fined McNeil thousands of dollars for failing to maintain several properties he owned in Englewood. McNeil responds that he’s paid the fines and no longer owns the properties.
Brookins argues that his opponent is naive about what the job of alderman actually entails. For instance, he says he doesn’t have the power to force every contractor working in the ward to hire African-Americans, which McNeil vows to do. “I don’t think he fully gets it,” says Brookins. “Aldermen are really just legislators.”
But McNeil says Brookins isn’t doing such a great job of legislating either. The alderman has voted with Mayor Emanuel 100 percent of the time over the last four years. “You will never see me standing behind any mayor,” McNeil says, “unless it’s for the 21st Ward.” —Mema Ayi
31st Ward: The replacements
Things got interesting around 21 minutes into the March 20 debate between 31st Ward alderman Ray Suarez and challenger Milagros “Milly” Santiago, a former Telemundo reporter.
“If for some reason you’re not able to finish your four-year term as alderman, who would you recommend to the mayor to replace you?” asked the moderator.
Santiago said the question was “premature” because she hadn’t been elected yet, but added, “If something happens to me, let’s say it’s health or I’m indicted on some corruption or something, you know, at that time who’s going to think of who’s going to replace me?”
Then it was Suarez’s turn: “When I get elected, I’m going to finish my term—so I’m going to recommend Ray Suarez to take my place.”
To recap: one candidate volunteered that hypothetically she might, at some point in the future, be criminally charged with malfeasance, and the other came up with an answer that didn’t actually make sense.
Santiago’s stumbles still might sell better than the notion of more Suarez. After 24 years as alderman in the 31st Ward—which contains parts of Albany Park, Avondale, Belmont-Cragin, and Hermosa—Suarez is facing the same antimachine sentiment that resulted in runoffs all over the city and is reshaping Hispanic politics on the northwest side. He’s historically been a mayoral loyalist and a key ally of county assessor Joe Berrios. But Berrios’s clout is in decline—as was evident last year when he couldn’t get his daughter reelected to the Illinois house.
Smelling weakness, state rep Luis Arroyo recruited Santiago to challenge Suarez. She’s presented herself as a bulldog tough enough to take on the establishment. During another candidate forum, Santiago told a story about how, shortly after she gave birth, she chased down a man who’d exposed himself to her older daughter and saw to it that he was arrested.
Suarez, meanwhile, touts a drop in crime and new businesses in the ward, including the Walmart on Diversey. But Suarez has also stood by Emanuel’s side—literally, since he appears at press conferences with the mayor when called—and that might help sink him. Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia won the ward in February, and he and Santiago have endorsed each other in the runoff. If voters come out for change again, Suarez won’t get the chance to replace himself. —Gwynedd Stuart
Love it or leave it!
Alderman Emma Mitts has never been mistaken for a union organizer. The most visible moment of her 15 years in office came in 2006, when she brushed off labor groups and welcomed the city’s first Walmart to her west-side ward. She then joined former mayor Richard Daley in fighting a minimum wage hike for big-box store employees.
On election night in February, Mitts made her views even clearer. Upon learning she was headed for a runoff with teacher Tara Stamps, who’s backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, the alderman announced that union members could “get the hell out of the 37th Ward,” according to the Austin Talks news site.
Mitts added that she wouldn’t be opposed to bringing in more charter schools—a defiant response to Stamps, who’s loudly opposed Mitts’s support for charters.
Two controversial charter schools have opened in the ward in the past several years. The first, Horizon Science Academy Belmont, is part of a charter network under federal investigation related to its use of public funds, the Sun-Times reported. A few months after that school opened, the city approved another $20 million charter school in Mitts’s ward, this one across the street from an existing public high school, Prosser.
While brushing off criticism of the schools, the alderman has tried to paint her opponent as a union pawn. Stamps—whose mother was the late public housing advocate Marion Stamps—has received more than $56,000 in contributions from the CTU. She says the union support won’t hinder her ability to make clearheaded choices.
But the focus in the race turned back to Mitts after a forum two weeks ago when she questioned whether same-sex spouses should be entitled to the same lower tax rates as other married couples. “I don’t want to be biased here, but I don’t support the fact that we can have two women married, two men married, and we pay our fees and your tax dollars,” she said, “and they can get the same benefit as the woman or a man get.”
Though Mitts quickly backtracked and apologized, Stamps called the remarks “fearmongering” and demanded that the super PAC Chicago Forward pull its support for the alderman. Affiliated with Mayor Emanuel, the PAC has contributed more than $50,000 to Mitts. But Becky Carroll, a leader of the PAC, said Mitts has a “decade-long record supporting LGBT issues.”
Mitts is hoping 37th Ward voters will be as forgiving. —Chloe Riley
43rd Ward: Hard to say I’m sorry
To put it politely—although politeness has been in short supply in the 43rd Ward this election season—Michele Smith’s first term as alderman has had its controversies. Residents of the ward, which encompasses Lincoln Park and parts of Old Town and the Gold Coast, are engaged in community affairs, and over the past four years they’ve had strong and varied opinions about the overcrowding in neighborhood schools, the redevelopment of the former Children’s Memorial Hospital site at Fullerton and Lincoln, and the way Smith has handled these and a number of other issues.
Among those who are unhappy is Caroline Vickrey, an attorney who has lived in Lincoln Park for 20 years and served on a host of neighborhood committees, including the Mid-North Association, which last year filed a lawsuit to halt the Children’s development. Vickrey believes she could be a better alderman than Smith, and certainly couldn’t be worse. In the general election, 36 percent of the voters agreed with her. Smith received only 42 percent of the vote, so they’re now in a runoff.
Since January, Smith and Vickrey have faced off in nine separate debates, which gave ward residents plenty of opportunities to see how much they loathe each other. Vickrey claims Smith doesn’t listen to her constituents. Smith in turn says that Vickrey doesn’t understand what an alderman does or how the city works. Smith believes that the root of all the ward’s problems—rising taxes, overcrowded schools, empty storefronts, even a booming rat population—is a lack of funds resulting from the city’s pension crisis, a subject on which she claims to be an expert.
Although Smith has always described herself as a full-time alderman, Vickrey has produced tax records showing that a local arts foundation paid her $84,000 in 2013 for 40 hours of work a week. Smith retaliated by accusing Vickrey of property tax fraud. The Tribune investigated and discovered that Vickrey had actually qualified for a tax reduction, and at a debate a week later, Vickrey demanded an apology.
Smith refused. “When you want to be a public official, you have to pay your fair share,” said the alderman, who added that she’s cut back her hours with the arts foundation. “I’ve been working very, very hard for the ward,” she said. “It’s time for you, Caroline, to put it down and maybe apologize to me.”
The likelihood of either issuing an apology? Somewhere around nil. —Aimee Levitt v
This story has been updated to reflect that Austin Talks first reported the statements from 37th Ward alderman Emma Mitts on election night in February.