Not so very long ago, no one would have guessed that Tuesday’s runoff elections could determine whether the Chicago City Council has a chance to become a fully functioning legislative body.

Consider that in May 2004, after weeks of unusually intense discussion and lobbying, the council voted 32-15 to let Wal-Mart open its first store inside city limits. In an interview a few weeks later, 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis, one of Mayor Daley’s most loyal council allies, told me he thought the debate had been “great.”

“I think we should have a lot more debate on issues,” Solis said. “The next time I talk to the mayor I’m going to tell him this is a really good idea.”

No wonder the council is widely derided as a rubber stamp.

Aldermen almost never vote against measures the mayor supports, and they certainly don’t often question his policies on the council floor. But in the three years since the Wal-Mart vote, the Daley administration has been shaken by a series of scandals and federal investigations even as it continues to privatize public schools, dismantle public housing, divert public money into politically controlled tax-increment financing districts, and push expensive expansion projects for O’Hare and the CTA rail lines, not to mention the bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Voters have started to ask their aldermen what they were doing while all of this was going on. Little by little, aldermen have been forced to answer: er, something. The level of debate–if not necessarily the level of oversight–has risen noticeably as the council has sparred over bans on smoking and foie gras, a complicated deal to lease a public parking garage, and the big-box minimum-wage ordinance.

On February 27 residents in a lot of wards didn’t seem to think that was enough. Mayor Daley won reelection with 71 percent of the vote, but many expressed their dissatisfaction by punishing their aldermen. Three incumbents were defeated outright, while another 11 failed to get a majority and were forced into runoffs. In the 15th Ward, where Ted Thomas is retiring for health reasons, none of the 11 candidates took more than 34 percent of the vote, so that one’s headed for a runoff too. The 12 second-round contests are the most in Chicago since 1991. And so far election board officials are seeing higher turnout for early voting than they did in February.

Many of the challengers’ operations are as well organized as the incumbents’. In some wards they even have superior resources, thanks to funding and volunteers from several unions. Combine that with federal scrutiny of Daley’s old patronage armies and it makes for a bunch of hopeful challengers and some very nervous aldermen.

This all means that the makeup of the City Council is up for grabs Tuesday, and while self-declared reformers often get a whole lot quieter once they’re in office, the prospects for change are better than they’ve been since Daley took office 18 years ago.

Here’s what’s happening in some of the key fights.

Second Ward

In the Second Ward, which covers the South Loop and parts of the west side, the race has become so bitter that the candidates are having a hard time accepting the result of a coin flip.

A few days before the February 27 election, incumbent Madeline Haithcock began calling top challenger Bob Fioretti a “stalker.” The claim, based on court files showing that in 2003 a woman filed an order of protection against him, prompted the National Organization for Women to yank its endorsement at the last minute. The Sun-Times reported that the order had been dropped within a week, and Fioretti, an attorney, said the woman, a court reporter, had actually been harassing him. He finished first in the initial round of balloting with 29 percent to Haithcock’s 20 percent.

NOW re-endorsed Fioretti, saying there was no merit to the charges, but Haithcock didn’t let the issue go, sending out a flyer that again accused Fioretti of stalking. A restraining order Fioretti sought against Haithcock was denied. Then the Tribune reported that additional court documents appeared to contradict his claim that he didn’t have a relationship with the woman, and NOW took back its re-endorsement.

Both candidates accepted an invitation by the Gap Community Organization to speak at an April 3 forum for Second and Third Ward candidates. After introducing them, the group’s president, Leonard McGee, said that a coin toss had determined the order. Since it had come up heads, the alderman would have the first 15 minutes. McGee invited Haithcock to the podium.

Haithcock was sitting in the front row of the auditorium surrounded by supporters: Bobby Rush, longtime activist Reverend Al Sampson, and attorney David Askew, who finished third in the election. In the row behind her was Kenny Johnson, a former aide to Jesse Jackson Jr. who’d finished fourth and was now backing Fioretti.

Haithcock didn’t get up. “I yield to Mr. Fioretti,” she said.

McGee was taken aback. He looked toward Fioretti.

“I’ll follow the rules,” Fioretti said.

McGee looked at Haithcock.

“But I’m the alderman,” she said.

McGee wasn’t having it. He said he’d move on to the next item on the agenda while they sorted it out. “If you decide you want to speak we’ll try to get to you at the end.”

The Third Ward candidates ended up going first. Haithcock then spoke before Fioretti closed the meeting.

“Well, you know, Mr. Fioretti likes to lie, and I wanted to be able to stand up there and refute what he said,” she later explained. “I know a snake when I see one.”

“I’m not surprised by anything she does,” Fioretti countered. “She has no truth, no credibility.”

Third Ward

Before the start of the Chicago Urban League’s Third Ward candidates’ forum, also held on April 3, many of the 200-plus people who packed the meeting room were open supporters of challenger Pat Dowell. By the time it was called off it sure looked like she’d gained more than a few others.

The event had been planned for weeks, but incumbent Dorothy Tillman hadn’t committed to it. Still, organizers were shocked when a “surrogate” showed up on her behalf.

After conferring with her staff, challenger Pat Dowell, a former deputy commissioner in the city’s planning department, refused to debate the stand-in. “My door is always open, but I will not be subjected to this kind of stuff,” she declared.

The crowd cheered, and some began chanting, “Where is Dorothy?” Tillman’s representative, onetime Harold Washington aide Jacky Grimshaw, hurried to the podium and answered them, shouting “Dorothy is busy taking care of the business of the Third Ward!” The chants turned to boos.

As a yelling match ensued, ward resident Mary Wallace was among those who left the room disgusted with the 24-year incumbent, best known for her predilection for hats. “It’s time to put the hat in storage,” said Wallace, who voted for Tillman when she beat Dowell four years ago. “She hasn’t done some of the things she should have for the less fortunate in the ward. She hasn’t fixed the sidewalks. She hasn’t done anything.”

Grimshaw, meanwhile, stepped away from the microphone and conceded to reporters that Tillman wasn’t actually “taking care of the business of the Third Ward”–she was getting ready to address the Gap Community Organization at its meeting about a mile away. When Dowell found this out she looked exasperated. She said she herself had been invited to speak to the Gap just the previous afternoon.

Dowell hadn’t planned to attend that meeting, but within half an hour, the skirmish had moved there. As Dowell supporters resumed their chants on the sidewalk in front of the Illinois College of Optometry, where the Gap meeting was being held, Tillman, wearing a round, wide-brimmed black hat, interrupted the session by strolling in late with an entourage. A few minutes after that it was interrupted again when Dowell arrived.

Eventually each candidate was given 15 minutes to make a pitch–no debate allowed. Dowell went first, saying that while she was proud of the support she’s received from unions (whom Tillman has criticized as outside interlopers), the election was not about organized labor. “This election is about the Third Ward,” she said. “Do we have the leadership we need?”

Her answer, of course, was no. The south-side ward, which encompasses Bronzeville, needs restaurants, stores, and jobs, Dowell said. Tillman, she charged, hadn’t produced anything beyond the corner of 47th and King Drive, site of her ward office and the Harold Washington Cultural Center, which between them have employed at least four of her five children. “I will be the change agent,” said Dowell.

In the audience, Tillman’s daughter and staffer Ebony Tillman hissed, “A white man agent!”

Dowell seemed not to hear her. She said Tillman had done little during her time in office but talk. “I don’t want you all to fall for the okeydoke and think in the future we’re going to get all these projects done that we started hearing about at election time,” Dowell said.

“My opponent said that it doesn’t matter whether or not unions gave you 80 percent of your funding,” Tillman fired back when it was her turn. “If they gave you 80 percent they’ll own you and they’ll tell you what to do.”

Tillman said when she was first elected, the ward was “dirty and nasty–nobody wanted to live here.” Now it was one of the hottest real estate markets in the city and more businesses were on the way. Dowell, Tillman said, had no idea what was going on.

Getting louder and more agitated, Tillman then took a cue from the old boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley, attempting to deflect charges of nepotism in her office by denouncing Dowell for even mentioning her kids. “I love my family. I love my children. I’m very proud of my children,” Tillman said. “She’s going to have to answer to her god about that, thinking she’s going to win a seat by talking about my children.”

15th Ward

Felicia Simmons-Stovall, an attorney in the secretary of state’s office, wants voters to know she hasn’t been disbarred, contrary to rumors circulating in the south-side ward, which includes parts of Back of the Yards and Englewood. She wants people to hear about her plans to “rebuild the ward,” which she says is starved for infrastructure improvements. And she’d like to do it in a community forum where she can debate her opponent, Jewel bakery worker and union activist Toni Foulkes. It hasn’t happened.

“She refuses to debate me,” Simmons-Stovall said. “We were both invited to address a block club meeting this [past] Saturday. She said she wouldn’t come if I was invited.”

Foulkes said she wasn’t sure what block club meeting Simmons-Stovall was referring to. She said she was happy to appear with her opponent on Chicago Tonight, but she’s not going to participate in a forum organized by the Simmons-Stovall campaign. “They want to set me up, and I’m not walking into a setup,” she said. “I’ve been in three forums with Felicia–what else is there to talk about? We all know what the issues are.”

The two candidates don’t actually disagree much there, calling crime reduction, investment, and city services their top priorities. But Foulkes said she stopped participating in forums after Simmons-Stovall filled the first few with rowdy supporters, many from the 27th Ward organization of secretary of state Jesse White and alderman Walter Burnett.

“They stack the audience with large banners and picket signs and they just bash,” Foulkes said. After one forum at Gage Park, she said, a man “got in my face” and left her feeling uncomfortable. “I’m not going anywhere I feel physically threatened.”

Simmons-Stovall didn’t recall a hostile environment at any of the first-round forums. “We did bring some supporters, but they were not crowding out the debate,” she said. “They were people who lived in the ward, so they had a right to come. But I always say, listen to everyone before you make your decision, and I’m confident at the end that you’ll continue to support me.”

Simmons-Stovall also denies other insinuations made by phone callers she believes are from the Foulkes campaign: that she doesn’t live in the ward, that she’s trying to intimidate opponents with west siders, that she wants to welcome sex offenders to recovery facilities in the ward. “We still are faced with challenging the opponent’s message,” she said. “It’s more negative campaigning now.”

Foulkes said she’s been the target of dirty tricks as well: a recent mailing called her a “slave” to unions. “They have bashed me for reporting to special-interest groups, but Walter Burnett and the 27th Ward are a special interest as well,” she said. “When my canvassers go out they talk about Toni Foulkes–they don’t talk about Felicia Simmons-Stovall. I’m hearing all they talk about is me. So thank you for getting my name out there.”

32nd Ward

After a barrage of mailings painted Scott Waguespack as a liar, fired patronage hack, and all-around loser still living with his parents, Waguespack has had enough: he’s filed a $5 million defamation suit against incumbent Ted Matlak. But there’s another, subtler wrinkle in the 32nd Ward race.

Most of the runoffs pit a candidate backed by the unions against someone backed by other political heavyweights. In the 32nd, though, an awkward set of alliances has formed as key members of the Chicago Federation of Labor have divided their support between Matlak and Waguespack.

Matlak, a Daley ally who rose up through the Democratic machine’s old 32nd Ward organization, was endorsed by the CFL and several of its member unions, including the state council of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. But SEIU and the Teamsters backed Waguespack, an aide to the mayor of Berwyn.

Henry Bayer, the executive director of AFSCME’s Illinois council, said Matlak earned his support after bucking Daley and voting for the big-box minimum-wage ordinance. “In that instance he showed he was capable of being independent,” Bayer says.

In the view of SEIU, however, Matlak has one of the least worker-friendly voting records in the City Council. State director Jerry Morrison noted that the alderman backed Daley initiatives to privatize city services and jobs and, until recently, wage an expensive legal battle against the Shakman ban on political hiring. “We’re not a one-issue organization,” Morrison said. “He’s been bad for years and years and years.”

Morrison also insists that Daley allowed Matlak to vote for the big-box ordinance simply to keep unions from targeting him. “I don’t think there’s a lot of heartfelt support for Ted Matlak among organized labor,” he says. If money is any indication, Morrison is right. Only AFSCME has anted up for Matlak, and its $3,000 in contributions looks modest next to the tens of thousands of dollars he’s received from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, and other businesses that fought the CFL over the big-box measure.

Government workers have been canvassing the ward in large numbers for Matlak, but they’ve primarily been sent by neighboring ward organizations. “We have a fairly broad base of support,” said Rebekah Brooks, a Matlak spokesperson. “There may be certain members of the Chicago Federation of Labor or AFSCME out working for us, but it’s not a concerted effort.”

The Waguespack campaign and SEIU aren’t the most comfortable bedfellows either. While other SEIU-supported candidates have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, polling, campaign literature, and staff, the union has given Waguespack a single $10,000 donation and paid the bill for one poll. In wards such as the 16th–where incumbent Shirley Coleman, who finished second in February, is facing labor-supported challenger Joann Thompson–union volunteers are fanning out to knock on every door several times before the election. SEIU hasn’t mobilized troops in the 32nd.

Some insiders there say it’s because the union and the Waguespack team couldn’t agree on the style or strategy of the runoff campaign, though neither side admits that publicly. According to Morrison, SEIU didn’t send workers because Waguespack and his staff determined that residents of the ward–which includes affluent parts of Lincoln Park and Bucktown–might not respond to outreach from union members who don’t live there.

Pat Botterman, Waguespack’s campaign manager, spoke cautiously about his team’s relationship with SEIU. “We were pleased to accept the financial support of SEIU,” he said, adding, “there have been reporters who’ve attempted to paint Scott as the labor candidate, but he can’t be the labor candidate if some of the unions are supporting his opponent.”

35th Ward

In the days before the February 27 election an anonymous flyer began circulating in the 35th Ward claiming alderman Rey Colon had been arrested in the 80s and 90s for drug possession, theft, drunk driving, mob action, and driving with a suspended license. It also claimed that he’d been taken to court for failing to pay child support, rent, and gas bills.

At the time, Colon issued a careful condemnation of the mailing. He said he’d been slow to pay a fee for automatic child support deductions and explained the rent and gas bills as a debt left to him by a deadbeat roommate. Colon blasted the flyer as a false and illegal attack on his character, saying the serious charges involved another person named Rey Colon. He noted that he had passed several background checks when he worked for the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club before winning office.

At a community forum a few days before the election, former candidate Esteban Burgoa, who’d been tossed off the ballot, said he’d produced and distributed the flyers. But Colon said he suspected his closest competitor, former alderman Vilma Colom–though Colon called her “Mellma Colom,” a reference to her political sponsor, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell. (Neither Colom nor Mell returned calls for comment.)

The alderman went on to win 46 percent of the vote in the ward, which includes Logan Square; Colom, whom he defeated in 2003, got 34 percent. But Flyergate didn’t end there.

Knowing another ugly round of campaigning was on the way, Colon might have issued a clear, frank statement about which of the charges were true and which weren’t. Instead, on March 8, he went to Chicago Police Department headquarters, at 35th and State, offered his fingerprints, and asked for a copy of his criminal history. Colon said he requested the report so he would have evidence to show doubters that the majority of the charges in the flyer were false. But skeptics who got word of it wondered if he was trying to figure out which accusations he had to confess to and which he could dodge.

“Because it was some truth mixed in with some very serious lies, I didn’t want to talk about it and give the impression that it was all true,” Colon said recently. “I don’t have a lot of experience dealing with smears.”

The rap sheet Colon showed reporters was pretty petty: one arrest and guilty plea for theft–of a street sign, he says–in 1979, when he was 17, for which he was sentenced to a year of supervision. “I was waiting for the report to turn up a lot more, to be honest,” Colon said. Growing up in Humboldt Park, he said, “I got picked up a lot as a juvenile, just standing on the street.”

The theft didn’t make it onto the campaign flyer, but it turns out more of the allegations are true than Colon initially acknowledged. Documents circulating among some Logan Square activists show that in 1995 he was arrested for driving under the influence and that he was arrested for driving on a suspended license in 1987 and again in 1995. He now acknowledges the arrests.

“I’ve paid my dues, endured my shame, and have made a career of helping others do the same,” he told me. Colon stresses that the accusations of mob action and drug dealing are false: “I’d rather take responsibility for the sins I’ve committed than the ones attributed to me.”

The flyer kept showing up. In mid-March, Colon would later testify, he was out campaigning when he ran into a Colom precinct captain named Steve Gallo. Colon says Gallo handed him a copy of the literature he was passing around: the flyer detailing Colon’s alleged rap sheet. The alderman told Gallo that much of the information was false, but according to Colon, Gallo replied, “All things are fair in politics.”

The next week Colon’s staff found copies of another Colom flyer, designed to look like a newspaper, in which both she and Burgoa accused Colon of having no respect for the law. “The majority of these incidents did occur in the life of the alderman and should be shared with the community,” Colom is quoted saying in Spanish.

Colon decided he’d had enough. On March 28 he filed a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections alleging that Colom had broken the law by failing to report that she and her campaign had sponsored the flyer, which he termed “false and scurrilous political communications.” He also charged that Colom had falsely claimed she had loaned her campaign $60,000 when the money really came from “illegal contributions made by an anonymous and unknown third party.”

In early April a hearing officer threw out the second allegation but recommended another hearing to determine whether Colom and Burgoa had broken the law by failing to take credit for the rap-sheet flyer. Moreover, “the evidence establishes that someone identified with [Colom’s] campaign was disseminating the [flyer] on March 15, 2007, and continued to distribute it, even when advised of its inaccuracies,” the hearing officer wrote in his report, which wound up posted on a Logan Square Listserv. Follow-up hearings continued this week. Colon says he’s still considering a defamation suit.

49th Ward

To some supporters of incumbent Joe Moore, the 49th Ward runoff isn’t simply a matter of deciding who will sign off on zoning changes and make sure streets get swept. It’s the next campaign in the civil rights movement.

Late last month residents of the Rogers Park ward, union members, and a collection of liberal political officials–including U.S. representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, Cook County clerk David Orr, and city clerk Miguel del Valle–held an impassioned rally for the 16-year alderman at the Heartland Cafe. One speaker after another told the packed room that reelecting Moore, the chief sponsor of the big-box minimum-wage ordinance, was a question of social justice for the neighborhood, the city, and even the country.

After noting that Harold Washington and Barack Obama had held key campaign events in that same room, Moore said that his opponent, activist and tech expert Don Gordon, was against the big-box minimum-wage ordinance and couldn’t relate to the lives of struggling families.

“What about the people who live in this neighborhood who work in those big-box stores?” Moore asked the crowd. “What about the people who are working two or three jobs to make ends meet? They deserve to have someone who understands what they’re going through, who wants to make a more just community in a more just world–not someone who believes the solutions to all our neighborhood problems is bringing a Trader Joe’s or a Williams-Sonoma to our neighborhood.”

Gordon, he said, couldn’t be trusted. “When the going gets tough and a decision has to be made, who is my opponent going to listen to?” Moore said. “Is he going to listen to you? No. He’s going to listen to those very same people who have been fighting the diversity in this neighborhood, who have been fighting against opening our doors to everyone.”

Moore, though, didn’t headline his own rally–that task was left to Jackson. The congressman said Moore’s leadership on the big-box measure had sparked a new progressive movement across the city. “If we don’t do our part, the forces of good, the forces of working men and women in our city, will experience a major setback,” Jackson warned the crowd. “This struggle is not black and white, it’s right and wrong, living wages for all versus slave wages for some. This is good versus evil. This is Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. This is Joe Moore versus everyone who doesn’t want us to get paid for the work we do.”

Jackson implored all 49th Warders to leave at that moment and vote early for Moore. “You might not have been there for Rosa Parks, you might not have had the chance to walk across Edmund Pettus Bridge [in Selma, Alabama], you might not have been there for Mandela when he went to jail, you might not have been in the grape fields with Cesar Chavez, but in 2007 you can be right here for Joe Moore in the 49th Ward.”

A couple of days later Gordon greeted commuters on their way into the Loyola el stop by handing them baggies holding bananas and Hershey’s Kisses. “Go Bananas Over Gordon–Kiss The Current Alderman Goodbye!” a flyer in the baggies said. As CTA buses pulled up, Gordon, an avid runner, jogged over to them and handed bananas to the drivers.

A woman approached him and said someone from Moore’s campaign had recently stopped by her house and asked for her vote. She’d told them no. “The next day I got three calls from his office asking what I needed,” she said.

“If he’d been this good for 16 years, I could have been down watching spring training this year,” Gordon told her.

Gordon says that the big-box minimum-wage ordinance would have killed job growth, increased competition for work, and reduced the likelihood that low-skilled people would get hired. “It would be to the detriment of people who really need the jobs,” he said, arguing that the minimum wage should be raised at the federal level.

Businesses with good labor records need to be courted to move to Rogers Park, Gordon said–like Trader Joe’s. “I don’t want burger-flipping jobs,” he said.

Gordon chafed at the insinuations that diversity and workers’ rights would suffer under his leadership. He said he volunteered for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, was teargassed in Grant Park in 1968 protesting the Vietnam war, and helped organize workers when he was an employee at Treasure Island. “So yes,” he said, “I am a closet Republican, a racist, and a fascist.”

50th Ward

Voters in the 50th Ward, which covers the far north side west of Rogers Park, recently received a mailing from alderman Berny Stone that declares “It Takes Work.” When it’s unfolded, the flyer turns into a full-color map of the ward showing 22 new businesses and developments that Stone claims to have brought home: condos on Howard Street, a campus park at Rogers School, a batting cage and ice rink in Warren Park, a Home Depot on Devon, three new banks. Also included are a few projects that are planned or in progress, including a new park and a new grammar school.

That’s just the big stuff. The map also shows the infrastructure improvements Stone has overseen, ranging from curb and gutter maintenance (where the streets are purple) to new water mains (blue) to speed humps (mustard). Dozens of green dots represent trees planted on Stone’s watch.

The alderman said he wanted to make sure people have a sense of how he’s taken care of the ward. “People have short memories,” Stone said. “I didn’t even point out the fact that I brought in 30-plus acres of parks. And this is just in the last few years.”

Stone’s opponent, Naisy Dolar, has criticized him for not doing enough to recruit new business or make commercial areas more attractive. Naturally, she wasn’t impressed by the flyer. “I believe Alderman Stone right now, for the first time in 34 years, is being held accountable, and he’s running scared,” she said. “What this is saying is that there’s a small amount of improvement, but not nearly as much as the vice mayor of the city should be able to bring to the ward.”

Dolar noted that the tree dots are clustered in just three parts of the ward, and she questioned whether Stone could really take credit for some of the investment, such as the new branch offices of corporate banks.

“No, the banks came in by themselves,” Stone shot back sarcastically. “Trees of course plant themselves–they’re not ordered by the alderman.”

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.