By Ben Joravsky
It’s hard to believe from the warm and fuzzy rhetoric coming out of the candidates, but there’s an election going on in Uptown.
Specifically, Jim Snyder’s challenging 46th Ward Democratic committeeman Sandra Reed in the March 21 primary. But neither has much to say against the other–or, for that matter, about Helen Shiller, the lightning rod of an alderman.
“I’m not going to say anything bad about Sandra and I hope she’s not going to say anything bad about me,” says Snyder. “It’s time for everyone to come out of the bunkers and find happiness with each other.”
The language of peace and love makes a drastic contrast to the hammering that’s been the rule in Uptown for the last 30 years. When Shiller moved there in the 1960s, Uptown became a generational and ideological battleground. She and her New Left cohorts organized the ward’s poor blacks, whites, and Latinos against the older, regular Democratic politicos based in the lakefront high-rises. Those early campaigns are the stuff of legend. Activists from each side accused the other of smashing windows, defacing signs, and stealing votes. But Shiller proved virtually unbeatable, and by the 1990s most of the old guard had either died, moved, or dropped out of politics. Shiller had no interest in running for committeeman, so a vacuum existed. It helps explain why Reed’s the incumbent committeeman in the first place.
By her own description, she’s a strange deviation from the stereotypical cigar-chomping ward boss. She studies ballet, sings in her church choir, and writes poetry and songs. Politics was the last thing on her mind when she moved to Chicago in 1973 from a small town outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and took a job teaching English at Cregier, a rough-and-tumble west-side vocational high school. “I graduated from college at age 19, so I wasn’t much older than the kids I was teaching at Cregier,” says Reed. “A lot of my students were on work-release programs. They were on probation. I had one kid who was up for murder. But I loved that school.”
Eventually she moved to Jones Commercial High School, where she gained a reputation among students as an “organizer,” the teacher who sponsors or oversees everything from the senior prom to the school play to museum outings. “I wasn’t planning to run for committeeman–I didn’t even know what the job did,” says Reed. “I ran because the people in my block club asked me to.”
She won easily in 1996 against weak opposition (the incumbent had stepped down) and might have remained one of the city’s lowest-profile committee-men if her neighbors hadn’t talked her into running last year for alderman against Shiller. She lost more than an election. She got caught up in a typically vicious Uptown race in which her campaign was overrun by the ward’s most vociferous “Helen haters” and precinct workers out of 19th Ward committeeman Tom Hynes’s southwest-side organization. In the complex matrix of Uptown politics, Shiller won almost all the black vote while Reed, one of the few public school teachers unafraid to publicly criticize CEO Paul Vallas’s rigid testing and retention policies, was portrayed as a Daley puppet.
“I didn’t control some of the things my supporters did. Some of those people weren’t even in my campaign,” says Reed. “Tom Hynes had nothing to do with that election. He certainly had nothing to do with me getting into politics. I didn’t even know who he was when I first ran for committeeman. I admire him and he’s been sort of a mentor since I got elected, but he’s not the type to dictate and I’m not the type to be dictated to. All of those accusations about me bringing in outsiders were stuff that the other side made up to make me look bad. It’s too bad they had to go that route, but I can’t change that.
“That election’s behind me now. I want to look to the future. The way I see it, this job is not much different than my life as a teacher. It’s about education. I want to conduct voter registration drives and inspire young people to get active in politics. I want people to believe in politics. It’s so disappointing to see people who don’t vote. I have always voted. I’m old enough to remember what it was like in the old days when black people couldn’t vote. I remember what Dr. King went through in his march to Selma to get people the right to vote. I want to spread the word and inspire people to get involved.”
Like Reed, Snyder isn’t interested in discussing last year’s aldermanic race. He backed Shiller, but he doesn’t want the enmity of her hard-core opponents. Instead, he emphasizes his identity as a working-class kid (raised by a single mother in McHenry County), who worked his way through law school at Northern Illinois University, moved to Chicago, and went to work for the CHA. Since starting his own practice in 1993, he’s successfully represented residents facing displacement by upper-end development, organized the Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, helped found the Illinois Condominium Owners Association, and drafted hate-crimes legislation. “Isn’t that the type of leadership you expect out of the 46th Ward?” he says.
Snyder’s known as the sort of savvy operative who eats, drinks, and sleeps politics. Some observers wonder why he’s running for office at all, since he seems so much more at home working the back rooms, engaging reporters in off-the-record spin sessions on behalf of the latest candidate or cause (he ran campaigns for Cook County Board commissioner Mike Quigley and state representative Larry McKeon).
But Snyder says he’s ready to step into the limelight. “A political organization is built on one of two things–jobs and values,” he says. “I’ve tried to build an organization based on the second because that’s what I believe. It takes a lot more work to do that. You have to make people understand what’s at the end of the rainbow if they work together, in this case a stronger community whose voice is heard in the larger party.”
His greatest political achievement might have been an act of rebellion. In 1998 he and McKeon helped engineer a north-lakefront backlash against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Glenn Poshard.
“I’m comfortable with what we did in not backing Poshard,” says Snyder. “This was a congressman who wanted to amend the Constitution to ban abortions in all circumstances. So yes, I was willing to stand up for a pro-choice position. Isn’t that what you want your 46th Ward committeeman to do? The 11th Ward and the 19th Ward get their voices represented in the party. Shouldn’t the lakefront?
“Listen, it’s time for lakefront liberals to get back in the game,” he says. “It’s time to have our voices heard. It’s ridiculous that the party would think they could get away with nominating a right-wing candidate like Poshard. The committeeman can either sell the party’s program to the ward or sell the ward’s values to the party. I want to do the latter. I want the voice of the 46th Ward to be heard in slating sessions. I’m proud of what Larry and I did in regards to Poshard. We helped save our party from a takeover by radical Christian fundamentalists. If the 46th Ward isn’t fighting for those values, then who will?”
Reed stayed with Poshard. “We didn’t support Poshard in the primary, but once he won it’s something else,” she says. “We’re the Democratic Party. He was our candidate. Every candidate won’t do what you want him to do. You have to educate them. My organization has gays and women in it. I talked to Poshard about a lot of these issues. He was softening a little. In politics not everyone sees eye to eye. When you don’t agree with them you have to bring them to your side.”
The strangest thing about the election is that neither candidate seems particularly interested in playing to his or her home base. Snyder’s not running as a “gay candidate” and Reed’s not running as a “black woman.” Shiller’s staying out of the race.
“I hope we’re beyond hating the opposition,” says Reed. “I like to think the ward’s gone beyond labels.”
It’s uncertain how long decorum will prevail. The committeeman race is far down on the ballot, and the candidate who wins it will be the one who brings the most voters to the polls. In Uptown that has always meant stoking passions. Will it be long before Reed’s backers start bashing Snyder as “Helen’s baby brother,” while Snyder’s supporters call Reed Daley’s “shameless stooge”?
New Hope for the Davis?
Amonth ago North Center residents were all but mourning the death of the Davis, the second-run movie house at Lincoln and Wilson. Now they’re holding out hope.
Here’s what’s been happening. The developer who had offered to buy the building for $1.3 million dropped out of the deal after Alderman Eugene Schulter opposed the zoning change needed to convert the theater to condos.
The building was put back on the market, and local residents decided to get serious. Instead of just clamoring against the gentrification of their neighborhood, they would do something to prevent it.
On December 29 several residents formed the Davis Theater Preservation Corporation. The next day they made a bid on the Davis.
If all goes well they’ll raise enough money to make a down payment, do basic repairs, and run the building as it is: affordable rentals upstairs, restaurants, small businesses, and the movie theater on the first floor. “Our bid was strong and substantial and competitive,” says Mary Edsey, a resident who helped form the preservation group. “The theater building is a miniversion of what the community’s fighting for. There’s affordable housing, small businesses, and a low-price theater. If we’re able to purchase the building we’ll be able to preserve the unique architecture and character of the neighborhood.”
If the group doesn’t purchase it, the owners will sell to someone else who may or may not keep the theater.
For what it’s worth, Schulter is pledging to do whatever he can to guarantee that the Davis remains open. He says the owners have told him that they won’t sell unless the buyer promises to keep the theater.
Residents are hopeful Schulter will keep up the pressure, if only because it’s in his best interests. He’s in the midst of a heated challenge against his old mentor, Democratic committeeman Ed Kelly. The last thing Schulter needs is to alienate hundreds of voters as the politician who lost the Davis.
There have been three bids so far on the property. The owners are waiting for one or two more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik/copyright Marc PoKempner 1999.