As the wind chill dipped below zero and the snow piled on last week, small teams of youth hit the streets of the 37th Ward. They fanned out across unplowed residential blocks of Austin, West Garfield Park, and West Humboldt Park to tell locals not to reelect incumbent alderman Emma Mitts. The teens, some of whom have been involved with the #NoCopAcademy campaign to prevent a $95 million police and fire training facility from being built in the ward, have organized under the hashtag #AnybodyButMitts. Just as when, in 2016, the #ByeAnita campaign energized Cook County voters to give state’s attorney Anita Alvarez the boot without specifically endorsing Kim Foxx, so too this youth-led effort against Mitts isn’t an endorsement of either of her opponents—CPS teacher Tara Stamps (who’s challenging Mitts for the second time) and newcomer Deondre’ Rutues.
The youth are working with community organizers Page May and Debbie Southorn, both deeply rooted in the city’s police and prison abolition movement through groups like Assata’s Daughters and the People’s Response Team. As they knocked on doors and tried to talk to people darting through the frigid streets, they handed out flyers that spelled out the basics about an alderman’s role and criticized Mitts for her closeness with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The flyer also offered a checklist of the three aldermanic candidates’ stances on various issues.
“We’re trying to do rounds where we hit the same people at least two times—closer to four if possible,” May explained as a couple of the girls canvassing finished a conversation at a house on the 400 block of North Avers. “That’s what we read it takes to get someone who’s not planning to vote to vote. It takes four interactions.”
A man pulled up in a large beige pickup truck packed with lawn mowers, curious about the canvassers. Lavon, 50, didn’t want to give his last name but said he’d lived his whole life in this corner of the ward. The unplowed streets, he said, are “the norm. Everybody knows that we’re the most taxed and the least serviced.” He looked over the flyer May handed him. He hadn’t heard of Stamps or Rutues before.
Lavon said he votes “every now and then,” but not because he truly has faith in any candidate. He’s not thrilled with the job Mitts has done for the ward, but he said the unemployment and crime in the neighborhood aren’t just her problems to solve.
“I can’t point to Emma as the sole culprit because it’s a systemic thing that has been going on for the last 50 years,” he said. “It’s a conglomerate of people who have taken an oath to do one thing but are doing another thing.”
Nevertheless, as he chatted with May and the other canvassers he didn’t seem too cynical. “The change has to start somewhere,” he said. He’d like the alderman “to take all of the resources that are divvied up for the neighborhoods, to put them here, and watch the young people who are considered to be the future blossom into something,” he said. “Or just be truthful enough to tell somebody, look them in the face and tell them: I’m not gonna do shit for you.”
As for the police academy? Lavon scoffed. “That’s just a money ploy,” he said.
Before driving off Lavon advised the canvassers to connect with organizations based in the ward and to involve longtime residents in their efforts. Two of the youth canvassers in this group live in the 37th, but May, Southorn, and another canvasser, 16-year-old Destiny Bell, live elsewhere in the city.
As the group hustled to knock on doors one block to the east, Bell argued that it doesn’t matter that she happens to live in the Sixth Ward on the south side. “I care, even if I don’t live over here, I still care. ‘Cause it’s still my people,” she said after speaking to another resident through a glass front door. “If you’re alderman you’re representing your community, you’re supposed to get them what they need, not just what’s gonna make you look good or help your campaign. . . . And I feel that Emma Mitts—she’s not doing that. So that’s why I’m here.”
Around the ward, yard signs for Mitts aren’t as plentiful as they are for incumbents elsewhere in Chicago, but there’s no question that the alderman is in a prime position to saturate her turf with campaign literature and canvassers if she wanted to. The web of political funds she has access to stands at more than $165,000 and she’s received tens of thousands of dollars from labor and business groups, including many liquor stores in her ward (who rely on her good graces as the chair of the Committee on License and Consumer Protection), as well as Governor J.B. Pritzker, indicted alderman Ed Burke, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Many of her critics see this as a reward for her steadfast commitment to supporting mayoral agendas.
Mitts, 63, was first appointed alderman by Richard M. Daley in 2000, after her predecessor, Percy Giles, was convicted of taking bribes. As the Tribune put it at the time, Mitts had been “plucked from obscurity” in the city’s Streets and Sanitation department. She was the 25th alderperson to be appointed by Daley and was written off as a mayoral rubber stamp almost immediately. Since then, Mitts hasn’t cultivated a reputation for independence from the mayor, voting 100 percent of the time with Emanuel on divided votes over the last several years.
Nevertheless, some residents praise her record on economic development. Mitts fought to bring the first Walmart in Chicago to her ward in 2006 (and fought against the big-box ordinance that required living wages for its employees for a grand total of seven weeks before Mayor Daley’s veto). A variety of fast-food and other franchises has opened along the commercial thoroughfares of the ward during her tenure, as has the ward’s first library. A transportation seating manufacturer has brought in some 900 jobs on her watch.
Perhaps the surest way of evaluating enthusiasm about her is to look back at past elections. Her first time vying for voter approval—which happened in a special election in February 2001—she beat three opponents with 80 percent of the vote. At the time, there were almost 34,000 registered voters in the ward, and about a quarter of them cast a ballot in the special election. Over the course of the 2003, 2007, and 2011 elections, the number of registered voters in the ward eroded, but an increasing percentage of them came out to vote. Mitts kept facing challengers on the ballot, and she kept being reelected, but by narrower and narrower margins. In 2015 she found herself in a runoff against Stamps, and ultimately won by 600 votes. A third of the registered voters in the ward came out to vote in that runoff election—more than at any other time in the previous 15 years.
Securing an interview with Mitts proved to be a challenge. After days of back-and- forth phone calls and text messages with her media and legislative affairs coordinator, A.L. Smith—which included an invitation to see Mitts at a community meeting that arrived nine minutes before the start of that meeting—I finally got 20 minutes on the phone. Smith was also on the conference call and, though she didn’t want her comments to be on the record, chimed in so frequently to help Mitts make her points that the alderman finally told her: “Let me speak.”
Mitts said she hadn’t heard of the #AnybodyButMitts campaign but she’s as committed as ever to bringing the police and fire training academy to the ward. She said youth opposed to the plan “have the issue of being angry with the police,” and that the police academy would allay their mistrust.
“Once the facility will be built we’ll find an opportunity for [youth] to engage,” she said. As for concerns that construction wouldn’t employ locals, Mitts said a plan to guarantee 50 percent of the jobs to people from the surrounding west-side neighborhoods is in the works.
Mitts said she was proud of her record of bringing new businesses and charter schools to the ward. She denied that she’s hard to reach, listing a litany of regular meetings she holds with ward residents. But she said she’s not surprised to hear some people complaining. “They’re always gonna complain—I’ve never known folks not to.” She said she’s aware of the candidates competing with her but that she’s focusing on her own work. Is she confident about her reelection?
“I’m never confident about anything,” she said flatly. “I just keep working and trying to do all that I can do every day for the community.”
Mitts’s opponents certainly disagree.
Rutues, 31, grew up in Austin and works the night shift as a manager at UPS. After college he wanted to give back to the neighborhood. He mentored kids and got involved in racial justice and anti-violence demonstrations. In 2016 he launched a monthly performing arts showcase to generate money to pay for neighborhood cleanups in Austin and was discouraged at the lack of support from local aldermen, including Mitts. “When I went to the alderman to ask for help with that I realized how big a deal it is to try to get help,” he says, “They gave me the runaround.” Then Donald Trump, who had no prior political experience, became president, and Rutues decided to take a stab at public officialdom himself. “Being frustrated [with incumbent aldermen] was part of the catalyst, but when Donald Trump won I was like, OK, if he could do it, I could do it.”
Initially, Rutues said, he asked elected officials for advice on how to run for office—he admits he was naive about how these systems work. He said he got nothing helpful from 29th Ward alderman Chris Taliaferro and state rep Camille Lilly.
And so Rutues has done all of the campaign grunt work himself, collecting 1,700 nominating petition signatures, “all of them off the muscle, myself,” he says proudly. His only endorsement so far has come from the Chicago Alliance for Animals, and he doesn’t yet have a candidate committee to fund-raise. He’s doing most of the preelection canvassing alone with a stack of door hangers.
Rutues thinks the 37th Ward deserves better than what they’re getting from Mitts. “I see the business she brings to the community and I see them shutter,” he says. “The same fast-food restaurants.” He also thinks it’s time for her to stop celebrating the Walmart that came in more than a decade ago. In a recent radio interview, he pointed out that the same store had recently been shut down due to a rat infestation. Rutues wants to see more juice and salad bars, meditation spaces, and art galleries in the ward.
“I don’t like the fact that there isn’t a plethora of black businesses or small business ownership in our community, which in other communities are staples,” Rutues says. He’s trying to start a Rotary Club in the area to stimulate local business development. If he were elected he said he’d work to pass a property tax freeze in poor neighborhoods, restructure the city ticketing program that leads to high levels of bankruptcy among African-Americans, and fight TIF deals that funnel money away from public schools and other local government services. He’s against the police academy. “There’s no reason that $95 million should be spent in this ward and it not be spent on mental health resources first,” he said.
Four years ago, Stamps, 50, ran a headline-grabbing campaign against Mitts with significant endorsements and financial support from labor unions, including her own Chicago Teachers Union. A CPS teacher, Stamps had made national news in an election year that was deemed to be a “referendum” on Rahm Emanuel for his deeply divisive school and mental health clinic closures (the former Mitts condoned, the latter she voted for).
Though she succeeded in forcing Mitts into a runoff, her loss was deflating and left her questioning whether the effort had been worth it “because of the toll it took on my family, the toll it took on me—just exhaustion, disappointment, heartbreak, not being able to spend time with my family.”
Though she eventually rallied, helping found the Greater Austin Independent Political Organization in 2017 and developing civic engagement classes for the community, Stamps has kept a relatively low profile since her defeat.
But perhaps she’s not meant to fade into obscurity. The daughter of legendary community organizer Marion Stamps—who helped bring Harold Washington to City Hall by organizing residents of Cabrini-Green, brokered gang truces, and also ran for alderman—Stamps has a lot of fight in her. She launched her run against Mitts in October—well into campaign season—because, she says, her family and ward residents asked her to. With no money and very little manpower, she had a lot of catching up to do. She admitted she had some doubts about her chances, asking herself, “Did I do enough in the ward to stay relevant? And I think, honestly, there’s more I could have done, but I also think we have an amazing opportunity still [to beat Mitts].”
Stamps successfully fought off a petition challenge, made the ballot, and has been focusing on canvassing and phone banking every day with the help of a couple dozen volunteers. Though other labor groups have thrown their support behind Mitts—likely because she’s supported various TIF deals, which created union construction jobs—the CTU is endorsing Stamps and she’s expecting a significant donation to her campaign. Longtime Cook County clerk David Orr has also shown his support. Most of all, Stamps says, she’s encouraged by the feedback she’s getting from ward residents, some of whom seem to be more interested in her now that she doesn’t have so much big money and press swirling around her.
In the waning light of a freezing day a couple of weeks ago, Stamps shuffled along a stretch of West Hirsch Street, her nephews and one of her sons spreading out through surrounding blocks to knock on every door and hand out glossy cards with her photo and platform printed on them. Stamps opposes the police academy plan and charter school expansion, and she’s promising to fight to raise the minimum wage, push for stronger police oversight, and improve mental health care. She wants to see more social services and jobs for formerly incarcerated people who come back disproportionally to this part of town.
Ringing the bells of a two-flat on North Luna and hearing no response, she left a card stuck in the door and prepared to move on. Then a window opened up on the second floor and a man stuck his head out. Stamps shouted up an introduction: “I’m a teacher, I ran before!” I asked if he planned to vote.
“Uh, you know, politics, it’s just . . .” he began, then paused. “I been voting 30 years, and nothing’s changed.” He noted that crime has gone down in the area in recent years but that ward services are so lackluster that “I don’t even expect anything.” He said he couldn’t say what Mitts has been up to lately.
Stamps is used to apathy and cynicism. “I know you’re frustrated,” she said, her voice booming through the quiet street. “But until we come up with something else better, we gotta try to make this system work for us.”
“Yeah,” the man in the window agreed, nodding.
“Policy is what dictates our personal choices in life,” Stamps continued. “This government shutdown—we don’t have no control over that, but is it impacting our life? Yes. We gotta participate in this process even if we’re pissed off. We got every right to be pissed off—we’ve been given the short end of the stick. But we’ve got to fight back, we gotta use whatever little stick we got.”
“It’s not just Trump,” the man observed. “It was before Trump.”
“No, it’s not just Trump,” Stamps agreed. “It’s the system! And it’s the people that allow Trump, just like it’s the people that allow Rahm and allowed Daley. For me the people that are more guilty [are] not just the person at the head, it’s everybody sitting around, knowing it’s a bad idea, saying, ‘Yeah, do that,’ ’cause you’re too much of a chump, or you’re too much of a pump, to say, ‘No, I’m not rolling with that, I’m not voting for that, I know that’s wrong, I’m not doing that.'”
Seeing that the man was ready to close the window and get out of the cold, Stamps wrapped up her oration with one last dig at Mitts. “They act like these little seats is a fiefdom and they get to keep ’em,” she said sarcastically. “No, you need to do right, and if you don’t do right you need to go.” v