The most unpredictable aldermanic race in the city is probably the one going on in the south side’s 15th Ward, where the incumbent, Ted Thomas, is retiring. Twelve people are on the ballot, and at least two others have organized write-in campaigns. Among the contenders are a minister, a high school basketball coach, and an ex-con former alderman. “Everybody says it’s crazy out here, but it’s democracy at work,” says candidate Janice Jeffries, a local school council member.

The endorsements are all over the place. Thomas supports William Burch, director of a nonprofit youth-advocacy organization. The Chicago Federation of Labor backs Toni Foulkes, a Jewel bakery employee who’s also a union activist. Secretary of State Jesse White and 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett are stumping for Felicia Simmons-Stovall, an attorney in White’s office, and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and state senator James Meeks favor Denise Dixon, former director of Illinois ACORN. The Tribune endorsed insurance agent Brian Dunn.

A couple of candidates who were kicked off the ballot and then started write-in campaigns showed up at a January candidates’ forum and demanded that they be allowed to participate; the organizers refused. At another January debate Virgil Jones, the ex-alderman, got into a bitter exchange with a former staffer he accused of being a government informant. The staffer later told a community newspaper that Jones’s accusation, though false, had put him in danger on the street. When I asked Jones about the man’s fear he said, “I’m not thinking about him. He’s a nobody.”

Simmons-Stovall says a couple of her volunteers were campaigning door-to-door when they found a flyer accusing her of helping White, Burnett, and 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers “take over” the ward. “Foot soldiers have been moving thru the community every weekend,” it says. “15th Ward residents tell Felicia Stovall to go back to the west side and take her thugs with her.”

Simmons-Stovall says she’s running her own campaign, though she’s grateful for the support of White and Burnett, whose political committees each gave her $10,000. She adds that she’s met Carothers only a couple of times and hasn’t received any support from him.

Burnett says he has indeed knocked on doors for Simmons-Stovall, an old friend and ally. “We’re just supporting a good candidate,” he says. “But I don’t have time to run anyone else’s ward–I still have plenty to do in my own.”

Despite all the nastiness, most of the candidates agree that cutting crime, increasing city services, improving schools, and creating jobs should be the top priorities for whoever becomes alderman. “I think we all have the same thing as far as a platform,” says Foulkes. “And after this we still have to live in the ward together.”

When business leaders vowed last summer to try to defeat 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore it looked like the race there was going to become a battle over his priorities and his attempts to distance himself from Mayor Daley. Early on challenger Chris Adams, a former editor with Copley Press, blasted Moore for leading the drive in favor of the big-box minimum-wage ordinance, calling it a jobs killer. Over the past couple months a second challenger, IT specialist and parks advocate Don Gordon, has held “freedom of choice” dinners with chefs who served foie gras to protest the Moore-sponsored ban on selling it. In January a third challenger, Jim Ginderske, an electrician and health care activist, dismissed the alderman’s call for hearings on the CTA’s train service, saying, “It appears he is angry at CTA for making necessary repairs in an election year.”

But by last week all four candidates had zeroed in on conventional election-year issues such as diversity, crime, business development, and affordable housing. And at a breakfast debate on February 14 the three challengers seemed at least as eager to criticize one another as to go after Moore.

At one point the moderator asked the candidates how they would help local businesses. Ginderske said he would work to reduce crime by revitalizing the district’s community policing program. Gordon said he’d do the same thing but better: “The most important thing in developing businesses and creating a business climate is to have a champion. Well let me tell you something–you’re looking at him.”

Noting that the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce had endorsed him, Adams said he would help business owners find neighborhood locations where they can thrive. “There’s a taqueria on the east side of Clark Street that longs to move over to the west side,” he said. “When they move across the street they will make a complete four in a row–identical businesses, side by side by side. Not all four of those businesses are going to succeed.”

Moore leaped to defend the taquerias’ right to open anywhere they choose. “They represent the cultural diversity of this neighborhood, and they’re there because there’s a demand for taquerias,” he said. “I enjoy them myself.” He tried to steer the debate elsewhere, arguing that citywide and national trends affect local businesses, “which is why I was a lead sponsor of the big-box living-wage ordinance.”

Ginderske quickly steered the debate back. “What’s really exciting about the taqueria [the owner] wants to open is that it’s actually a very large, very upscale place,” he said. “That’s our goal–our goal is to get better businesses into the community.” He chastised Adams and Gordon for having “empty” business plans, saying, “There’s a lot of polished rhetoric flying around here.”

Finally the moderator asked if the candidates could remain independent in the council yet still find a way to work with the mayor.

“I think it’s possible to respectfully disagree without having a poisoned relationship,” said Ginderske.

“To me, the litmus test for remaining independent is to pay attention to your community,” said Gordon. “That will earn you respect.”

Adams said he’d held local officials accountable as a journalist and would continue to do so as an alderman.

Looking pleased, Moore suggested that they weren’t promising anything he wasn’t already doing. “Democracy is a good thing,” he said. “If I stay in the City Council we’ll continue to have a semblance of it.”

Last summer the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce fought against the big-box ordinance. After it was defeated the chamber’s president, Jerry Roper, said his group intended to “educate” aldermen about business issues and back its own slate of pro-business candidates in the February election–especially since the Service Employees International Union, which had fought for the ordinance, was organizing to defeat aldermen who hadn’t voted, in the words of the state executive director, for “working families.” But so far the chamber-SEIU showdown has been remarkably one-sided.

On February 12 the chamber announced that it would endorse 43 aldermanic candidates–42 incumbents and Chris Adams. But the big-box ordinance clearly wasn’t the only issue–of the incumbents, 23 had voted in favor of the ordinance. The chamber took a pass on endorsing anyone in the 3rd and 20th wards, though the incumbents there, Dorothy Tillman and Arenda Troutman, had both voted against the ordinance.

Roper didn’t return calls for comment, but the chamber’s Web site says, “The Chamber PAC will promote these endorsements to its member companies and urge businesses and employees to spread the word about pro-business and pro-jobs candidates.”

The site doesn’t say anything about money, and as of the end of last week only eight candidates had received any funding from the chamber since the beginning of 2006: 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus got $10,000, and a total of $2,800 was divided up among Mary Ann Smith (48th), Eugene Schulter (47th), Tom Tunney (44th), Vi Daley (43rd), Emma Mitts (37th), Richard Mell (33rd), and Isaac Carothers (29th).

A couple of the companies that had been targets of the ordinance were slightly more generous. Wal-Mart gave $13,000 to Mitts, $6,000 to Howard Brookins Jr. (21st), and $1,500 each to Bernard Stone (50th), Carrie Austin (34th), Shirley Coleman (16th), George Cardenas (12th), Darcel Beavers (7th), and Madeline Haithcock (2nd). Target gave $2,500 to William Banks (36th) and $750 to Carothers. Add it all up and the chamber, Wal-Mart, and Target have contributed just $45,500 to candidates since the beginning of 2006. During the same period SEIU has donated around $600,000.

The top SEIU beneficiary so far has been Leroy Jones Jr., an SEIU official who’s running for Brookins’s seat; he’s received around $146,000. Jones says he isn’t running just on labor issues, noting that his top priority is to increase community involvement in improving education, public safety, and economic development. “The average politician likes to treat constituents like mushrooms–they keep them in the dark and feed them BS,” he says. “I want to make the process more transparent.”

The next biggest SEIU donation, $92,000, went to Toni Foulkes in the 15th Ward. Another $76,000 went to Carina Sanchez, who’s challenging Cardenas in the 12th; $63,000 went to Natarus opponent Brendan Reilly; $45,000 to Tillman foe Pat Dowell; $32,000 to 22nd Ward alderman Ricardo Munoz; and $30,000 to JoAnn Thompson, one of Coleman’s challengers in the 16th Ward.

Coleman was one of four aldermen who changed their votes on the big-box ordinance to help Mayor Daley sustain his veto. She said she thought it was the best way to bring jobs to her community, and she admits she’d like to see her loyalty rewarded. “I have not heard from either the mayor’s people or the chamber, and I am disappointed,” she says. “At this point the union is outspending me and outmailing me.”

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