As gale-force winds whipped the city last week, two former firefighters stood in front of a Chicago Public Library branch in far-northwest-side Norwood Park, toeing the electioneering boundary. One—incumbent 41st Ward alderman Anthony Napolitano—was surrounded by a posse of aides who helped him pass out flyers to early voters heading inside to cast their ballots. The other—aldermanic candidate Tim Heneghan—tried to get the voters’ attention with help only from his wife, Stacy. Standing several feet apart, the two candidates exchanged accusations about who has the most toxic Facebook presence and offered contrasting views on affordable housing, schools, and ward services.
Napolitano, 43, is the only non-Democrat in the City Council. He was elected in 2015 with an unusual combination of Republican Party and labor union support. Although he’s accrued one of the council’s most independent voting records from the mayor, he’s alienated many of his early backers with segregationist policy positions and Trump-like rhetoric.
Last year Napolitano catalyzed a citywide debate on the role of aldermanic prerogative after he leveraged that informal City Council power to block the construction of a nearly 300-unit residential building in his ward that would have included 30 units of affordable housing. Ahead of the March 2018 gubernatorial primary he sparked outrage when he stood with state rep Jeanne Ives (Bruce Rauner’s right-wing challenger) to criticize Chicago’s CityKey municipal ID card program. Because noncitizens could obtain the card and the card could be used to register to vote, Napolitano argued, it would “entice or encourage people to go register to vote who are illegal immigrants.”
But as much as this may scandalize the typical liberal Chicagoan, Napolitano doesn’t lack for fans on his home turf. The 41st Ward, which includes the O’Hare neighborhood, Edison Park, and parts of Norwood Park and Forest Glen, is a notoriously conservative area of the city. Before Napolitano’s one-term Democratic predecessor, Mary O’Connor, the ward was run by Republican Brian Doherty for 20 years. In 2016, 43 percent of the ward voted for Donald Trump—more support than the president got in any other ward in the city.
There is, however, a small but vocal group of locals who don’t see themselves reflected in Napolitano’s politics. His opponent is banking on them representing a silent majority.
Heneghan, 56, is a retired Elmwood Park firefighter who’s lived in the 41st Ward for more than two decades and currently serves as the Democratic committeeman. Though he’s failed to attract support from some of the groups who propelled Napolitano to victory (SEIU, for example, hasn’t endorsed anyone in this race), he’s garnered endorsements from both the Tribune and the Sun-Times. As he stood outside the library bundled up in a full-body Carhartt jumpsuit and a Bears beanie, he explained that he wanted to be a more responsive alderman, to forge a better working relationship with the mayor (he claims Napolitano’s “independence” has cost the ward city services), and to set a better example for the ward’s children.
Heneghan’s especially concerned about the sort of messages he sees on Facebook pages associated with the alderman, particularly Watch 41 – Neighborhood Watch and Chat 41, which boast 8,000 and 3,000 members respectively. Both are private groups coadministered by Napolitano’s chief of staff, Chris Vittorio, and other allies on the city payroll, including Napolitano aides Maureen Chiavola and Jaclyn Murphy. Heneghan said he was banned from the groups long ago because he was critical of Napolitano, but that people regularly send him screenshots of posted content.
“A picture of a noose was put on there because some person of color rang someone’s doorbell,” Heneghan said. “It’s condoned by the alderman. . . . He’s done nothing to stop it, to say this isn’t OK, this isn’t indicative of who we are as citizens here in the 41st Ward.” (The next day a source sent the Reader screenshots from the Watch 41 page that showed a photo of a black man in a hoodie apparently standing on a porch and an “attempted burglary” in Norwood Park described underneath. Responses to the post included a picture of a gun and the comment “Just wait for all that affordable housing to be built!”)
Napolitano disputed that he’s personally responsible for these Facebook groups or that he’s condoning hate speech online, but confirmed that Heneghan had been banned from them. He blamed Heneghan for “starting the race wars on there.” He also charged that his opponent is behind the 41st Ward Progressives Facebook page and blog, which he described as a “hate-mongering blog” that censors people with dissenting opinions.
Monica Dillon, 60, a longtime resident of the 41st Ward and administrator of the 41st Progressives Facebook page and blog, told the Reader that Heneghan isn’t involved in running them. In fact, she said, it’s only with great hesitancy that she’s come to support him for alderman.
“In terms of police accountability, he’ll toe the line on whatever the FOP says,” she said. “He’s no different than Napolitano on that.” Dillon also doubts that Heneghan will truly champion affordable housing in the ward. She thinks that Heneghan’s idea of splitting up the ward’s current zoning advisory committee into smaller, neighborhood-based subcommittees will only perpetuate segregation by allowing communities even more say over new development proposals in the ward, including affordable housing proposals.
Affordable housing became a flash point for the ward last year, when a luxury developer tried to build that 300-unit building on Higgins Road near the Cumberland Blue Line stop. As the Reader reported, Napolitano initially green-lighted the project, which was unanimously approved by his zoning advisory committee. But after ward residents mobilized against it once they learned affordable housing—ultimately, 30 units of it—would be included on-site, Napolitano (who’d also publicly opposed an affordable housing building in the neighboring 45th Ward) sided with detractors, citing “thousands” of constituents asking him not to support the development. The City Council ultimately respected his “prerogative” and voted down a zoning change the developer needed to build the apartment building. It’ll be an office building now.
Napolitano continues to insist that his opposition to the Higgins building was about limiting neighborhood density, not overcrowding the schools, and respecting the desires of his constituents. But even if 7,000 people called him to protest the building, as he claims, didn’t he have 30 people in his ward who needed affordable apartments to rent?
“As elected officials we’re supposed to be representing the people that vote for us,” Napolitano said. “Those are 7,000 people that vote for [me,] and that’s what they want.”
Though he’s highly critical of Napolitano’s actions on the Higgins building now, it wasn’t so long ago that Heneghan was peddling anti-affordable-housing rhetoric himself.
Two years ago Heneghan was up in arms about a proposed apartment development on Oliphant Avenue in Edison Park that would have included a handful of affordable units. Heneghan now says his opposition to that project was only based on density and emergency egress concerns, but in a May 2016 e-mail to the community he’d noted that he was “concerned about the 10% of affordable housing units.” He hadn’t specified why, and at a subsequent community meeting Napolitano accused him of “maliciously” bringing up the issue as a scare tactic, to give residents the impression that affordable housing was flooding into the neighborhood.
Heneghan admits he wasn’t enlightened about affordable housing in the past but says he’s changed his mind on various issues as he’s learned more in his position as committeeman. “I think people in this ward are sorely undereducated about what affordable housing is,” he told me. “Right away everyone thinks affordable housing is just people of color. But it’s seniors, it’s vets, it’s single parents trying to raise their kids.” Does he sympathize with those who don’t want affordable housing because they think it’s for people of color?
“No, I don’t sympathize with that,” he said with a note of indignation. “I think that’s terrible.”
Heneghan said being honest about his evolving views is a political risk in the ward. “The nastiest things in the world are being said about me because I’m standing up for what’s right,” he said. “I want you to read this,” he added, pulling out his phone. “This is indicative of what I’m going up against.”
He showed me an e-mail from ward resident Scott Thedford that he’d received the previous night. “Your position on affordable housing in this ward is the a killer [sic],” Thedford had written. “I guess you feel that the hard working law abiding people of this ward should be subjected to shit heads who can’t pull there weight [sic].” (Thedford later told me he stood by the spirit of his critique, if not by the foul language, adding that he thought his views were in line with those of others in the 41st Ward.)
Despite the candidates’ stances on affordable housing being a central talking point in this election, as I spoke to local residents and business owners they were more apt to complain about street flooding, airport noise, potholes, school crowding, and high property taxes. Many gave Napolitano kudos for being accessible, voting against the 2016 property tax hike, and handling ward services to their satisfaction. I didn’t meet anyone besides Dillon and a couple of other outspoken progressives in the ward who planned to vote for Heneghan, though signs for both candidates dotted the ward’s lawns with seeming parity.
Last Wednesday, Napolitano and Heneghan traded more barbs at a forum organized by the Edison Park Community Council.
Napolitano, freshly shaved and with his hair slicked back, touted bringing annexes to two elementary schools in the ward. Heneghan, who looks remarkably like Boris Yeltsin, shot back that plans for those annexes preceded the alderman. Napolitano bragged about not being a rubber stamp for Rahm. Heneghan slammed him for pissing off the mayor and losing his seat on the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission, which is still occupied by former alderman O’Connor’s appointee. Even when asked about other issues by the moderator, like their views on legalizing recreational marijuana (Heneghan is pro, Napolitano wouldn’t commit) or opening a casino in Chicago (both approve of the idea), or mega-TIF deals like Lincoln Yards (neither gave a concrete answer), the two found their way back to bickering over the same set of talking points.
At the end of the debate, some of the more than 50 audience members gathered in the Olympia Park gym demanded that the moderator allow time for their questions. He grudgingly acquiesced. A man who began a meandering diatribe on the dangers of marijuana was quickly cut off. Then, a young woman (who later introduced herself as Mary O’Connor’s niece) demanded to know who Napolitano was going to align himself with if he planned to continue not buddying up to the mayor.
Napolitano responded with some comments about his partnership with the Blackhawks bringing a new ice rink to the ward. Heneghan called the rink a “debacle.” The moderator once again moved to end the event, at which point people began shouting.
“Will you support affordable housing in the future?” Dillon, who’d been live streaming the debate from the audience, cried out.
The marijuana detractor was ready. “Here we go with race baiting!” he shot back. “I want my daughter to be raised properly. I don’t want my kids mixed.”
Voices continued to rise and people started leaving. The moderator asked the candidates for closing statements. Heneghan made one last moral appeal to attendees’ better natures, decrying racist rhetoric online and reading Thedford’s e-mail aloud to the crowd, noting that he hoped it doesn’t represent the true nature of 41st Ward residents. Napolitano reminded everyone he’d fight for what they wanted above anything else.
The sentiment that the community is under threat seems to be shared by many in the ward, yet it’s at stark odds with the material realities across its semisuburban landscape. This ward includes some of the wealthiest, whitest parts of Chicago, along with some of the lowest unemployment rates and virtually no crime. Edison Park, where the debate took place and where both Napolitano and Heneghan live, has the highest proportion of white residents of any community area in Chicago—nearly 90 percent, according to 2016 census data. It’s also got the city’s fourth-lowest unemployment rate—just 4 percent—and at $90,000, a median income almost twice as high as that of the whole city’s.
After the debate, Dillon wrote a rueful recap on the 41st Ward Progressives’ Facebook page, noting that many serious issues—like education and small business development—weren’t even discussed. “Palpable, Trump-like panic, fear and mis-information was what we had to endure,” she wrote. “I don’t think there were any winners at this forum—neither candidate ‘won’ anything and ward residents lost the most.” v