On a sunny afternoon last week, a couple of men walked into Jessica’s Western Wear, a large store stocking rainbows of cowboy boots in every type of leather, button-down shirts, wide-brimmed hats, and a variety of other clothes, shoes, and personal grooming items. They spoke in Spanish with owner Rigo Romero, 56, about getting some patches on their ripped, light-wash jeans. Afterward, Romero, who’s run the shop near the corner of Clark and Lunt in the 49th Ward for 25 years, said the alterations “keep the store open because the retail business has been so bad.”
Romero dug up a purple shoebox from underneath a glass sales counter housing a few scattered pieces of jewelry. On the back of the box he keeps a tally of his annual gross sales. In 2011 he pulled in almost $600,000. Last year, it was about $290,000. If this year he doesn’t see his revenue climb again, “that’ll be my last year in the business,” he said.
Around Rogers Park, businesses like Romero’s have increasingly given way to higher-end restaurants and shops serving the 49th Ward’s whiter, wealthier population. And as Election Day approaches, the ward is gearing up for a showdown between 28-year incumbent alderman Joe Moore, on whose watch gentrification has become a fact of life, and first-time candidate Maria Hadden. A third candidate, Bill Morton, is fighting petition signature challenges from both Moore and Hadden’s camps and is unlikely to make the ballot.
Moore, who was first elected in 1991 and who for many years had a reputation for independence from Mayor Richard M. Daley’s political machine, has lost popularity in recent years. Increasingly, he’s been criticized as an unwavering ally of Rahm Emanuel’s who puts his political career ahead of residents’ concerns. Although he came within 251 votes of losing his seat in a 2007 runoff, this may be his toughest reelection.
Romero, who’s originally from Jalisco, Mexico, and has lived in the U.S. since 1979, said he’s not impressed by any of the candidates. Though his business has been in the ward as long as Moore’s been in office, he doesn’t feel like the alderman has done anything particularly beneficial and he doesn’t think much will change if he’s replaced.
“I do vote, usually only for president and governor,” he said. “Besides that to me it doesn’t really make a big difference. When they are running they promise so many things and it’s just like a game. . . . The alderman can be a white, it can be a black, it can be a woman, a Hispanic, honestly I don’t really care.”
He said local businesses like his have been struggling as condo conversions in buildings closer to the lake have driven out lower-income Latino families and Trump administration policies have frightened people into withdrawing money from local banks and not spending for fear of deportation. “People get scared, they stop buying stuff,” he said.
Although he’s pessimistic about the future, Romero said that if the alderman could do anything in this part of the ward it should be helping more local eateries get liquor licenses. “That will be the only thing that’ll bring people into this five blocks, going north and south [on Clark],” he said. “If there’s no restaurant with a liquor license I don’t see any changes.”
One person who appears to be intensely preoccupied with the health of small businesses in the ward is Chamber of Commerce president Bill Morton, 41. He’s faced an uphill battle getting onto the ballot with his roughly 500 petition signatures, but Morton said he’d have a good chance to win if he made it. Despite having no money in his campaign fund, he said he has “huge name recognition” in the ward and a history of community service.
I caught up with Morton at the banquet room of the Ethiopian Diamond on Clark Street—the restaurant recently lost its liquor license and had a Joe Moore sign in the window—as he was setting up for a monthly job fair he’s helped organize over the last year, dressed in gray slacks and a utility jacket.
Morton, a 16-year resident of the ward who also runs a promotional business helping recording artists get radio airtime, said his “works,” such as “small business well-being checks” and organizing against a new Target store and for rent control, have been “stunted” by Moore.
“Alderman Joe Moore has a personal grudge against me,” he said, because when he cofounded the Chamber of Commerce (which currently has about 125 member businesses) the organization didn’t seek Moore’s “blessing.”
“We did that specifically so we wouldn’t be in a position to give him any funding for his campaigns,” he said. And since then, Morton says Moore has refused to take meetings with him and the groups he’s involved in. Worse still is that the alderman isn’t doing enough to help residents with their problems, he added. “Joe Moore is about Joe Moore and getting reelected.”
If he won, Morton said, his first priority would be to implement a weekly ward night.
“His public meetings are a dog and pony show,” Morton said of Moore. “I haven’t seen a regular weekly ward night that’s not interrupted or that’s not cherry-picking who he would like to speak with personally.”
When I asked him about Hadden’s campaign, Morton said he didn’t think she had enough of a proven track record of community service in the ward. He was also disappointed that her camp challenged his petitions, just like Moore did. Morton said that pushing Moore into a runoff is the key to beating him, and that the 2007 election proved that he’s most vulnerable when multiple candidates are on the ballot.
On the corner of Devon and Sheridan, where construction of the new Target is under way, a diverse group of seniors gathered for an afternoon viewing of General Hospital at the Caroline Hedger Apartments. It’s a Chicago Housing Authority high-rise that’s been a source of controversy for the city due to heat outages in the winter and persistent elevator problems. Contractors who contribute to Moore have been slammed for cost overruns and shoddy workmanship. Many of the residents were also opposed to the new Target.
Still, as a couple of elderly black women chatted over religious literature in the TV room, one said she liked Moore because he’d hosted a Christmas party for the residents in December. “He made a good impression on me,” the woman said, explaining that she only recently moved to the building from North Lawndale. “I started reading about him, and he’s been alderman here for like 25 years—that says something. I don’t think people will keep voting for somebody that wasn’t doing nothing for their community.”
Hearing this, another woman standing nearby seemed unable to resist the temptation to butt in. “He got in front of a whole group of seniors who voted on using their own funds to have that Christmas party,” she said. “Alderman Moore took credit for giving us a party from our own funds.”
The woman from North Lawndale looked stunned. “Wow,” she said, in disbelief. “I think that’s incorrigible. I did not know that!”
The woman who interrupted introduced herself to me as Elizabeth M., 63, but said she didn’t want to share her full last name for fear of “possible repercussions. The incumbent has a way of singling people out and knocking them down as if that’s just a loudmouth individual,” she explained.
Elizabeth, who said she’s Puerto Rican and has been living in Rogers Park on and off for ten years, also made clear that she’s volunteering with Hadden’s campaign and that she’s a member of the Jane Addams Seniors in Action PAC. She said it’s unfortunate that Moore gets access to the CHA building as the alderman but that the other candidates aren’t allowed by CHA to campaign inside. “They’re not allowed to do any politicking on CHA property,” she said. “[Moore] can have all these bingo games and stuff and put [his] name on it.”
The woman from North Lawndale—who said she’s also 63 but that she didn’t want to share her name because she’s so new to the building—was still processing the story about the Christmas party. (CHA later confirmed it was indeed funded through its allocation for resident-selected activities.) “I will not open my big mouth again about Joe Moore because he had just totally deceived me,” she said.
Elizabeth said she shouldn’t blame herself, and that it’s hard to fact-check Moore when his version of events is the only one you hear. “You have to make sure you understand that sometimes he will just lie to you, to your face, to put himself ahead,” she said.
I asked how things were going with the Target construction. Elizabeth shrugged and pointed out the sidewalk closure. To go north on Sheridan people coming from Devon have to cross six lanes to the other side. She said it was particularly inconvenient for Caroline Hedger residents in wheelchairs and with walkers or canes. “Usually the construction is such so there are pedestrian walkways and people aren’t inconvenienced,” she said. “Here the priority is for the developers to get whatever they want. Especially if they’re contributing to [Moore’s] campaign fund.”
Ire about Moore, especially this feeling that he’s out of touch with ward residents, is what’s fueled Maria Hadden’s campaign. Headquartered in a brightly lit storefront on the corner of Morse and Greenview, she’s attracted more than 300 volunteers to knock on doors and staff a phone bank. Hadden, 37, is tall, with short, tight curls, big, expressive eyes, and a face that easily slips into a smile. She has a casual demeanor and often says “whatchamacallit” as she searches for the right word.
Hadden began her campaign in late 2017, after having lived in the ward for 11 years and grown disenchanted with Moore’s representation. Nearly 3,000 people signed her nominating petition—11 percent of the 27,000 registered voters in the ward—and she’s developed a base of fervent supporters who, like her, believe Moore’s transformed from a firm, independent voice in the City Council during Richard M. Daley’s term into a rubber stamp for Rahm Emanuel.
Moore was the first elected official in the country to implement participatory budgeting, and in 2009 Hadden joined a ward group figuring out how to spend the more than $1 million in aldermanic “menu money” from the city. She still remembers going to the first meeting. “It just sounded like democracy.” The experience eventually led her to start two nonprofits that consult with local governments on how to implement participatory budgeting and otherwise improve civic engagement.
The first time she met Moore, though, Hadden was far less impressed. She’d moved to Rogers Park in 2007 and bought a condo right before the housing market collapsed. The developer absconded, leaving her and 18 neighbors in a half-finished building with unpaid bills. (The story of her building was documented in a 2009 episode of This American Life.) She went to one of Moore’s now-defunct ward nights and gave a PowerPoint presentation about the problems she and her neighbors were facing and their ideas of the kind of assistance the alderman could provide.
“Alderman Moore nodded off over his fast-food dinner in front of me. . . . Wendy’s, I very distinctly remember,” she said. “I thought ‘Wow, we might lose our homes, things are terrible, we’ve been defrauded, what do we do?'”
Eventually, Hadden and her neighbors made it out of the crisis, and a staffer of Moore’s, Anne Sullivan—who would later be fired by Moore, allegedly for raising alarm about ethics violations in his office—helped them figure out how to settle the developer’s debt with utility companies. Nevertheless, Hadden says, over the years she’s only seen Moore get more complacent. She read the 2015 election, in which Moore trounced pro-foie-gras, borderline libertarian Don Gordon by double the number of votes, as a sign that a third of the ward was ready to vote for “anybody but Joe Moore.”
Hadden promises to restore the 49th Ward’s independent credentials. She doesn’t want the city to give long-term leases of public land to corporations for $1 and plans to play hardball with developers, from whom she’s refused to accept campaign donations because she doesn’t “even want the appearance of being compromised.” She says she also plans to be more attentive to the needs of local public schools and not support charter school expansion in the ward, as Moore has.
When I asked why her camp had challenged Morton, she said that it wasn’t an easy call. Ultimately, though, she decided it was the right thing to do because he had signatures from people not registered to vote in the ward. “If you can’t meet the technical requirements and do the work—how seriously are you taking it?”
Despite Morton’s theory that Moore will be weakest in a runoff, Hadden says she’s got the best chance to beat the incumbent. Plus, realistically, she’s only got the money for one election. She’s gathered more than $100,000 in her coffers, mostly from small donors and a few unions. Her biggest backer—notwithstanding unsubstantiated rumors that she was getting money from Alex Jones’s publicist, which she suspects were spread by Moore’s people—is Gabe Gonzalez, another candidate who dropped out of the race before petition filing time.
As she prepared to head out for an evening of knocking doors after a quick taco dinner delivered by her partner, Natalia Vera, Hadden said that she felt a “responsibility to come through” for all her supporters and the rest of the ward.
Up on the 7700 block of North Hermitage, Moore and longtime political aide (and off-duty ward employee) Wayne Frazier huddled in front of a courtyard apartment building entrance. As gusts of icy wind whipped around, Moore, dressed in a gray suit and Mackintosh, peered at a printout of registered voters under the light of Frazier’s phone, then tried to find corresponding names on the buzzer.
One building entryway didn’t seem to have any listed voters still living there. He had more luck next door.
“Hi, Ms. Williams? Alderman Joe Moore,” he said merrily when a short, thin black woman opened her door. “Just stopped by to say hello and see if there’s anything my office can do for you? Anything you want your alderman to know about?”
Williams asked what new projects he was putting into Rogers Park. “Well, we just got some more affordable housing lined up,” he began. “We’ve got, um, about 54 units of affordable housing for low and moderate income families over at Clark and Estes where that vacant lot is. We’ve got a new Target coming in. I don’t know if you know anyone looking for jobs, but we’ve got a job fair for the new Target coming up next week. And there’s also in that development 111 units of housing, 65 of them will be CHA housing. So we’re bringing in affordable housing, new jobs for the community.”
The whole spiel sounded at once rehearsed and rusty, like maybe Moore had it prepared but hadn’t practiced saying it often. Williams asked him to “keep us informed” and said she was already on his e-mail list. He gave her a campaign flyer. “There’s an election coming up in February, and I’m on the ballot again and I would love to have your support,” he said. “Can I count on your support?”
“As always you can,” Williams said before closing the door.
Moore and Frazier hit one last building on the block, where several residents only spoke to him through closed doors. One yelled that he needed to do something about the rats in they alley behind the building. Frazier made a note of it.
This block was in a precinct that delivered him the second-best results in the last election, but the door knocking was still a slog. Moore reflected that when he first got into politics, canvassing was easier. People were less distrustful, more likely to open a door or answer a phone call. He claimed that he tries to knock on doors a couple of times a week; his campaign manager told me that he’d be out between 4:30 and 6:30 that day. But though I joined him and Frazier at 6 PM, the three buildings I saw with them were they only ones he went to that evening.
Whether or not he’s really campaigning as much as he says, Moore’s staff certainly is. Everyone I spoke with in the ward had encountered his canvassers or received a call.
Sitting in a closet-size back room of the 49th Ward Democratic Organization storefront at Greenleaf and Ravenswood, amid filing cabinets, shelves, computer servers, and framed images of “A Visual History of the Democratic Party” and the Kennedys, Moore appeared more at ease. He leaned back in a computer chair and slalomed affably through questions easy and hard, his button-down shirt gaping ever so slightly at the apex of his belly.
Does he have a grudge against Morton?
“I rarely think about Mr. Morton.”
Did he fall asleep in front of Hadden?
“I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. It’s been treated and I don’t do that anymore.”
Did he claim credit for the Caroline Hedger Christmas party?
“I showed up but I didn’t claim credit for it,” he assured me. “I will claim credit for the Thanksgiving Day dinner that we provided for them. I hope they enjoyed that.”
Does he regret sending Rahm that e-mail asking what he could do to help him deal with the Laquan McDonald scandal?
Apparently not. “I felt he was being unfairly accused of covering up and I don’t like anyone being unfairly accused, no matter who they are.”
Why doesn’t he have a weekly ward night?
“I used to do them and they ended up being people coming, to the extent anyone came, looking for jobs,” he explained, adding that he considers himself to be among the most accessible aldermen in the city. “Ward night was becoming an employment night and I didn’t feel it was the best use of my time. Anyone who wants to see me—there’s no problem setting up a time to meet.”
Moore acknowledged that Hadden is a formidable opponent. “I’ve had some tough elections, I’ve had some cakewalks,” he says of his seven terms in office. “This is closer to a tough one.” But he added that he, like Morton, thinks Hadden lacks a proven track record of caring about Rogers Park. If the voters give him one more term, he said, he’d focus his energy on improving the participatory budgeting process and bringing in more affordable housing—he even said he’d work in City Council to limit the influence of aldermanic prerogative on affordable housing construction citywide. His plan for the upcoming debate was “to remind people of all the good I’ve done,” he said. “I’m not just phoning it in, I’m working as hard, probably harder that I ever have in my tenure as alderman.”
And what if he lost? What would Moore do then?
“Oh I’ll just curl up in a ball and cry,” he joked. Then he gave what seemed like an earnest answer. “I don’t really have a plan B right now, but I do know that I’m a pretty talented person, pretty passionate,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll be engaged in some manner and form but I have no idea what that would be as of now.” v