It’s Tuesday, the day Tenth Ward alderman Sue Sadlowski Garza sets aside for constituents to drop in and tell her what’s on their minds.
Garza sits in her swivel chair in the back room of her southeast-side ward office, preparing to meet her people.
As a joke, I tell her she’s the new Eddie Vrdolyak, ready to hold court. That draws a laugh. Vrdolyak and Garza have virtually nothing in common, other than the fact they both got elected alderman of the Tenth Ward.
Still, comparing one to the other is a useful way to illustrate how much everything in Chicago—including the southeast side—has changed over the last few decades. So, indulge me for a moment.
Nicknamed “Fast Eddie,” Vrdolyak was the original Donald Trump Democrat—playing one race against the other to accumulate more power. In 1983 he organized most of the city’s white aldermen against Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, in an epic and ugly political battle known as the Council Wars.
A wealthy, wheeling-dealing lawyer, Vrdolyak favored dark business suits, and was rarely seen without a bodyguard at his side as he was chauffeured around town in a limousine.
By contrast, Garza hasn’t had a nickname since high school, when her friends called her “Suzy Q.” She’s a former public school counselor and Chicago Teachers Union activist who’s married to an ironworker. They live in a comfortable working-class neighborhood in the shadow of the old steel mills where Garza’s father, Ed Sadlowski, an icon in the labor movement, once worked.
If Garza has Vrdolyak-like ambitions of wealth and power, she does a masterful job of concealing them. She’s a progressive Democrat, a Bernie Sanders delegate. In the warmer months, she wears summer business casual—capris, patterned tunics, and a black blazer. In the lobby of her ward office hangs a poster that quotes Jimi Hendrix: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
A very unusual sentiment for a Chicago politician to express.
In 2015, Garza won her aldermanic seat by narrowly defeating incumbent John Pope, one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s closest City Council supporters—an offense, it seems, the mayor may never forgive.
Whereas Vrdolyak once organized a majority of aldermen against a progressive mayor, Garza’s now among a progressive minority of aldermen trying to push a centrist mayor to the left. Good luck with that.
Back in the ward office, Garza’s first meeting of the day is with the father of a 14-year-old girl who used to be her student back when Garza was an elementary school guidance counselor.
The girl and Garza exchange hugs.
“You’re looking good, babe,” Garza says.
She may be the only alderman in Chicago who can get away with calling a young woman “babe.”
As everyone sits around a long table, it occurs to me that the father may have brought his daughter to this meeting because he figured he could use her presence to win over the boss. At least, that’s how it usually works in Chicago.
The father clears his throat and gets down to business.
Several years ago, a city work crew destroyed the curb near his house, he says. He shows Garza a picture of the damage. He’s hoping Garza can use her influence to get the city to repair it.
“Alderman—” the man says.
“Sue,” says Garza.
The man looks confused.
“You can call me Sue,” she says. “That’s my name. You don’t have to call me alderman.”
I feel as though I’m in a parody of The Godfather, where the great Don Corleone is telling a humble favor seeker: “Please, call me Vito!”
The man looks at me for guidance. I shrug. He returns to his story.
“OK, Alderman,” he says.
Garza sighs. Yes, the Tenth Ward has changed. But apparently, it’s going to take some time before that message gets out.
Garza was born in 1959 at the University of Chicago Hospital in Hyde Park. But after a day or two, her family piled her into the car and took her home to the southeast side. She’s been living there ever since.
This portion of Chicago swings east under the lake and touches the northwest corner of Indiana—it’s a land of factories and warehouses, marshes and swamps, right there on the edge of the lake, cut off from the rest of the city by expressways, freight train tracks, and landfills. Most people can spend a lifetime in Chicago and never realize it exists. Garza and others here often refer to their part of town as the “forgotten” Tenth Ward.
In that neck of the woods, Garza’s father, Ed Sadlowski, was something of a legend. He was seen as a fiery young radical, aiming to lead a steelworkers’ uprising against their entrenched union leadership. In 1974, at age 37, he pulled off an upset by getting elected director of United Steel Workers of America District 31, which encompassed Chicago and northwest Indiana and at the time was the largest steelworkers’ local in the country, with more than 130,000 members.
In 1977, he ran for president of the national union. His bid garnered glowing write-ups in publications from Rolling Stone to Penthouse to the New York Times Magazine. Charismatic and well-read, he’d win over reporters by taking them to the local watering hole, where over beers he’d deliver blistering critiques of fat-cat bosses, reminisce about labor legends of yore, and occasionally break into a union song.
Sadlowski envisioned a utopian future in which the working class would work less and earn more. In reality, things went the other way: he lost his election bid, almost all of the steel mills eventually closed, and union membership shrunk to a fraction of what it once was.
Most of those late-70s profiles contained an obligatory scene set inside Sadlowski’s book-strewn southeast-side house, where his wife (Marlene, a social worker) and four kids lingered in the background.
Sue Sadlowski was the oldest of those kids. “I knew my dad was some kind of hotshot, but I was barely paying attention,” she says now. “I was in my own world back then—it was sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. I was a wild kid, man.”
She was among a gaggle of southeast-side teens—the working-class sons and daughters of south-side factory workers—drinking beer and smoking reefer in the forest preserve out by Wolf Lake. “There’d be hundreds of kids,” she says. “Wild parties, man. People doing their thing.”
But for all his gallivanting with the visiting press, Sadlowski was a strict disciplinarian on the home front. He expected Sue home at a certain hour, and insisted she study harder.
“He was always very supportive, but he wanted me to do things right. And by that he meant he wanted me to do it his way,” Garza says. “He used to tell me, ‘I won’t steer you wrong.’ But I’m as hardheaded as he is. So, yeah, I pushed back. But that’s what he did with his union work. I guess you can say we were cut from the same cloth.”
In 1977, Garza graduated from southeast-side George Washington High School and went to Western Illinois University. But after a year she dropped out and moved back home.
She took a job as a bartender and waitress at a Bennigan’s in Calumet City. She married Dave Martino, an ironworker who’d been her high school sweetheart. “I got married at 21. Had a kid at 21. And got divorced when I was 23,” she says. “You can see how I was driving my parents crazy.”
Martino died in a car crash in 1986. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to tell David, my five-year-old-son, that his father had died.”
In the mid-1980s, she started dating Raul Garza, who also grew up in the area. They got married in 1996. Raul Garza adopted David, and together he and Sue had three other children.
“Raul and I moved in together before we got married,” she says. “My parents weren’t too happy about that, but they bought us this giant console TV as a housewarming present. My dad tells Raul, ‘This is so you never bring her back.’ ”
Sadlowski was joking, Garza says, but he was also making a larger point. Sooner or later even the wildest rock ‘n’ rollers have to grow up.
Garza did too. While working as a waitress and raising her son, she got a bachelor’s degree from Governors State University in Will County and a master’s in counseling from Concordia University in River Forest. In 1996, she got a job as a counselor at Jane Addams, the same public grammar school she and her children attended.
Eventually, Garza became a leader in the Chicago Teachers Union. She helped coordinate the 2012 teachers’ strike, speaking at rallies and meetings where she denounced “corporate fat cats who keep shelling out directives that have nothing to do with education.”
Now when she speaks, she hears her father’s voice. “I find myself saying things he used to say. I spent my teenage years rebelling against him, and it’s like I’m picking up where he left off. Life’s weird, isn’t it?”
Over the last few years her parents have retired and moved to Florida. “My mom’s doing great, but it’s sad—my dad’s slipping,” she says. “I think he’s in the early stage of dementia. He forgets things. Sometimes he says stuff and I’m not sure what he’s saying.”
Still, even in his diminished state, Garza describes her father as an “armchair alderman.”
“He still wants to tell me what to do,” she says. “And I still want to do what I want to do. But you know something? Outside of my mom, no one loves me like my dad. Put aside all our head butting and he’s just a dad trying to protect his daughter.”
—Sue Sadlowski Garza
Back in her ward office, Garza’s next appointment is with a developer, a casually dressed man with a quick smile and an easygoing manner. He says he has no connection to the Tenth Ward—he just wants an opportunity to finally meet this wonderful new alderman he’s heard so much about.
He smiles. She smiles. He looks at me. I smile. Everyone’s smiling.
Then into the room walks Sadlowski, in town for a brief visit from Florida.
He moves slowly, as one might expect of a 78-year-old man who’s had open-heart surgeries and three operations to remove noncancerous tumors from his brain.
The developer eyes Sadlowski but keeps talking about his vision for the ward—especially the Lakeside property.
That’s the nearly 600 acres of land once home to U.S. Steel’s South Works site, one of the largest steel mills in the country.
U.S. Steel closed the plant in 1992. Over the years, the factories were leveled. It’s now the largest single tract of undeveloped land in Chicago.
The last plan for developing it—with upscale houses, townhomes, condos, and retail—fell apart in February for lack of funding. It’s back to square one.
The developer says he’d like to tour the site with Garza. “I’m a guy who can make things happen, OK?” he says. “I’m a mover and a shaker.”
Suddenly, Sadlowski erupts.
“Why are you here?” he exclaims.
“What?” asks the developer.
“What do you want?” Sadlowski asks.
“Dad,” says Garza.
“No, no, Sue,” Sadlowski says. He turns back to the developer. “I know about your type. I want to know why you’re here, huh?”
“Hold on,” Garza says. She leaves the room. It’s silent—with Sadlowski staring at the developer.
A moment later, Garza returns. “C’mon, dad,” she says. “Mom’s here.”
Sadlowski rises slowly and walks toward the door. As he does, he looks back at the developer and says again: “I know your type.”
The developer gives me a WTF look.
“Do you know who that is?” I ask.
“That’s Ed Sadlowski,” I say.
I feel like Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City trying to explain to a very young Susan Sarandon how the world used to be.
“He’s a Chicago legend, man—that’s who he is.”
In retrospect, it’s a no-brainer that Garza ran for alderman in 2015.
Her kids were grown. She was well-known throughout the ward—scores of voters had either been her students or were related to students of hers at Addams. And of course, the Sadlowski name still meant something—at least to anyone over 50.
CTU president Karen Lewis urged Garza to run as part of the union’s larger strategy to elect teachers to the council. “There are police and firefighters in the council—but no teachers,” Lewis says. “I thought she’d make a great alderman.”
Pope, Garza’s opponent and a four-term incumbent, had seemed unbeatable because of his mayoral connections and sizable war chest.
Bolstered by contributions from the CTU, SEIU, and other unions, Garza matched Pope’s fund-raising nearly dollar for dollar. It was like a two-round heavyweight fight. They pounded each other with negative ads and flyers. In the February 24 primary election, Pope won round one—getting the most votes in a seven-person race, but falling short of the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff.
Garza won round two—the April 7 runoff—but barely. It took two weeks of tense vote counting before the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners declared her the winner by all of 20 votes: 5,825 to 5,805.
Even then it looked as though the fight was heading for a third round. Emanuel put Pope on the city’s payroll, giving him an $117,000-a-year job in the Water Department. In the summer of 2015, Pope opened his own ward office just three doors down from Garza’s.
Pope had invaded her turf, so she invaded right back. “Right after he moved in, I walked into his office with a box of Dunkin’ Donuts,” she says. “I said, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood, John. If you need anything, let your alderman know.’ ” (Pope didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Ultimately, round three fizzled. Last fall, Pope closed his ward office. And he chose not to run for committeeman, instead backing a city worker named Fred Carrizales.
In April, Garza walloped Carrizales, winning 74 percent of the vote and carrying every precinct in the ward. A few weeks later, Pope officially closed his campaign account.
And just like that, the bout was over. The mighty Democratic organization of the Tenth Ward—once run by Eddie Vrdolyak—had been defeated. The ward was now run by an independent named Sadlowski. Up was down and down was up. Now what?
After meeting with several other constituents, Garza drives to a retirement home in Hegewisch for an ice cream social.
She drives a black 2016 Ford Explorer—”made right here in the ward” at the assembly plant on Torrence Avenue. Her aides call it her “Jay-Z ride.”
There’re about a dozen seniors in the meal room. “We’re having ice cream,” Garza says in a cheery voice. “Who wants some?”
But if you think a dish or two of ice cream will win over this bunch, think again.
Here’s the thing about being alderman: you can campaign on grand issues like ending injustice, but once in office you’ll discover your constituents have more practical concerns on their minds.
“There’s a man across the street who’s got three dogs in his yard,” one woman says.
“Yes?” Garza says.
“They’re barking all night—I can’t sleep.”
“That’s terrible,” Garza says. “When you hear those dogs, call my office.”
“You want me to call your office in the middle of the night?”
“Yes, you can leave a message.”
Someone else complains about the passing freight trains, which blow their whistles as they pass by at night. Between the dogs and the trains, no one can get any sleep.
Garza takes down the info, but there’s one potential problem: the city department that regulates noise pollution—like every other department in the city—is controlled by the mayor’s appointees.
And there’s a widely held perception—not always real—that in Chicago, if an alderman steps out of line, the mayor will punish her ward. That would be the same mayor who vociferously backed Pope in the last election.
So justified or not, that perception stays in the back of Garza’s mind every time she calls the mayor’s office.
—Sue Sadlowski Garza
On the day the Board of Election declared Garza victorious over Pope, Mayor Emanuel called her into his City Hall office for a chat.
“I walk into his office and he said, ‘Wow, you’re really a lesson in landslide victories, aren’t you?’ Really sarcastic. And I said, ‘No, it’s a lesson in every vote counts.’ We sat down and he shook his finger at me and said, ‘I don’t want a circus in the council.’ I’m thinking, ‘Circus? What, do I look like a clown?’ But I said, ‘I don’t want a circus either. That’s not why I’m here.’ ”
As Garza sees it, Emanuel was trying to intimidate her. As he sees it, well, themayor’s office didn’t respond for comment.
According to Garza, she now has a “complicated” relationship with the mayor.
Her concerns that Emanuel might punish her ward by withholding services have so far been unfounded—city aides return her complaint calls, like the ones with the seniors and the barking dogs.
The mayor can even be nice, Garza says, especially when he wants something. For instance, when he wanted her vote for his 2015 budget—property tax hikes and all—he invited her to join him for a brief visit with President Obama.
But more often than not, the mayor’s passive-aggressive, Garza says.
For instance, he still hasn’t approved her request for a leave of absence from CPS—even though such leaves are routinely granted to cops, firefighters, and garbage haulers who get elected to the council.
And he didn’t invite Garza to the opening of Big Marsh, the 40-acre bike park the city built in her ward.
She showed up for the ceremony anyway.
“When he sees me at the Big Marsh thing, Rahm puts his arm around me and says, ‘Let’s piss off all your liberal friends,’ ” Garza says. “I drew him closer and said, ‘Let’s really piss them off.’ ”
As she sees it, he invaded her space by putting his arm around her. So she invaded his.
In her heart of hearts, Garza says, she wants to be more of a hell-raiser-like she’s still on the front lines of the teachers’ strike. But she realizes she’s making her way in a strange new venue, so she’s cautious.
She compares the City Council to high school. There are cliques and petty rivalries. Many aldermen are trying to curry favor with the mean girl—in this case, Mayor Rahm.
“Most of the aldermen have been very welcoming,” she says. “But there are one or two assholes—I don’t want to name names. On the day of meetings, I wear red—to show my solidarity with the teachers. One alderman made fun of me for that. Can you believe it? He’s like— ‘Oh, look at you in red.’ I said, ‘That’s the best you got?’ ”
Another alderman hinted she shouldn’t be in the Latino Caucus. “I said, ‘I’m married to a Mexican-American. My kids are Latino. I may be Irish and Polish by birth, but I’m Mexican by injection.’ ”
Even after a year, she’s says she’s still trying to figure things out.
“I’m not afraid to vote against the mayor,” she says. “I voted against his budget.”
But she has unexpected empathy for her colleagues, even the mayoral lackeys. “We’re all trying to do what we think is best for our ward—most of us anyway,” she says. “I feel for these guys, ’cause I know what we’re up against.”
As an example, she recalls a recent vote over a $16 million TIF handout to a developer in Uptown—a deal backed by 46th Ward alderman James Cappleman
She opposed the deal, she says, because in her view, a city whose school system is broke shouldn’t spend millions on an upscale development just a few blocks from the lake.
But when activists asked her to defer and publish the proposal—a parliamentary move that would delay its passage—she hesitated.
“I sympathized with the activists. But Cappleman himself came up to me and said, ‘Please don’t defer and publish.’ He looked me in the eyes. What am I going to do? The deal’s gonna pass anyway. So I split the baby. I didn’t defer and publish, but I voted against the deal. Was that right? I don’t know. This job’s different than I imagined.”
After the visit to the senior center, we head over to Lakeside. The South Works plant that once employed more than 50,000 workers, including her father, is now a vast, grassy field.
We drive through on a bumpy dirt road. The skyscrapers of the Loop rise in the distance. I can see why developers might think they could make a fortune building upscale housing here for young professionals who can’t afford more centrally located neighborhoods.
The site’s southern edge is lined with a trio of 2,000-foot-long ore walls-giant three-story-high slabs of concrete. In the old days, boats hauling iron ore would deposit their cargo in storage areas flanked by the walls. From there it would get hauled to the mills to be made into steel.
The ore walls are all that remain of the old plant. Garza points to the big dents in one, apparently left by a wrecking ball. “You can see they tried to knock them down,” she says. “But they couldn’t. It was too strong to fall. Now they’re going to have to build around it.”
It’s a metaphor for the ward as a whole, she says. “All these jobs and industry have left us, but we’re still here.”
As she stands next to the wall, looking out at the lake, she makes a prediction: If she and the mayor are still in office after the next election, he’ll try to redistrict this site into another ward, in order to put it under a more compliant alderman who won’t object to whatever he wants to build there. “The fight never ends, does it?”
Garza makes her final stop of the night in Hyde Park, where the Progressive Caucus is holding a reception at the Promontory restaurant.
Alderman Scott Waguespack gives a brief speech thanking the aldermen for standing up to Emanuel on important issues like toxic interest rate swaps. But he points out that they’re waging a difficult battle, since a majority of the council will vote as Emanuel commands.
During the ride back to the Tenth Ward, Garza talks about the frustrations of the job. “It is an uphill fight,” she says. “I’ve learned I have to think strategically. This is not checkers, it’s chess. You can’t just take the obvious move. You have to think ahead. One move leads to another. So you always have to figure out the consequences of a move—how it plays out in the long run.”
She continues: “It’s like that Cappleman vote. If I defer and publish with him, they can defer and publish me. It’s frustrating. But that’s the way it is. I have to take the long view if I want to change the world.”
She turns south onto Avenue L.
“Aw, hell,” she says. The streetlights are out on a block of 100th Street. Most likely, a complaint or two has already been left on her office answering machine. “I’ll have to call the Bureau of Electricity in the morning,” she says.
She shakes her head. Changing the world will have to wait. First she’s got to get those streetlights fixed. v