The mayor’s race isn’t the only circus in town. On February 24 voters will also choose their aldermen for the first time since all 50 wards were redrawn in 2012—though we’re pretty sure we know the outcome in six wards where incumbents are running unopposed.
Aldermen have a significant impact on neighborhood development and service delivery. But each of these elections also matters beyond its ward boundaries, because the City Council has the power to slow or alter the mayor’s agenda. Hey, don’t laugh—just because it hasn’t happened in decades doesn’t mean it can’t.
Here’s a look at five closely contested races that illustrate the mix of neighborhood issues, citywide policies, and dirty politics that make up what can only be called aldermania. To make matters even more interesting, some of these races probably won’t be decided next week: if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers go head to head in a runoff on April 7.
Lawyers, guns, and ballot challenges
The race in the Seventh Ward—which includes parts of South Shore, South Chicago, and Calumet Heights—really started in 2013, when former alderman Sandi Jackson and her husband, former U.S. rep Jesse Jackson Jr., were convicted of mishandling campaign funds.
More than 50 residents applied to the mayor’s office to finish Sandi Jackson’s term, including her chief of staff, Keiana Barrett. She had the experience—she reportedly ran the Seventh Ward office while the alderman commuted from Washington, D.C. Eventually, though, Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked Natashia Holmes, who’d worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation, to fill the seat.
That set up an election showdown between Holmes and Barrett—and a number of others jumped in too. Fifteen candidates initially filed paperwork to run against Holmes, though eight didn’t make the ballot.
Holmes had to fight for survival herself when two ward residents challenged the signatures on the nominating petitions she submitted. Barrett won’t say whether the men were working on her behalf, but she did offer that she looked at the signatures and found them “riddled with inadequacies.”
That’s when Holmes alleged that private investigators with guns appeared at the homes of several residents who’d signed petitions for the alderman. “No one should have to endure visits from armed investigators at their doorstep as a consequence for participating in the political process,” Holmes said in a January 19 statement.
Holmes stayed on the ballot. But the battle has largely overshadowed serious issues facing the ward such as safety and economic development. There are stretches of the ward “where nothing exists. No pharmacy, no grocery store, nothing,” says LaShonda “Shonnie” Curry, an administrator for the Chicago Public Schools. Other candidates include Joseph Moseley, a retired Chicago police sergeant and brother of former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun, and Gregory Mitchell, an IT manager at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange who lost to Jackson in 2011.
Polls—and the sheer number of candidates—all but guarantee this won’t be decided until the runoff. —Mema Ayi
Will the Daley dynasty continue?
In August, just before election season got under way, Alderman James Balcer abruptly announced that he wouldn’t run again. To no one’s surprise, the Democratic ward organization already had another candidate lined up: Patrick Daley Thompson.
That’s the way things have usually worked in the Bridgeport-based ward, which has served as the Daley family’s power center for nearly seven decades. Balcer served at the pleasure of committeeman and Cook County commissioner John Daley, who tapped him for the job 18 years ago when the previous alderman resigned amid a corruption scandal. In fact, the ward hasn’t held an open-seat aldermanic election since at least 1969.
But Thompson denies that the office is being handed to him by his Uncle John. “Under the old politics, the alderman would have stepped down early and I would have run as an incumbent,” he says. “We didn’t do that.”
His opponents say that’s because voters wouldn’t have tolerated it this time. “There’s a lot of anti-Daley sentiment,” says community activist Maureen Sullivan.
Sullivan and the other candidate, law student John Kozlar, say residents are tired of public offices being passed down like heirlooms. This much is clear: the grandson of Mayor Richard J. Daley and nephew of Mayor Richard M. Daley has chosen to campaign as a Thompson. While his full name will be on the ballot, Thompson has kept the “Daley” out of his election ads.
“I am not running away from my Daley name at all. It’s a tremendous asset and I’m proud of it,” says Thompson, an attorney and water reclamation district commissioner. “But my experience and vision for the ward are what people care about.”
He stresses that he’s been out knocking on doors and campaigning hard. There may be no better sign that this is not the 11th Ward of old. —Mick Dumke
Alderman Solis is not in the building
Alderman Danny Solis was nowhere to be found during a recent debate among 25th Ward candidates at UIC. Instead, challengers took turns attacking him for supporting a proposed $30 million metal shredder in Pilsen—which is tied to a company that donated more than $30,000 to his campaigns and was recently investigated by the IRS.
It could be a sign of trouble for Solis, a 19-year City Council veteran who barely hung on through the last two elections despite decided advantages in fund-raising. In 2007 the alderman avoided a runoff only because crucial votes for a challenger were thrown out. Four years ago he was forced into a runoff with community activist Cuahutémoc “Temoc” Morfin, who campaigned on Solis’s reluctance to get tough with the Fisk coal-fired power plant in Pilsen, a leading source of pollution in the Chicago area.
After Morfin was out of the picture, Solis changed his position on closing the plant, and the company that owned it and a nearby plant in Little Village eventually went bankrupt. Mayor Rahm Emanuel even launched his reelection bid with a TV spot crediting himself with closing the plants.
At the same time, Solis and his allies made sure the new 25th Ward map did not include parts of east Pilsen where he fared poorly in the last election. Instead, the ward now includes portions of the Near West Side and West Loop that are booming with development—a potentially fortuitous turn of events for Solis. As chairman of the City Council’s zoning committee, he has the power to approve or block new developments, and developers and real estate firms are already among his most generous campaign supporters.
Solis now faces four candidates: UIC instructor Byron Sigcho, immigration activist Jorge Mújica, former Solis chief of staff Roberto “Beto” Montano, and high school teacher Ed Hershey. In addition to the metal shredder, the candidates have blasted Solis for not explaining what happened to $140,000 in taxpayer funds that were supposed to finance public art projects. They believe Solis will face another runoff.
Solis’s reaction to his opponents’ predictions? His office refused to comment. —Chloe Riley
A referendum on Rahm and rising rents
As 26-year-old rookie candidate Carlos Ramirez-Rosa started knocking on doors last summer, incumbent alderman Rey Colón was trying to contain the fallout from a DUI arrest. To say the least, the incident came at a bad time for Colón. He already knew he’d have to work to hold on to his seat. After the remap, the ward includes only a chunk of Logan Square, his childhood home and political base, and he had to court supporters in new areas to the north and northwest.
Ramirez-Rosa, a community organizer, has reminded voters that the alderman has voted with Mayor Emanuel 96 percent of the time. He didn’t have to remind them of the mayor’s record; Rahm’s no hero in the ward, which is predominantly Hispanic and working-class but also includes a growing number of young middle-class whites.
“Rey Colón was an independent voice,” Ramirez-Rosa says. “He’s moved on from that.”
The alderman, a former neighborhood activist, argues that he stands up to the mayor when it matters, and he still enjoys goodwill for voting against the parking meter deal—both former mayor Richard Daley’s original deal and Emanuel’s slight revision.
“I reserve the right to do my own thing,” he says.
Development in the ward has mushroomed under Colón. He even touts the Olive Garden that opened in Avondale, which has created jobs (and probably expanded waistlines).
But a chain restaurant might not be enough to hold off Ramirez-Rosa, who works with marginalized immigrants and would be the first openly gay Latino in the council. Ramirez-Rosa has also slammed Colón’s chummy relationship with Logan Square landlord Mark Fishman, and has vowed to push back against evictions and rising rents. He pledges to be more responsive to residents—as he says Colón was after first being elected in 2003.
But win or lose, Colón received some good news last month: he was found not guilty of the DUI. —Gwynedd Stuart
Money and the mayor can’t always buy you love
Incumbent Michele Smith would appear to be in a pretty good position in the 43rd Ward, which covers Lincoln Park and parts of Old Town and the Gold Coast. Smith has raised more money than her three challengers. She has the support of the mayor, with whom she’s sided on 87 percent of divided City Council votes. And in a recent poll for the website Aldertrack, she led her nearest competitor by 19 percentage points.
The bad news: only a third of those polled planned to vote for Smith, and another third remained undecided, a sign that she’s almost certainly destined for a runoff.
Smith has three opponents: Caroline Vickrey, an attorney who has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years and served on numerous committees working with area parks, schools, and businesses; Jen Kramer, who worked in the Mayor’s Office of Special Events for 12 years; and Jerry Quandt, a former international businessman who’s active in the neighborhood community policing program. (Steve McClellan, who owns a video company, was bounced from the ballot but continues to campaign as a write-in candidate.)
They claim the alderman is slow to respond to complaints and update residents on crime, and that she made decisions about the two biggest controversies of her term—the redevelopment of the Children’s Memorial Hospital site and the construction of an addition to Lincoln Elementary School—without bothering to talk them over with constituents.
“We need to have a discussion in the community before there are changes in that community,” Vickrey says.
Furthermore, although Smith has proclaimed herself a full-time alderman, she apparently has a lucrative side gig. The Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts reported in its 2013 tax return that it paid Smith $84,000 in consulting fees even though its revenue for the entire year was just $150,000.
Smith’s response to the accusations has been defensive. At a recent forum, she quoted Abraham Lincoln on the subject of adversity in politics and pointed out that her ward office is one of the busiest in the city. Besides, who in the 43rd Ward knows better than she does just how tough it is to be an alderman? —Aimee Levitt