Seven candidates are vying to be the next alderman of the 29th Ward, on Chicago's far West Side. Issac Carothers, the last elected City Council member from the area, is now in prison.
On the exterior windows of Ron's Barbershop on the far west end of North Avenue, near where Chicago's Austin community gives way to suburban Oak Park, are signs for all of the candidates running for alderman of the 29th Ward. The shop, run by Ron Gibson, is nonaligned space in the campaign -- "very neutral," Gibson insisted. "We have to be bipartisan."
It was in that vein that Gibson and Elce Redmond, a West Side organizer, arranged a forum last night in the store for those seeking to represent the 29th Ward in City Council. On a chilly evening, around 15 people filled the chairs arranged in the shop to hear the three candidates who showed up to talk about the ward, its issues, and their campaigns from barber chairs. Gibson, who hosts other freewheeling discussions in the store, said the race needs more exposure; he doesn't think his patrons are plugging in yet. "I believe it needs to be put out a lot more," he said. "We need to be more wise voters."
The 29th Ward is a rectangular-shaped territory that hugs a vertical swath of Chicago's West Side, from Barry Avenue on the north to Roosevelt Road on the South, covering parts of the Austin and Belmont-Cragin neighborhoods.
Its last elected alderman was Isaac Carothers, an ally of Mayor Richard Daley who was sentenced in the summer of 2010 to 28 months in federal jail for accepting bribes related to a development project in the ward. Daley appointed Deborah Graham to serve out Carothers' term last spring. She previously represented the 78th District in the Illinois House of Representatives.
Graham's position in the race is an interesting one. She is the incumbent candidate in the race but 29th Ward voters have never elected her alderman. She was not in the City Council for controversial votes like the parking meter lease and she was not in Springfield to vote yes or no on the recent tax deal. Even though she has been alderman for less than a year, she has the power of incumbency to help drive her campaign.
And as a figure known to many of the organizations tracking the City Council races closely -- Graham was first elected to the General Assembly in 2002 -- Graham has won the endorsement race, getting the nod from the Sun-Times, SEIU (whose state council sponsors this website), the Chicago Firefighters Union, AFSCME, UNITE Here, For A Better Chicago, Citizen Action, the Chicago Federation of Labor, and Teamsters Joint Council 25. Big donations have come her way from everyone from organized labor and from David Herro, the Wal-Mart supporter.
At last night's forum, Graham and two others running for the seat, Loretto Hospital director Jill Bush and Mary Russell Gardner, took questions that focused on everything from crime and how the next 29th Ward alderman could support grandparents who are raising their grandchildren to city and state tax levels.
It was an open discussion with audience members asking about issues, challenging the candidates, and, on at least one occasion, each other. One man said he was "sick and tired of the taxes with no end in sight." But another audience member, sensing the criticism, said everyone needed to "clean out your own closet before you start checking in." Graham, in her response to the first man's question about taxes, said that the city needs more revenue and voiced support for locating a casino in Chicago. Take a look:
Gardner said she supports redeploying officers from lower- to higher-crime areas. She and Bush agreed that residents must be engaged with assisting police and helping each other fight crime. "We have to hold ourselves accountable as well," Bush said. Graham referenced two town hall meetings she convened to get answers to police response times and talks with bar owners in the ward whose customers hang outside. "We're trying to get them off the corner," she said. But aggressive tactics, she noted, can mean neighborhood residents getting arrested.
Foreclosures were discussed near the beginning of the forum. Here's what Gardner said she'd do to help residents facing that economically disastrous situation:
Bush, however, may have had the line of the evening when she said, in discussing foreclosures that "The federal government has bailed out Wall Street. Now it's time to bail out Madison Street, Jackson Street, North Avenue." Watch:
According to the Woodstock Institute (PDF), the 29th Ward saw 326 foreclosure filings through the first three quarters of 2010, a number nearly on pace with the 337 filings seen in the area over the same time period in 2009.
For more information about the 29th Ward race, read the profiles AustinTalks.org is writing of the candidates. And tonight, the Westside NAACP holds another forum for all of the candidates at Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson at 6:30 p.m.