Voters in two South Side wards have more to sift through than the candidates’ pitches and platforms as they prepare to cast a ballot in this month’s runoff election.
The work of federal prosecutors has played an indirect role in the aldermanic runoff races in Chicago’s 7th and 21st wards. No candidates in either race have been accused of criminal wrongdoing, but ethical lapses by others have affected the wards’ politics.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked Natashia Holmes to replace former Ald. Sandi Jackson in the 7th Ward after Jackson resigned and was sentenced to a year in federal prison for income tax fraud. Her husband, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., is serving out his own sentence and just left prison for a Baltimore-area halfway house.
Sandi Jackson’s former chief of staff, Keiana Barrett, was expected to be Holmes’ closest competitor. Instead, Holmes is facing off in this month’s runoff against Greg Mitchell, a former information technology manager at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Meanwhile, incumbent 21st Ward Ald. Howard Brookins saw his former chief of staff plead guilty last year to federal bribery charges. Brookins suspects that is why so many people ran against him in the February election. But this month he will face off only against Marvin McNeil, a retired zoning code enforcement inspector who, Brookins claims, has issues of his own.
Curtis V. Thompson Jr., Brookins’ former aide, admitted taking a $7,500 cash bribe from an undercover informant. And Thompson’s plea agreement describes a meeting in which the informant allegedly showed Brookins a note that read “$12K to you for letter of support.”
Brookins said earlier this year he does not “remember, acknowledge receiving or seeing any document.” In a more recent interview, Brookins said it’s “clear, even just from the affidavits by the government, that Curtis Thompson was a disgruntled employee” who knew his days were numbered, took the money, spent it and will now pay the price.
On the other hand, Brookins accused his challenger of racking up several fines and demolition orders on properties he’s owned. And public records show a handful of properties owned by McNeil have been subject to building code violations and demolition liens — particularly in the 1990s — despite McNeil’s work as a zoning inspector.
McNeil explained that a woman planning to leave the Chicago area offered to sell him 13 properties around that time, all for $100,000. He planned to fix them up but couldn’t secure the financing, he said, “and I kind of saw why she got rid of those properties.”
McNeil said tenants who couldn’t pay rent damaged the properties and called the city to complain of building violations. But he denied he ever asked his fellow building inspectors to “take care of” one of those complaints.
To the east, incumbent Holmes said she is looking forward to the possibilities of a four-year term. She said she wants to develop the 79th Street corridor as a “premier gateway” into the community. The infrastructure, traffic and money are already there, she said. And she wants to model economic development elsewhere in the ward after the success she hopes to have there.
Following Sandi Jackson’s resignation, Holmes said she’s trying to bring trust and accountability back to the 7th Ward, referring to her office as the “first line of defense for every citizen.” She said she’s been tackling citizen complaints that have been put off for years — things as minor as fixing street lights.
Her opponent, Mitchell, said she’s done the opposite. He said Holmes “came into the position and thought that she was going to be afforded all the benefits of an alderman who won outright.”
“That reaching out to the people didn’t happen,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he wants to build an organizational structure at the ward office to better serve residents’ needs. He also said he wants to take the ward’s “assets” — commercial buildings, residences and abandoned properties — and put them into a portfolio to shop around to investors.
Mitchell said he wants more people in the 7th Ward to purchase the homes they live in. And he said he wants to restore neighborhoods in the 7th Ward to the sought-after communities they once were.
“We need to have results,” Mitchell said. “We need to produce. I have a mindset that I need to produce.”