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‘Disneyland’ foe or ‘tyrant?’ Ald. Tom Tunney battles two rivals and Rickettses

44th Ward aldermanic candidates (from left) Elizabeth Shydlowski, incumbent Ald. Tom Tunney and Austin Baidas. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Ald. Tom Tunney has been in office since 2003, trying to keep the peace between the Chicago Cubs’ owners and Wrigleyville residents — and increasingly doing battle with the team owners.

But the longtime 44th Ward alderman has never faced a fight like the one he’s facing in the Feb. 26 election. He has two challengers, one who has gotten a financial bump from the Ricketts family. The Cubs owners also are helping pay for a series of mailers blasting Tunney, who says the Rickettses want to turn the neighborhood into their own “Disneyland.”

“Forty negative pieces since June, most of which were paid for with dark money,” Tunney says.

Ald. Tom Tunney. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times
Ald. Tom Tunney. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

A Ricketts spokesman says Tunney is “a tyrant” doing the bidding of the rooftop club and bar owners.

Tunney was the Chicago City Council’s first openly gay alderman when he was elected in 2003.

He now faces Austin Baidas, a gay activist and former official in the President Barack Obama and Gov. Pat Quinn administrations, and Elizabeth Shydlowski, a consultant to nonprofits who has worked for Democrats and Republicans. Both say corruption in the council and safety are big concerns.

As Tunney frames himself as a “check and balance” against the Ricketts family and Wrigleyville transformation, he faces criticism from some who think the neighborhood has changed too much. The area around Wrigley Field has rapidly transformed into a plaza of upscale restaurants, large drinking spaces, a hotel and a parking garage.

A group bankrolled by the Ricketts family has been sending out mailers hammering Tunney for skyrocketing property taxes in Lake View. Tunney believes the family is also behind a political action committee working against him.

Tunney says the Cubs owners hope to “just take over that whole segment of the neighborhood if they have a complacent alderman.

“I’ve been alderman before the Rickettses owned the team … and so the problem is that I have too much knowledge,” Tunney says. “And they want someone to do everything they want.”

Tunney says he has fought the Cubs owners on everything from street closings to restrictions on a new plaza and that the family wants a runoff to cut into his votes.

Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, accuses Tunney of voting, “more often than not, on his interests and with the insiders.

“We’re sort of living in a horror movie instead of a theme park because, at every turn, the alderman who was appointed 16 years ago has run his ward like a tyrant,” Culloton says. “He’s certainly an advocate, with great zeal on behalf of rooftops and bar owners. So his fixation with the Cubs seems to be a distraction from being accused of what’s he’s failed to do.”

Culloton confirms that the Ricketts family is “one among several” to support the community group Neighbors for a Better Lakeview, which began sending mailers targeting Tunney last year.

Culloton says Tom Ricketts gave Shydlowski $10,000 because she asked for a contribution; Baidas did not.

Cubs drama aside, Tunney says his priority is public safety, something his opponents have criticized him for. He calls his opponents “newcomers” to the ward with “no institutional knowledge or roots in the community.”

Baidas counters that he’s lived in the ward for 15 years.

“I’m not supported by the Ricketts family,” Baidas says. “I have taken no contributions, and I have no business interests with them.”

He says he is a friend of Laura Ricketts, a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser he says he got to know through his work with the Lambda Legal organization and when he worked for Quinn. She has not endorsed his campaign.

Austin Baidas. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times
Austin Baidas. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Baidas was a senior adviser in the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Obama administration and associate budget director and assistant director of central management services for Quinn.

Baidas, who has put $200,000 into his campaign, has about $310,000 available for a final push.

He says corruption was the key issue people in the ward complained about as he knocked on “2,000 doors” seeking support “because corruption is driving dollars from our general fund.”

Shydlowski is a consultant for the Jack Kemp Foundation and has 25 years of experience in not-for-profit and public administration public policy. Shydlowski says she’s lived in the ward for four years. She cites concerned about rising property taxes and crime.

Elizabeth Shydlowski. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times
Elizabeth Shydlowski. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Shydlowski says Tunney “has been in office for too long, and he’s becoming complacent about crime.

“His continual vote for every tax increase are hurtful to the ward and hurtful to my family and our neighborhood,” Shydlowski says.