Three aldermen who took office on the same day Rahm Emanuel was first sworn in as mayor eight years ago are fighting to outlast him in an election that some believe will usher in a more independent City Council.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) all fell short off winning majorities in February, forcing their battles for third terms into April 2 runoffs.
The 6th Ward’s results were a wake-up call for Sawyer, whose South Side ward includes Chatham and Englewood. The son of former Mayor Eugene Sawyer and head of the council’s Black Caucus, he had a slim majority on Feb. 26 but lost it as mail-in votes arrived, winding up 14 votes short of avoiding a runoff.
He now faces Deborah Foster-Bonner, who received 31 percent of the vote.
“I could’ve walked a little harder,” Roderick Sawyer said. “I was hoping and expecting to win this election.”
The alderman said he didn’t even put signs up before the first round of voting. He’s philosophically opposed to the practice, which he said is technically illegal on public property. But runoffs have a way of making candidates rethink such high-minded principles.
“My campaign staff said, ‘Get away from that.’ If I had minimal visibility, I would’ve gotten 14 votes out of it,” Sawyer said. “We’re walking seven days a week, phone banking, amping up election activities all the way around.”
And yes, putting up signs throughout the ward.
Foster-Bonner, however, says it’s a lack of investment in the community that put her into the runoff — and that the loss of the Chatham Target is a stark example. She’s promising a return to the Chatham she grew up in.
“We had jobs, we had stores, we had business, you could walk to get almost anything, you can’t do that now,” she said. “Most people here drive to the suburbs to get basics. They all leave.”
One of her proposals is a community-owned cooperative grocery store.
Some 10 miles to the north, Smith, whose 43rd Ward includes parts of Lincoln Park and Old Town, touts her record of independence and leadership in ethics reform in the City Council, including the 2016 vote to give the inspector general the power to investigate misconduct investigations against aldermen and most recently, her vote against passing the major Lincoln Yards development neighboring her ward.
“I’m very proud of my record as alderman, helping to lead the charge in the city on reform,” Smith said. “This is a transformative moment in Chicago’s history.”
Her runoff opponent, Emanuel’s former aide Derek Lindblom, says Smith’s record tells a different story, pointing to the time she walked off the council floor rather than vote on a similar ethics ordinance in 2014.
Going forward, Smith said she’d expand the inspector general’s investigative authority.
Lindblom says he expects to see a more independent council in the future and is backing mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot over Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
“You’re going to see an independent legislative body, aldermen who have new ideas,” Lindblom said. “Let’s change pay-to-play, let’s ban side jobs, let’s have term limits.”
A bit farther north, the $6 billion Lincoln Yards development has taken center stage in another ward election. Uptown’s Cappleman declined to be interviewed, but campaign manager Sean Tenner said the 46th Ward incumbent should be elected for his “perfect temperament.”
“So calm, balanced, open and accessible,” Tenner said.
As the council’s newly seated Zoning Committee chairman — replacing the disgraced Ald. Danny Solis (25th) — Cappleman tried earlier this month to defer a vote on the massive Lincoln Yards project, which has pitted some aldermen against one another.
Skeptics, including his opponent, call Cappleman’s failed motion a “political charade,” but Tenner said he took a stand against “enormous pressure.”
“The easy thing to do would’ve been to go along to get along,” Tenner said.
The Emanuel administration and local Ald. Brian Hopkins support the massive mixed-use project, but they have been forced to demand a string of concessions from developer Sterling Bay to appease wary residents. It ultimately passed the council in a 33 to 14 vote.
Cappleman’s opponent Marianne Lalonde, endorsed by Lightfoot, is emphasizing her PhD in chemistry as much as her outsider status as the “science against the machine” candidate.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll have a strong council, weak mayor dynamic, which we haven’t seen in decades,” Lalonde said.
She has criticized Cappleman for not pushing for more affordable housing in the Lincoln Yards project.
“If there’s new development, then absolutely we need to strive for affordable housing on site,” Lalonde said.
She said there can be a “misconception” that causes voters to react negatively to the issue of affordable housing.
Often my neighbors don’t even know they live near affordable housing or that they live in mixed-income developments.”
Tenner said Cappleman has attracted new residents by bringing down crime in the ward.
“Any way you slice it, every year the 46th Ward becomes a more desirable place to live,” Tenner said. “New retail, new business, new entertainment venues.”