Back in the winter of 1986 in the 43rd ward on the Near North Side, there was a liquor store at the corner of Armitage and Sheffield where a poor soul was shot to death.
I remember this because we had just bought a house three blocks away. And my news desk sent me to cover the shooting.
I got there before the blood was dry.
The scene of that crime is now my Starbucks.
The 43rd ward has seen lots of changes in three decades.
And a number of fierce races for alderman.
On Friday, my phone rang. Did I know that incumbent 43rd Ald. Michele Smith had pledged to be a full-time alderman but took an $84,000 consulting job?
I didn’t know that. But I checked and it was true. In 2013, the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts spent almost half of what it raised that year, $150,000, on Smith’s services.
What were those services?
“They give awards to Chicago area artists, it’s a family foundation, and I did it in my spare time. I can’t apologize for that,” said Smith.
In relative terms, is this a big deal?
“No,” said former 43rd alderman Martin Oberman, who is a Smith supporter. “You have aldermen over there who have no outside income, and do you think many of them work full-time for the city? No. And Michelle Smith works very hard.”
Then again, you have equally unapologetic part-time aldermen such as the City Council’s longest-serving member, Ed Burke, who makes a fortune in a law practice that surely benefits from his political interests. But, in classic Chicago style, is utterly legal.
A better question than “is this a big deal?” is the one former 44th ward alderman and political scientist Dick Simpson poses in his regularly published analyses of City Council.
“How does she vote?” asks Simpson.
In Michele Smith’s case, since 2011 she has voted with Mayor Rahm Emanuel 87 percent of the time. That is in modest contrast to 33rd ward Alderman Deborah Mell and her father before her, Dick, whose votes were 100 percent in the mayor’s column.
“Smith,” says Simpson, “is not part of the ‘progressive caucus’ like Scott Waguespak, who voted only 54 percent of the time with the mayor. But she’s not a rubber-stamp either.”
In the 43rd ward, Smith has three opponents: attorney Caroline Vickrey; Jen Kramer, a special-events director for Mayor Richard M. Daley and Navy Pier; and Jerry Quandt, a marketing strategist.
Quandt has no money and little chance.
Kramer has help from the powerhouse 19th ward, plus union support.
Vickrey has the backing of residents who believe big developers hold too much sway with the current alderman.
And Michele Smith?
She has the small matter of a broken promise that won’t get much traction. But she has a thousand-pound gorilla in her corner in the form of a mayor who is determined to elect whom he wants. And a war chest to make it happen.