Politics

Four Challengers for the Fourth Ward

Despite a crowded field, Sophia King remains the favorite to win the Fourth Ward’s aldermanic election

Total contributions received so far by each candidate; 1 head = ~$10,000 (Ellen Hao)

I’m sitting across from Reverend Gregory Livingston, candidate for alderman of the Fourth Ward, in his office on Cottage Grove Avenue and 43rd Street. We’re talking about accessibility and transparency in ward politics. “I love this quote by Voltaire,” says Livingston, fishing through his phone for the precise wording. “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

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Given its size, at a little over fifty thousand residents, Chicago’s Fourth Ward is remarkably diverse. Beginning at Jackson and State, in the historic blocks of Printer’s Row, it tracks through the high-rise condominiums and elegant lakeside park space of the South Loop, sprawls south for thirty blocks through the patchwork of senior housing, vacant lots, apartment complexes, and historic townhouse architecture of Bronzeville, runs headlong into the mansions of South Kenwood and finally terminates in the dense student housing of northern Hyde Park. Former president Barack Obama lived within the current boundaries of the ward thirty years ago; sixty years before that, and twenty blocks to the northwest, Ida B. Wells made her home; sixty years before that, Stephen Douglas was buried a couple blocks away, facing the water in a great tomb that still stands today.

The shape of the ward is so counterintuitive, so immediately striking that the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), a local organization dedicated to attending “to the civic needs of the community” according to their website, used a map of the ward to advertise their upcoming forum, HPKCC President George Rumsey told me. The current shape is a result of redistricting in 2012. Before then, the ward encompassed a diverse but readily comprehensible patch of the South Side—a quasi-rectangle more or less extending from Balbo Drive to 53rd Street, and from King Drive to Lake Shore Drive. But in the first decade of the 2000s, the public housing projects that had for fifty years or so characterized Bronzeville were demolished, displacing tens of thousands from the near and mid South Side into the southern suburbs and the bungalow neighborhoods along the border of the city. The Fourth Ward had to make up the missing population somehow; it couldn’t expand west into the Third Ward, which had lost even more people when the projects were demolished, and the Fifth Ward, to the south, was underpopulated too. To the east lay Lake Michigan and so the Fourth Ward expanded north, into the rapidly developing blocks of the South Loop.

As a result, the Fourth Ward now represents three more or less distinct constituencies: the affluent, largely white, and young professional population that has moved into the South Loop over the last decade; the socioeconomically and racially diverse population of Hyde Park and Kenwood; and the middle-income African-American population of the historic blocks in between.

Control over this unruly patchwork of neighborhoods was up in the air as of February of last year, when Alderman Will Burns stepped down to work for AirBnB. Within a few months, Sophia King, founder and president of the nonprofit advocacy group Harriet’s Daughters, was selected by Mayor Emanuel to replace him until the upcoming special election, scheduled for February 28. The election will pit King, who has been endorsed by Barack Obama and now the Sun-Times, and has a big lead in fundraising, against a number of insurgent candidates, most of whom contend that Chicago’s political establishment has been inattentive and unresponsive to the needs of the residents of the Fourth Ward. The outcome of the election will test whether the ward’s long-established political apparatus still has the confidence of its constituents.

Alderman King now faces four challengers for her seat: Gregory Seal Livingston, a reverend and activist; Ebony Lucas, a real estate lawyer; Gerald Scott McCarthy, an attorney; and Marcellus H. Moore, Jr., also an attorney. In conversations with the Weekly, none of them criticized King directly but all expressed opposition to the way things have been managed in the ward, both by Emanuel and by more local officials and organizations. One major area of concern has been Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) funding, mentioned independently by almost every candidate I spoke to. On paper, TIFs are special funds designed to subsidize redevelopment in “blighted” areas of the city through incremental rises in property tax revenue. But several candidates argued that TIFs allocations divert revenue from public goods like schools and parks, and, contrary to their intended focus on helping traditionally disenfranchised neighborhoods, are instead funding development in already prosperous communities, such as Hyde Park or The Loop.

“TIFs are not being used in blighted communities and the schools are getting shorted at the same time,” said Ebony Lucas. “It makes sense to me to provide developers in blighted communities with some sort of incentive. It makes no sense to me to provide those same resources to a developer that’s building a skyscraper in downtown Chicago.” Lucas continued, “On 53rd Street, the development is great. I’m happy about it. But the TIF funds should not have been used there.”

“I live on 41st and Ellis,” Lucas said. “There’s been a lot of development in Hyde Park. Before Mariano’s, there was nothing on Cottage Grove, no amenities in our community—and there still aren’t. I felt that we need someone who understands development.” Gerald Scott McCarthy, making a similar point, suggested that Bronzeville in particular had potential for development. “I remember when Pilsen was one type of area—and look at it now. Andersonville—I was just there the other day. Why can’t that be on 35th Street? Why can’t that be on 43rd Street?”

Marcellus Moore identified public safety as the primary issue facing the Fourth Ward. A lawyer like Lucas, Moore spoke to me on the twenty-first floor of a Loop office building, interrupting our conversation briefly to advise an elderly client closing on a house. Also like Lucas, he too had planned to run against Burns in the 2019 election before Burns stepped down. “I love my community,” said Moore, who lives in Bronzeville, “but I’m not completely comfortable letting my fifteen-year-old son walk blocks down the street to the train station.” Moore, who suggested that collaboration between the various private and institutional security forces in the area could help decrease crime, pointed to 53rd Street as a potential model. “UofC police has a great partnership with CPD,” said Moore. “If you drive up and down 53rd Street between Lake Park and Woodlawn, you see that collaboration. You see five uniformed officers. You see six police cars.”

Moore is not unusual among the candidates in his focus on public safety, although his proposed model of more, higher-visibility policing is in stark contrast with the activist-favored community collaboration supported by Gregory Livingston (although Moore spoke positively of walking beats and other forms of community policing).  Far more striking was Moore’s relatively positive appraisal of the Mayor, which stands out against a field of critics—even Emanuel’s appointee, Sophia King, has joined the Progressive Caucus that frequently opposes him.

“I am not a Rahm hater by any means,” said Moore, maintaining that he would work with Emanuel when he acted in the interests of the Fourth Ward and oppose him otherwise. “I respect anybody who takes a role like Mayor,” said Moore.

One of the most common complaints voiced by the candidates so far has been that citizens have been shut out of the decision-making process at both the aldermanic and mayoral level. Gerald Scott McCarthy, for instance, has framed almost his entire campaign around community engagement. “Whether it’s right or wrong,” said McCarthy, “I think there’s a perception of disconnect. Transparency doesn’t mean you have your say, transparency means you know what’s going on.” McCarthy suggested a roster of options that could increase transparency, ranging from community think tanks to TIF advisory boards. But he also blamed a political culture that he felt safeguarded establishment candidates while shutting out possible rivals.

“The one thing that has bothered me is the endorsement process. I probably won’t get any endorsements because some of them are rigged,” said McCarthy, who charged that he had not even been made aware of certain forums for endorsements until immediately before they were scheduled to occur.

Most scathing of all was Gregory Livingston, a reverend with a long history of working with Chicago activism, and who stressed his opposition to Mayor Emanuel over a range of issues from public education to police accountability. It was his belief that residents of the Fourth Ward had been deprived a forum to voice complaints “by intention.”

“I’m an outside guy,” said Livingston. “I consider myself a grassroots guy.” Then came the Voltaire quote. “When you hear people ranting and raving,” finished Livingston, “see if they actually will say anything about those who actually hold the purse strings.”

Gabriel Piemonte, former editor of the Hyde Park Herald, suggested that the lack of transparency in ward politics was a product of the general political environment in Chicago. “The level of civic discourse is fairly low,” said Piemonte. “People are either nervous about wanting to run afoul of the aldermen or they’re cynical—there are these little fiefdoms. If people want to do something, they do it outside of the political system.” Sensing an unusual possibility for openness following the resignation of Alderman Burns, Piemonte set about hosting a series of forums for ward residents to air grievances and discuss their priorities for the incoming alderman. He intends to express the “ideal” alderman envisioned by the community in a forthcoming report, to be published soon before the election. The meetings were attended by Marcellus Moore, Ebony Lucas, Gregory Livingston, and, after her selection, Sophia King.

“People are really concerned about accessibility, about process,” said Piemonte. “People were interested in these hybrid processes—like transparency with an emphasis on finances. Our aldermen should be thinking about how to solve the city’s problems with finances. They should really be brainstorming this path.

“A lot of the conversations were driven by this idea that people have lots of ideas and they weren’t integrated into the political process in a way that allowed these ideas to be heard,” Piemonte said.

If the Fourth Ward does constitute a fiefdom, it is less that of Sophia King than that of Toni Preckwinkle, who was alderman of the ward from 1991 to 2010 and now serves as President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. George Rumsey, the President of the HPKCC, ran against Will Burns in 2011 following Preckwinkle’s resignation. But, Rumsey told me, Preckwinkle wielded enormous institutional clout in favor of Burns.

“It’s the way Chicagoans play,” said Rumsey. “I raised $30,000. I was excited. I thought it was amazing that a local person was able to raise $30,000,” Rumsey continued, claiming, “Will [Burns] was sending out campaign materials every day for the last ten days of the campaign—every day, to the entire Fourth Ward. It’s about $7000 to do a simple mailing. And it didn’t put a dent in his finances, because Toni saw to it that he had what he needed to win.” Campaign record contributions show that Rumsey spent approximately $20,000 over the course of the campaign, finishing with a small amount of cash on hand. During the same period, Burns spent approximately $361,000, finishing the election with another $77,000 in unused funds.

As another indication of Preckwinkle’s continued influence over Fourth Ward politics, Rumsey pointed me to the new map of the Fourth Ward. The boundary between the Fourth and the Fifth Ward runs along 51st Street, from Cottage Grove to Woodlawn—except, curiously, for one block, where it zags down Greenwood Avenue to 52nd Street and then back up University to 51st. This block, it turns out, is home to Toni Preckwinkle, who would lose her critical position as Fourth Ward Committeewoman if she were zoned out of the ward.

Preckwinkle’s support is fully behind King, both Piemonte and Rumsey told me. King has raised over $220,000, easily outstripping the other candidates’ efforts by a wide margin. (After Obama endorsed her a few weeks ago, her fundraising totals also skyrocketed.) In second place is Ebony Lucas, who has raised over $37,000. Against such a landscape, Piemonte and Rumsey agreed that it would be extremely difficult for one of the four challengers to win.

“The establishment is all operated here through Toni Preckwinkle,” said Piemonte. “There is an apparatus that will turn out for Sophia King that you will not see her construct—because she doesn’t have to construct it. It’s been around for twenty years. It’s been supporting Toni’s candidates since she left herself.” Combined with the advantages of incumbency, Piemonte told me, it would take either an exceptional challenger or a “colossal screw-up” on King’s part to have her lose the election. And neither Piemonte nor Rumsey sees the current crop of challengers as particularly exceptional. Rumsey noted that in years of running community meetings with the HPKCC, he had never seen any of the current candidates until the race began.

Piemonte related to me something he had been told by the powerful mid-century Hyde Park alderman Leon Despres. “‘The job of the alderman,’” Piemonte remembers Despres telling him, “‘is twofold. You have to be a good housekeeper…And the other job is that you have to articulate the values of your community.’ He was humbling himself as an alderman by saying—don’t worry so much about the middle part. Let the community dictate what’s happening.” By “middle part,” Despres was referring to the extensive reforms—a step above providing basic services, but below voicing the ideals of the community—many aldermanic candidates promise, which can often be difficult for individual politicians like aldermen to implement.

Instead, Piemonte said, candidates should promise to “take care of the basics, and articulate the aspirations. My worry is that everybody kind of operates from the middle part: ‘I’m going to bring development in, I’m going to bring jobs in.’ Really, what alderman really gets development in? I worry about the candidates,” concluded Piemonte. “Are they entirely in the middle? Or are they really worried about keeping the streets clean and preserving the high-level conversation?”

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