Several days after the February 26 election, as the last votes trickled in, it was revealed that financial advisor and Chatham community activist Deborah Foster-Bonner had forced two-term 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer, the son of former 6th Ward alderman and, briefly, mayor Eugene Sawyer, into a runoff. Running on a platform of community engagement, and assisted by, judging from precinct-level election data, widespread dissatisfaction with Sawyer’s tenure in the Chatham part of the ward (which is also made up of parts of Park Manor and Englewood), Foster-Bonner’s has been a small, mostly self-funded campaign—though she has picked up the endorsements of both the Sun-Times and the Tribune. It remains to be seen whether she can make inroads in the parts of the ward where Sawyer did well, but the act of forcing a family dynasty into a runoff in Chicago is no small feat in and of itself. This interview, conducted at Foster-Bonner’s Chatham campaign office before the February 26 election, has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the coalition or constituency behind your campaign, or that you’re running to represent?
I’m running because people told me that I should, because I’ve been doing a lot of the stuff that the people wanted in the area anyway, and they were saying I should take it to the next level. I’ve done a summer program for about thirty kids for free, for the entire summer. Every year we do Halloweentown, where we turn a block parkway into a Halloween adventure area—we have the haunted house, the cemetery, the adults dress up, the kids dress up, get scared half to death. We pass out candy, school supplies.
I probably was the first, or one of the first [leader of a group this large] to do the private security cameras—we started out with forty buildings, then we bloomed to 150. I started to get people calling me from all around the city asking what happened. Some of the police officers would tell their friends, who live in different parts of the city and suburbs, and they would call and say, “What did you do, and how did you do it?” West Chesterfield got their two blocks [of] cameras after we got ours, that was able to catch part of the judge’s murder. [Ed. note: In 2017, Cook County Associate Judge Raymond Myles was shot outside his home; video captured by security cameras in the neighborhood was cited by prosecutors in the charging of his alleged killer, whose trial is still ongoing.] We were the ones that stepped up and figured out what needed to happen to make it happen. Everyone owns their own cameras. We were able to, through volume, get reductions in the cost of the cameras and installation.
[ReUnite Chatham, the neighborhood nonprofit Foster-Bonner leads,] formed because there was a store that was two and a half blocks from Dixon [Elementary School] that was trying to get a liquor license. Now, we’re dry over here—have been for years. Matter of fact, I’ve been over here since 1958, and to my knowledge, there’s never been a new liquor establishment opened since the ‘60s. So we were like, what do you mean, you’re gonna get a liquor license? For what? You’re two and a half blocks away from the school—why would you want to have a liquor license there? It seemed somewhat that that was gonna happen, so we got started, we had petitions, we would stand out in front of the place to let them know we don’t want this here. We explained to them, had a group go in and talk to them and said, “We’re gonna get fifty old people.” Walkers, wheelchairs, canes. With all of that, you walk slow. So if we all come out at the same time to take our daily walk, what are the chances somebody’s gonna be able to get into your store? And they were like, “I will call the police.” I’m a beat facilitator. Go ahead, and when you call the police, we’ll call the TV stations to come and see why the police are coming to harass these senior citizens on the public way. So he got the gist and realized that we were serious, and no liquor license.
What are some mechanisms of accountability you’d put in place once you’re in office?
With almost anything I do, there’s accountability, because if I do something and [residents] don’t like it, believe me, I hear real quick. If I’m doing something right, they tell me. If I need to make a turn, they will tell me that as well. The biggest thing to me is communication. There’s no communication around here. If we talk to each other, if we share ideas, if we discuss differences, then we can coexist. And that’s one of the biggest things that’s missing. The alderman works for the people, the people don’t work for the alderman, and that’s not the sense that we get. It’s more like, the way the office functions, it’s like we work for him. And that’s why, I think, there’s a lot of dissension. People are not necessarily happy with some things.
Part of your platform is a cooperative grocery store for Chatham. Can you talk more about that?
Now you’re talking about my fun thing. I met some people who were going to start a co-op in Rogers Park. I said okay, this sounds good. Let me go and investigate. So I went up to Rogers Park, listened to what they were saying. The guy came down and spoke to several of us. And I said, can I join? We’re talking about a huge distance for me, so I can’t make tons of stuff, but I want to be part of the process. So I joined them. I went to Indianapolis and got training on a larger scale. And the more I think about it, and the more things change around here, that’s something we need. I’ve been talking with the Small Business Administration, I’ve been talking to other food vendors and businesses, saying, why can’t we do this?
Part of our problem here is crime. What’s part of the reason we have crime? No jobs. So we start looking and thought, wait a minute: we could do between a hundred and 500 jobs if we do this. And if we get the other businesses to get in on this, that means we’re expanding exponentially. I was talking to a gentleman down the street who has a business, he’s talking to some of the guys that are hanging on the corner, just walking the street. He said, they don’t have anything to do. They need to feed their family, you give them something where they don’t have to stand on a corner, they’ll do it. But they’re saying, oh you know, I got a record. Okay, what does that matter to us? Certain things you can’t do because of insurance licensing, but other things, we should be able to put you in here. And we should be able to do that with a living wage, and being an investment advisor, you know, we’ve got to give them benefits. We’ve got to give them health insurance. We’ve got to teach them stuff that they need to know so that they can grow. I got that dealing with the kids in the summer program. I taught them how to start a business, write a business plan, the whole works. And if we do that on a scale, it’s not gonna get rid of everything that’s a problem, but it will definitely make a dent in what’s there.
One thing we’re focusing on in this election is the fragmentation of Englewood into five wards. What are your thoughts on how you would approach working with four other aldermen who have sizable parts of the Englewood community?
So deplorable. It shouldn’t be more than one or two aldermen, because you can’t function with that. I’m going to back up for a minute and talk about over here [Chatham]. To me, it’s similar. We have all these community organizations over here. They don’t work together. Everybody has their own agenda. So what happens? Nothing gets done.
It’s the same thing that needs to happen there. You need to engage the community to understand that these people work for them, and get them to understand and realize that they have power—they just need to be able to voice that power. But they can’t functions with all those different divisions. It’s not good for them.
There needs to be a new way to do [draw ward maps]. You need to look at the root cause. Why are we losing population? We’re losing population because, what do we have? But then we have huge taxes. So we need to change the formula that’s being used in order to get us to the right composition. There’s no reason that I’m here [in Chatham], and I’m representing almost a third of the ward. I don’t know that [part of] the ward. I’m trying to get to know that [part of] the ward. I would open an office over there, [which will mean] I’ll be running back and forth like a crazy person. But that’s okay, because I’ve never done anything where I can’t figure it out. I’ve researched stuff left and right. I’ve got to go over there. I’ve got to know the people. I’ve got to see exactly what their dynamics are, what’s missing to them.
According to public records, there have been two properties that you own where the taxes were put up for sale due to delinquency. What was the situation with those?
The situation was, they were about to be taken from a client, and I bought them from the client. I talked to another gentleman who was going to buy it from me and pay the taxes. He hasn’t. All the current taxes have been paid, and he keeps saying he’s going to do it, so probably within the next week or two, I’m just going to go ahead and pay them off because they haven’t been bought. The [client] who had it thought a [developer] would buy it, but they went belly up.
Through donations and loans, you are your campaign’s largest donor. Is there a specific reason for that? Are you not seeking or accepting certain kinds of donations?
I’ve always been, put your money where your mouth is. So if I’m not willing to put a stake in it, why should anybody else, is how I look at it. I am getting donations in now on a smaller scale, but I’m not beholden to anybody else, and that’s the part that’s important to me: that I’m not for sale, and I’m gonna do what I think is right.
Were you surprised to receive the endorsements from both of the major papers?
Honestly, I was surprised. You know why? Because everything that everybody had been telling me was, you’re the new kid on the block, nobody knows you—even though I’ve been out here for years. But they didn’t know me because it was never about me. I never went trying to publicize what I was doing.
Sam Stecklow is a managing editor of the Weekly and a journalist with the Invisible Institute.