A tragic twist in the closely watched 16th Ward aldermanic race came last Monday with the sudden passing of incumbent JoAnn Thompson. Thompson was running for a third term in her ward (which includes the neighborhoods of Englewood, Gage Park, and Chicago Lawn) when she died of heart failure two weeks after a scheduled operation. She was fifty-eight years old.
Over the nearly eight years she spent on City Council, Thompson’s major accomplishments have included bringing a Whole Foods to Englewood and organizing an annual music festival in the neighborhood. Before successfully running for office in 2007, she served as a lieutenant at the Cook County Jail, keeping the needs of ex-offenders as a priority during her time as alderman. She was also seen as a figure of hope in the community due to her openness about overcoming a period of homelessness and alcoholism in the early nineties.
As Thompson’s loved ones grieve over the unexpected loss, the rest of the city waits to see what her passing will mean for the election. The race in the 16th Ward was the only one in the city to pit two incumbent aldermen against each other: current 15th Ward Alderman Toni Foulkes was Thompson’s top challenger. This came as a result of the ward remap of 2012, which transferred a large part Englewood from the 15th Ward to the 16th. This remap left Foulkes without the support of the neighborhood’s African-American population, which had previously made up a significant part of her backing base in an otherwise largely Hispanic ward.
Both Foulkes and Thompson have been members of City Council’s Black Caucus; Foulkes’s decision to run in the 16th Ward brought disapproval from the group, which had agreed to support all incumbent candidates. The two aldermen had very different support bases, reflected in their endorsements; Thompson was a loyal ally of Mayor Emanuel and had Emanuel’s backing against Foulkes, a staunch critic of the mayor. Emanuel released a public statement after Thompson’s death, writing that “Englewood has lost a tireless advocate and Chicago has lost one of its dearest friends.”
Foulkes found support from community organizing and advocacy groups, including endorsements from the Chicago Teachers Union, Take Back Chicago, and the Englewood Political Task Force. John Paul Jones, the president of the Sustainable Englewood Initiative, lamented the history of elected officials in the 16th Ward, which he calls the “heart and soul” of Englewood. He said aldermen have historically remained unengaged with the community. Although not particularly impressed with either one of the incumbent alderman, he’s hopeful about Foulke’s potential election, as she “has a better track record of meeting with the people” than Thompson did.
As Foulkes was the most formidable opponent in Thompson’s fight to keep hold of her ward, she is expected to become the frontrunner in the race following Thompson’s passing. The other candidates, including Stephanie Coleman, Cynthia Lomax, and Jose Garcia, are less known. There was a brief dispute over whether or not Thompson would remain on the ballot, but it has been decided that her name will be taken off, although the votes already cast for her will factor into election results. Neither the 16th Ward office nor Foulkes’s campaign could be reached for comment on the issue.