On April 29, news broke that Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson (11th Ward) had been indicted for seven felonies—two for knowingly making false statements to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, and five more for filing false income tax returns. But the latest allegations against Thompson are only a small part of a larger pattern of corruption. What has been more damaging to Chicagoans than an alderman lying on his tax returns is the simple fact that Thompson consistently fails to administer processes for a functioning and equal democracy. During the pandemic, his constituents, myself included, have had to contend with month after month of canceled meetings, unresponsiveness, secrecy, gaslighting, and a visible contempt for our right to a participatory democracy.
Thompson is the grandson of Richard J. Daley, mayor from 1955 to 1976, and the nephew of Richard M. Daley, who ran the City from 1989 to 2011. The alderman defended himself by saying, “I discovered the tax error and paid the small amount of taxes I owed.” What he did not disclose was that the “small amount” hovered in the tens of thousands of dollars per year. To someone whose taxable income in 2015 was $1.8 million, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars does seem to be an inconsequential sum.
Let’s start with the sale of valuable riverfront property at 2420 S. Halsted St. to logistics real estate developer Prologis, which was in discussion with Thompson about converting the site’s zoning at least as early as June 2019. The Metropolitan Planning Council and a coalition of Southwest Side neighborhood groups all opposed this development, and called for mixed use of this land. Despite tactics to keep the tenant agreement a secret, it’s widely known that the site’s building will be leased to Amazon.
Before, during, and months after the deal had closed, the alderman kept us in the dark. Thompson announced the deal to residents during a community meeting in June 2020, which was a “community notification process masquerading as a community input process,” according to one resident who spoke at the Plan Commission hearing months later. To my and my neighbors’ knowledge, the developer has not publicly engaged with residents—who will inevitably see hundreds of Amazon vehicles pass through every day.
The events surrounding this development epitomize everything wrong with political dynasties like the Daleys and political machines like the one they ran for over four decades. They tout their connections and bureaucratic know-how to justify their fitness to serve us, but what benefit are those things to us if these officials perpetuate the culture of broken democracy in America?
We have no use for folks who call themselves political insiders precisely because they do not recognize the problem with keeping democracy inside closed doors and out of the hands of the people. With the Halsted logistics development, insiders gave Chicagoans no opportunity to have input, much less control over their community. Worse, we were actually punished for speaking out.
At the September 2020 quarterly meeting, which was held online via Zoom, Thompson grew agitated when a community member pointed out his connection to the law firm DLA Piper, which represents Prologis. Simultaneously, residents flooded the Zoom chat box with objections, citing evidence that the project will do more harm than good. At the next quarterly meeting, held in March 2021, Thompson disabled the chat. Minutes into his remarks, he lost his composure and was forced to shut down the meeting after an unknown person hijacked his presentation. Residents are still waiting to hear back for a rescheduled date.
Now, neighbors fear that further pushback would only invite more political retaliation from the alderman, further exclusion from community planning, and increased secrecy around future real estate dealings. Ultimately, we are just pesky gadflies to the politicians who control the mic and have an outsize say in how history is recorded. Members of the elite do not lose sleep over being held accountable to misdeeds if public meetings are not recorded and hearsay can easily be swept under the rug.
On November 17, 2020, Thompson issued a statement updating residents about changes to the Prologis plan. This statement came only two days before a hearing before the Department of Planning and Development at which the developer’s request for rezoning was considered. Such short notice gave ward residents virtually no time to further inquire about the issue before it was ultimately approved by a split 8-6 vote.
His statement was riddled with misleading assurances, claiming that he had heard us, but in reality, obfuscating all the concerns that were raised over the potential warehouse. For example, neighbors had requested the elimination of an entrance at Senour Ave., but it was simply moved a few hundred feet south and still poses a hazard to the residents living directly in front of it. Still, the most pernicious claim is that the jobs created by Amazon, the alderman asserted, “will generate significant real estate taxes and have a positive economic impact on our community.”
Not only is this conjecture disguised as fact, it belies the ostensibly disparate impact that Amazon’s warehouses have had on communities of color. A report published in October 2020 by WBEZ and the Better Government Association revealed that Amazon warehouses have collectively received hundreds of millions of dollars more in tax incentives to build in communities with large racial minority populations than ones that are predominately white. While large corporations like Amazon have figured out how to exploit cash-strapped cities, it is the politicians who run those cities that have made the moral and political judgment that Black, brown, and Indigenous people, and other people of color, should bear their undue burden.
Here in the 11th Ward, there is no community-driven development process. No transparency over how “menu money,” the roughly $1.3 million each alderperson can use for capital improvement projects, gets spent. Oftentimes, it feels as though we are paying a six-figure salary to an office that is a glorified community notification board, not a public steward.
On matters of social justice, Thompson is no better. He offers his sympathies to injured police officers but does not acknowledge the Black and brown Americans, including thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo, who are brutalized by a broken justice system. No ward that is majority non-white, like the 11th is, should tolerate such disregard for systemic racism and public safety. Nor should we accept Thompson’s vacuous words on the issue of anti-Asian violence. For an alderman who consistently avoids dialogue with his constituents, doling out platitudes at a rally in Chinatown feels far from genuine and offers no solutions.
Reforms to reporting and prosecuting hate crimes? Relief to Chinese businesses who saw revenue decline long before state lockdown? Targeted COVID-19 outreach to Black, Latinx and Asian residents? Crickets. In almost all respects, Thompson has done close to nothing to protect the full rights of his constituents—especially his non-white constituents—to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead, he has indulged himself in large helpings of dirty money, tax fraud, and backroom deals, habits of a man dedicated to widening the chasm between the haves and have-nots.
Politicians like Thompson are no asset to ordinary Chicagoans. They urge residents to shop local, but strike deals that enrich e-commerce. They claim to support entrepreneurship, but erect legal barriers that disproportionately affect minority- and immigrant-owned businesses. They tout economic development plans, but welcome corporate franchises that exploit labor, depress wages, and exacerbate economic inequality. Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson blocks the road to equity, transparent politics, and participatory democracy, and we must demand this road to be cleared. Thompson must resign or commit to not seek reelection.
Homegrown in the Chicagoland area, Phan Le is an 11th Ward resident, former software engineer, and a passionate advocate for racial and class justice. This is their first piece for the Weekly.