Finn Jubak

Who Will Replace Willie?

Willie Cochran isn’t going anywhere. His City Council seat, however…

Part II of a special joint report of the Weekly and the Hyde Park Herald

In November 2017, shortly after collapsing in City Council chambers, 20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran announced he would not seek reelection, referring to a dubious commitment to term limits. Whatever the case, Cochran’s political support and capital had all but collapsed at the same time. Fifteen months on, he has maintained a conspicuously low profile in city government and, facing federal corruption charges, is looking at possible prison time.

The race to replace him, on the other hand, has been anything but inconspicuous: at one point, fifteen candidates were vying for votes and attention. With a seemingly endless stream of candidate forums, and allegations of dirty tricks and compromised integrity flying between candidates, it’s been one of the most closely watched in the city. It’s now down to nine candidates, some more serious than others.

The race has garnered attention as much for campaign antics as for the seat’s importance. The next 20th Ward alderman will have at least some degree of influence over the effects of the development spurred by the arrival of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park. While the OPC site itself is in the neighboring 5th Ward—currently in the throes of its own contentious race over development and community benefits—the 20th Ward contains many low-income renters and longtime homeowners worrying about displacement, while simultaneously hopeful about the potential of the center to contribute to Woodlawn’s revitalization.

On the one hand, there’s enthusiasm around the possibility of a campus and museum championing civic engagement, and bringing in a slew of economic benefits—more tourists, businesses, and eager investors. But there’s also a healthy skepticism toward shiny new projects, honed by decades of having the University of Chicago, ever-eager to spread its reach into the Black neighborhoods around it, directly to its north.

No candidate has rolled out the welcome mat for the OPC—or, as Cochran has, largely ignored it in public—but how exactly to mitigate displacement and ensure benefits is a point of contention. Some, like activist Jeanette Taylor, educator Nicole Johnson, and entrepreneur Anthony Driver Jr. have explicitly endorsed the ordinance proposed by the Coalition for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), which calls for a wide range of community benefits around economic development, education, employment, housing, and transportation. (Taylor in fact worked on the campaign.)  

Others have been more circumspect. Two—CHA development director Maya Hodari and ward committeeman Kevin Bailey—have wavered on their commitment to a written CBA, and another, pastor Andre Smith, outright opposes one. (Jennifer Maddox, a police officer, declined to endorse the Coalition’s proposal outright, but supported many of its tenets in an interview.)

Similar fears of displacement echo in Englewood, where the 20th Ward occupies a significant portion of the northeastern part of the neighborhood. In 2013, City Council, with Cochran’s blessing, approved the expansion of Norfolk Southern’s 47th Street rail yard into some twenty residential blocks of the Englewood, displacing hundreds of people in that portion of the ward. Remaining residents, according to Taylor, worry that new developments in the neighborhood—like the new mall at 63rd and Halsted Streets anchored by a Whole Foods and Starbucks—are not for them. “They see a lot of their neighbors moving out because they can’t afford it,” Taylor said in an interview.

Much of the press coverage of the race up until now, and a significant amount of the candidates’ time and money, has been occupied by the challenges to the petition signatures of every candidate, except one, filed by Bailey, a civil engineer who forced Cochran into a runoff in the 2015 election. (Johnson also filed challenges to many of the female candidates’ petitions.)

While the challenges knocked off a few candidates whose signatures fell short of the requirements, most were overturned by the city Board of Elections or withdrawn by Bailey. In two cases, the BOE found that Bailey had made dishonest objections; one hearing officer wrote that Bailey’s challenge “appears to have been conceived in fraud, false pleading and bad faith.” In the other case, Bailey challenged Maddox’s own signature.

In an interview, Bailey responded to criticism of his challenges by framing them as a function of his role as committeeman, looking after his constituency and the ward’s election integrity.

“Part of my challenging the status quo was to increase the quality of the elected leadership that represents our community,” he said. “In short, if you have a person who’s not willing to fight for themselves to get put on the ballot, do you think that they’re going to fight for the community against forty-plus other people fighting over the same resources?…That repeated circumvention of the law is exactly what led to the series of arrests and indictments in the 20th Ward.” (He also dismissed the hearing officers’ findings of bad faith: “The hearing officers are gonna say whatever it is to make themselves look better.”)

Another source of controversy has been the fact that Bailey’s mother, Maria Bailey, is the 20th Ward’s Republican Committeeman. (Some Cook County GOP members have linked her candidacy to a larger attempt by Democrats to take over the Republican party apparatus.)

“What we did was build the infrastructure that people now have the ability to reach, and they know that they’re empowered to make things happen,” he said. “I did recognize that there wasn’t one cohesive from one side to the next on either side, Republican or Democrat. The community needs to be represented. The alderman is the governmental agent. The committeeman represents the people. Without the proper representation of people, the government dictates.”

The most important role of ward committeemen of both parties is to appoint election judges; last month, the Reader reported on allegations that existing judges were being told their jobs were dependent on gathering signatures for Bailey’s campaign, and that new judges were uneducated about state voting law. (Bailey dismissed them to the Weekly and Herald as “holistically false.”)

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Bailey, as committeeman, controls the ward apparatus, and has received donations from the likes of Governor J.B. Pritzker, Attorney General Kwame Raoul, and several development, real estate, and property management companies.

Take Taylor, who spent over twenty years on the LSC for Mollison Elementary in Bronzeville, participated in the 2015 Dyett hunger strike, and is now in the unlikely position of being the best-funded candidate in the race. Following her endorsement by the Chicago Teachers Union, she has drawn a steady stream of union support, including sizable donations from the CTU, SEIU, Chicago Federation of Labor, and the Teamsters. She also has a strong contingent of young volunteers, no doubt inspired by her endorsement from progressive organizations like United Working Families and the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. In recent days, U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García has also endorsed her. (Driver has also received a small amount of union support, from two carpenters unions.)

Then there’s Hodari, a Woodlawn homeowner who, in addition to her work for the CHA, has organized her neighbors into beautification and neighborhood safety efforts and spoken in favor of the OPC at community meetings over the last three years. While she is her campaign’s largest donor, a significant portion of her financial support comes from real estate companies working in the ward.

One donor is the founder of Greenline Homes, a sustainably-focused developer who has been building in Woodlawn since 2000, but has recently ramped up construction efforts in light of the neighborhood’s newfound commercial appeal. The other is DV Property Management, whose parent company, the Davis Group, runs several affordable housing developments with CHA contracts, as well as Columbia Pointe: a stretch of single-family homes along 63rd Street developed by a partnership including influential pastors and community leaders Leon Finney and Arthur Brazier. The development was severely hamstrung by the recession, leaving vast stretches vacant.

Asked about these contributions in an email, Hodari wrote that the heads of both companies are “everyday neighbors…[Our] campaign received a significant percentage of its donations from families living in the 20th Ward or more generally the 60637 zip code. Other [candidates’] campaigns are not so inclined.” She also added that she was “not opposed” to refunding the contribution from DV Property Management. (Hodari has received both the Sun-Times and Tribune endorsements, with the latter writing that Hodari is the candidate “best-positioned to steward economic rebirth.”)

Hodari and Bailey are not the only ones taking money from the real estate industry. Last month, Anthony Driver Jr. issued a press release castigating Nicole Johnson for accepting a $2,500 donation from AJS Chicago Property Group, which recently applied for a license to open a liquor store on the corner of 51st and Halsted. Driver’s campaign noted that it would be the third liquor store in the vicinity, and the building would sit near three community churches. In response, Johnson’s campaign said it would donate the money to the advisory council for Mamie Till-Mobley Park.

Johnson is also the candidate with the second-most money in the race, much of it originating from frequent political donors, and people with ties to the University of Chicago or the development of Woodlawn. Tim Schwertfeger, a former asset manager who has donated more than $150,000 to Bruce Rauner and sits on the board of the Obama Foundation-linked development group Emerald South, has given Johnson’s campaign $4,700. Ashley Joyce, the president of the Duchossois Foundation, which last year established a $100 million institute at the University of Chicago, has contributed $5,000. Johnson has also received money from state Senator Mattie Hunter and Chance the Rapper, who endorsed her campaign last week.

Asked about the donations, Johnson said she knew most of the people who donated to her personally: she was a participant in the Chicago Scholars program, which Schwertfeger and his wife founded, and met Joyce while working at Teamwork Englewood.

“They’re not funding my campaign. They are contributing to my campaign. These are personal relationships and professional relationships that I’ve leveraged over time,” she said. “And the university isn’t going anywhere, Emerald South isn’t going anywhere. You have to have these relationships.”

Smith—though he has around $6,000 in his campaign account, making him one of the worst-funded candidates in the race—has also received a sizable amount of donations from real estate-linked groups, including $1,500 from a firm associated with controversial developer Elzie Higginbottom and $1,000 from Cordos Development, a CHA contractor, last month. That’s on top of small donations from another CHA contractor, Brinshore Development, and for-profit developer KMW Communities.

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Homes being demolished for the expansion of the Norfolk Southern rail yard in Englewood (David Schalliol, Courtesy Scrappers Film Group)
Homes being demolished for the expansion of the Norfolk Southern rail yard in Englewood (David Schalliol, Courtesy Scrappers Film Group)

Property developers are significant allies in any election, but their support for Hodari, Bailey, and Smith is particularly noteworthy in a race that hinges so much on the question of how the fabric of the ward will change over the next several years. A minor construction boom has been underway in Woodlawn for a couple of years, and residents, especially renters, are worried about being priced out. In Washington Park, the UofC is building out an Arts Block along Garfield Boulevard. The aforementioned mall at 63rd and Halsted has kicked off a spurt of development in Englewood: there’s a microbrewery planned nearby, and residents are organizing to buy residential and commercial property to keep the neighborhood affordable.

Hodari says the keystone of her housing policy would be promoting mixed-income communities. The idea, she says, is something she took to while working on the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, which consisted in large part of resettling public housing residents in mixed-income developments. It’s a policy that’s come in for harsh criticism, mostly because it hasn’t created the promised number of affordable housing units, but also because the new developments, residents say, often don’t contain the same close-knit communities as many of the old housing projects.

Still, Hodari is a fan. “I think that it’s something that is very important, especially at this point in time, when you look at the out-migration in 20th Ward neighborhoods since the sixties. There’s been consistent population loss,” she said. “I think that there is a huge opportunity to change and improve the landscape, which has diminished to a whole lot of blight and vacancy.” (Hodari is also one of the few candidates ambivalent about instituting rent control. She says she’s worried it would overburden property owners with debt, and that there are other ways, including mixed-income housing, to create affordable housing units.)

Other candidates have different ideas. Nicole Johnson suggests that city-controlled vacant land in the ward should be converted into community land trusts, which local residents can then turn into housing cooperatives that include some segment of affordable units. Johnson also said she would create financial incentives to encourage other owners of vacant land in the ward to put their property in a land trust, though she acknowledges that might be difficult if those people stand to make more from the open market.

That difficulty also hints at a deeper tension around neighborhood change, particularly in Woodlawn: balancing the interests of different groups—middle and low-income, homeowners and renters. That’s a difficulty felt in something as simple as community meetings, which, Jeanette Taylor points out, can be hard to attend for people working long hours, or multiple jobs. “If you have a meeting at 4 o’clock and I get off work at 6:30, do you think that I’m coming? Do you think I’m missing my two hours of work?… We got to make it accommodating for the people that we want to serve. If we are honest about being a community organizer, you organize around what people want,” she said.

For Taylor, the stated desire to have a more representative segment of the ward in attendance at community meetings goes hand-in-hand with her emphasis on deferring to the will of the people in her decision-making. When asked, for example, whether she would want to restore the parts of the 63rd Street Green Line that were torn down in the nineties, she says it shouldn’t be up to her.

“I agree with the people in the community deciding whether that should happen or not,” she said. “That’s been the problem with politics in Chicago, period. It’s about the big guys…not about the people who pay the taxes and live in the community.” (Most of the candidates in the race would like to re-extend the Green Line; one exception is Hodari, who says that she thinks economic development along 63rd would be better accomplished with increased bus service, which would “slow you down to really see what’s going on.”)

The demolition of the original Green Line twenty-two years ago was the result of a concerted publicity campaign from community leaders, most notably Bishop Arthur Brazier and Leon Finney, two powerful Woodlawn activist-ministers. Together with then-alderman Arenda Troutman, they argued that removing “that monstrosity” (as Brazier termed it) would create opportunity for redevelopment of vacant lots and storefronts. In the years since then, Finney, Brazier, who died in 2010, and Brazier’s son Byron have continued to exert influence, both in City Hall and the ward, as activists, developers, and landlords.

But this year, some of the candidates lament the chokehold Finney and Brazier have had on the neighborhood’s politics and development, and say they haven’t sought out their blessing. Jeanette Taylor was probably the most blunt: “If I haven’t met them while knocking on doors, what do we have to talk about?”

For her part, Johnson said she’d gone to meet with Brazier when she first considered running, in the spring of 2017. “I think he thought, ‘Oh, that’s cute…You want to run? That’s cute.’ But that was the extent of it,” she said. “My understanding of where they want to be is to be very in front of what happens, and they get the last say on it. So do I align with that? That’s not aligned with what the people have said in my conversations.”

Johnson, a former CPS teacher who has worked for civic groups like Teamwork Englewood and Chicago Votes, has emphasized her willingness to turn the ward into a testing ground for different policy proposals. One idea is a partnership between Kennedy-King College and local schools like Kershaw Elementary, which is a few blocks away—letting the younger students shadow the college kids, and creating tracks into courses like the Highway Construction Careers Training Program. Another proposal would institute cognitive behavioral therapy programs in her schools. “I believe that there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. There’s a lot of these things happening,” she said. “It’s just pairing them together and the alderman’s office can play a key role in doing that.”

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Last week, the Weekly and Herald reported that, outside of Woodlawn, voter turnout in the 20th Ward is far below the city average—the likely effect of voters feeling disempowered by a fragmented electoral map. Driver, the only candidate running who lives in Back of the Yards, is pinning his hopes in large part on energizing those voters. At twenty-five, he’s the youngest candidate in the race, but he argues he’s in many ways more experienced than some of his rivals, citing his work at the Department of Defense—where he worked for the Pentagon’s police force—and a fellowship at City Hall as proof.

He also says he’s the only candidate who has seriously campaigned in his own neighborhood. That’s part of the reason he wasn’t concerned with Bailey’s petition challenge, which was eventually withdrawn. “I knew for a fact that was the area I [could] go get signatures that nobody else is going to get,” he said. “You’re not going to canvas those areas…those are all golden signatures you really can’t dispute.”

The bulk of Driver’s policies are focused on alleviating the burden of poverty. For example, he would work to eliminate vehicle stickers and duplicate ticketing. And he says he’d like to open up the city’s dollar lot program—which some have criticized for allowing speculators to acquire and sit on cheap property—to renters. (Currently, it’s open only to people who own land on the same block as the vacant lot.) “What we need to do is provide residents access to capital and sell them the lot for a dollar,” he said. “And then we have a 20th Ward credit union where the community is part-owner, so now they can go and get a loan from the credit union to build on that lot.”

On public safety, Driver says he’s “not a big fan of policing” and that he, like Taylor and Johnson, would support the proposal for a civilian police accountability board. He also says he would largely get rid of gun buyback programs, which he thinks are ineffective, and replace them with dropboxes at police precincts; there, anyone would be able to drop off an illegal firearm with no consequences. “Right now, there’s no legal means. If my grandmother found a weapon that I had and she called the police they’re going to arrest or question her, and it’s going to get someone in trouble,” he said.

Together with Taylor, Driver is also one of the few candidates in the race who has expressed concern about the presence of the University of Chicago Police Department in the ward, as well as the possibility of its expansion further into Woodlawn and Washington Park. (In 2011, City Council passed a resolution that extended the UCPD’s patrol area down to 64th and west to Cottage Grove Avenue.) Johnson and Hodari, for instance, both noted that Woodlawn residents have told them they want more of a police presence in the neighborhood. “I don’t think there’s a harm in it,” Maddox, who in her job at the CPD’s Office of Community Affairs leads “Know Your Rights” workshops throughout the city, said. “They’re police officers, so it’s not like they don’t have the same credentials as the Chicago Police Department.”

On the larger question of their relation to the University of Chicago—which, apart from its connection to the OPC, has given subsidies to employees buying homes in Woodlawn and is developing the Washington Park Arts Block—most of the candidates are cautious, emphasizing their desire for more community engagement.

“We’re always the last to know about plans that are coming down,” said Johnson. “Let’s stop acting like there’s not a huge elephant prancing around here….Be able to be really responsible in developing. Be more transparent, make sure that there are more regular community meetings.”

“I don’t think it’s a negative. I think that anyone who wants to come live in Woodlawn should be able to,” said Maddox of the home-buying program, “as long as we keep the current residents there as well.”

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Maddox, who is the largest donor to her campaign, spent much of her police career patrolling Parkway Gardens, a sprawling low-income housing development at 63rd Street and King Drive. She began working as a security guard at the complex in her off hours, and in 2011 founded an after school program, Future Ties, in Parkway’s basement.

Since the mid-90s, she said, she’s more or less been the alderman of her beat—“that three-block radius of 2,000 residents,” as she put it. “I see what it takes just for that three-block radius. And you know, everybody there has my phone number, everybody there knows who I am…People need access to so someone who they feel comfortable with to talk to about helping them in their everyday situations. People are out here hungry, people need resources and means for housing, they’re concerned about their children’s education. These are minor things maybe to some but to them, this is huge, this is huge.”

Smith, who’s running for the third time and was the only candidate to escape a Bailey petition challenge, makes similar claims of providing ward services. He says that his campaign headquarters have become a de facto ward office, helping out residents sort out everything from potholes to street light outages.

He also touts his experience with the police, commanders and superintendents as a boon to how he would fight crime as alderman. “When there’s a confrontation, you need someone to go in and be a mediator who the crowd trusts, who can defuse the situation,” he said. “If the police don’t know that person, it can probably escalate the crowd.”

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Asked about Smith’s claims, Willie Cochran cracked a smile. “He’s a big pretender, a big phony,” he said. He added that he’s heard Smith is “lying,” telling voters Cochran supports him. (“Heck no! I don’t know why people lie,” said Smith in response. “Even if Cochran wanted to endorse me, I would not accept it.”)

Smith isn’t the only candidate Cochran didn’t mince words about when discussing the race in his ward office Monday. The alderman said that Kevin Bailey’s petition challenges are “nothing but a ploy—he has no legitimacy,” adding that he thinks Bailey will probably lose next year’s reelection campaign for Democratic committeeman. “He’ll be giving up everything, including committeeman,” he predicted. “He should be enjoying that.”

Cochran also said that he thinks Maya Hodari is the best candidate running. “On development and commitment to safety one person has had some impact,” he said: Hodari. “She’s held my feet to the fire….Someone who has that experience is a very valuable person for the continued development of the surrounding communities.”

The outgoing alderman said he’s proud of his time in office, reeling off a list of accomplishments, including expanding home visits from mental health clinics, the Jewel-Osco that recently opened at 61st and Cottage Grove, and instituting International Baccalaureate programs at two neighborhood schools. Once he leaves his position, he said, he’ll work in consulting—public safety, government, development, and other areas—and in local advocacy. “I’m lobbying for a nice baseball stadium,” he said.

And he’s not worried about his legacy. “It’s like when the president leaves office, and the effects of his work are still felt two to three years down the line….I’ve got five years of development in the queue,” he said. At the very end, he alluded to his upcoming trial. “I’m not worried about people lying, or prosecution. I’m not going anywhere.

Sam Stecklow contributed reporting.

With The Triibe and Good Kids Mad City, the Weekly will be sponsoring a 20th Ward candidate forum at the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., on Saturday, February 16, from noon–2pm. Register at bit.ly/SSWTriibeGKMC20thWardForum

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Christian Belanger is a senior editor at the Weekly. Aaron Gettinger is a staff writer at the Hyde Park Herald.

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