Candidates discuss 39th Ward race for alderman
by KEVIN GROSS
Aldermanic candidates in the 39th Ward discussed their campaigns and said they are political reformers intent on making the alderman’s office more transparent.
Four candidates are on the ballot in the Feb. 26 election to replace retiring Alderman Margaret Laurino, a 24-year alderman who was first appointed to replace her father Anthony, an alderman for nearly three decades. This year’s race marks the first chance for someone outside the Laurino family to represent the ward since 1965.
"We need to start viewing aldermen and the City Council as a real legislative body, not just as an arm of the mayor," 39th Ward Democratic committeeman Robert Murphy said.
Murphy, a Forest Glen resident who previously ran against Laurino for alderman, said he worked to expand the ward’s voter turnout, making the ward Democratic organization’s endorsement process public and helping to elect 20 of its 25 endorsed candidates in last March’s primary.
"Every election people come around saying, ‘I’m going to reform this and reform that,’ but how come none of that ever seems to happen?" Murphy said. "I have 2 years of being committeeman where I did what I said I was going to do. I was going to open it up to the community, I was going to raise turnout, and I was going to be a competitive voice. And I did all of those things."
Albany Park Community Center director of development Casey Smagala, who has also served as a board member on the North River Commission and helped create career and technical education programs at Roosevelt High School, said that his roles dealing with local issues make him better equipped to tackle community concerns.
"When my opponents say, for instance, they have a vision for schools, I would rather see action like I’ve done. I have been on a Local School Council for 4 years (at Roosevelt High School) and helped create new programs, which none of the other candidates can truthfully claim," Smagala said. "I’m really proud of the record I can stand on of service. It’s not politics, it’s been about public service for me." Smagala held an internship in Laurino’s office when he was younger, but said that he doesn’t have a working relationship with Laurino and state Representative John D’Amico (D-15).
"I loved the internship and learning how the city works. I don’t necessarily love Laurino," he said.
Candidate Samantha Nugent has also filled numerous roles in the last 20 years, including as chief-of-staff for the Cook County Department of Homeland Security, working on gun reform legislation under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, managing the supply chain of government goods under the industrial supply firm W.W. Grainger and working as counsel and director of operations during Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s re-election campaign in 2006.
"None of my opponents have dealt with managing large staff, large budgets, making difficult decisions. You have to be an adult and do what’s right for the 39th Ward. You have to be able to work with and negotiate with a new mayor," she said.
"They see me as an insider, a machine. But they desperately wanted the support of the same people that I’ve had," Nugent said. "They’ve tried to get support from individuals, groups or labor that have supported me, and they’re not getting that support. When it doesn’t go their way, I’m now a ‘machine candidate.’"
Smagala said that he is more fiscally responsible than Nugent and Murphy, and that he would offer cost of living adjustment buyouts for public city workers and push for a general obligation bond to address city pension debt.
Joe Duplechin, a Chicago police officer, Army veteran and member of Carpenters Local Union 58, said, "I would say I fit different boxes for different issues. I’m not identifying as progressive, and I’m not a conservative. But people will say ‘you’re a cop, you were in the army, and you’re in a carpenter’s union, so this guy is definitely a conservative.’"
Describing his entrance into politics he said, "Alderman is one of the lowest rungs of elected government. But even that’s almost inaccessible to most regular people."
All four candidates support hiring more officers in the 17th (Albany Park) Police District.
"I actually worked in a Strategic Decision Support Center for a long period, we used that every day," Duplechin said of the new police centers that use predictive analytics to strategize officer deployment. "But if you have Shot Spotter and understaffing in the same district, what good is the technology without humans to react to it?"
Smagala said that crime is a personal issue for him because he helped develop a program for at-risk Volta School children and personally knew four students who had been shot in the area. "We need to keep every corner of this ward safe to keep the whole ward strong," he said.
All candidates also saw a need to at least examine whether tax increment financing districts are used in a proper way. Nugent said that TIF’s can be a good tool in certain projects such as with the Edens Collection development, but she suggested transferring excess TIF balances towards schools or reductions in local property taxes.
Murphy said that he supports "Back to Basics" TIF reform that limit which developers are eligible for subsidies, while Smagala said he prefers the use of special service areas, which are taxing bodies, because they allow for more community input.
"I was actually happy when I saw that the Edgebrook community shut down their proposed SSA," Smagala said. "It shows that the mechanisms worked and community input was actually taken into account."
The candidates also discussed the importance of transparency, listening to community organizations and incorporating them into the decision-making process. Murphy specified citywide reforms including term limits for elected officials, taking away the mayor’s right to appoint committee heads in the City Council, and inspector general oversight of the Chicago workman’s compensation program. Smagala emphasized preventing buyouts of new developments’ affordable housing requirements from being spent outside the ward.
Smagala and Murphy said that, if elected, they would intend to join the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, and Nugent said that she would "definitely explore" the possibility of joining.
"Nugent was supposed to get more endorsements. Murphy was supposed to get endorsed by SEIU," Duplechin said. "But people are recognizing I’ll be accessible and transparent. I worry about larger city matters, but my number one priority is this ward."
Murphy said that he is confident about his chances and that he would be an "independent candidate" despite endorsements from former county clerk David Orr, former governor Pat Quinn and Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd).
"There’s definitely a difference in the institutional support I’ve received this time around versus 4 years ago," he said, about running against Laurino.
"Even though the current alderman is not running, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t players involved that will advocate for the insiders and sell their decisions," Murphy said.
Nugent said that the nature of her jobs led her to work with many people including the Clintons, Daley and Madigan, but they are not personally connected and that they "wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a lineup."
The candidates will speak at a forum at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24 at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave., and a forum at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, at Saint Mary of the Woods School, 7033 N. Moselle Ave.