Contradictions abound in 33rd Ward alderman race
by RUSS STEWART
Change the alderman but don’t change the ward. Maximize economic development but minimize gentrification. Be "progressive" but hold back the hands of time. Welcome investment without displacement. Control rents but boost property values. Make evictions difficult but landlords happy. Micromanage everything and oppose whatever Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposes. And pretend that everybody is going to live happily ever after, or at least through 2023.
That summarizes the developing 2019 aldermanic race in Chicago’s 33rd Ward, which encompasses Albany Park, Avondale, Ravenswood Manor, and Irving Park west of Horner Park and the Chicago River. To accomplish all or some of the above, the ward needs a wizard not an alderman.
The incumbent Deb Mell’s father Dick Mell held the seat from 1975 to 2013, when he resigned and Emanuel appointed his daughter, who was then a state representative. Mell’s other daughter is Patti Blagojevich, married to the impeached and now-incarcerated former governor Rod Blagojevich. The "Mell Machine" collapsed with great rapidity, as Deb Mell won the 2015 election against two opponents, avoiding a runoff by 17 votes, getting 50.2 percent, and Dick Mell lost the 2016 Democratic committeeman’s race to Aaron Goldstein by 50 votes.
There will definitely be a runoff in 2019 in the 33rd Ward, as Mell faces an eclectic mix of three declared opponents, all with some political base, all with minimal campaign money, all with energy, and all ganging-up on her. They include Goldstein, an attorney who was one of Blagojevich’s attorneys at his second federal criminal trial, and who finished seventh of eight candidates in the 2018 primary for Illinois attorney general, getting 813 votes, or 10.2 percent, in the 33rd Ward. Others are Katie Sieracki, a businesswoman who runs a video-conferencing firm and calls herself an "independent progressive," and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, a Puerto Rico-born career counselor at Columbia University, who calls herself an "independent socialist," was active in teacher Tim Meegan’s 2015 campaign against Mell (in which he got 2,779 votes, or 34 percent), and is a member of Democratic Socialists of America. "I am the only person of color" running in a ward "in which the majority of the population are persons of color," she said.
Gentrification is perceived as the transformation of occupancy of lower-income housing stock to ownership by higher-income people. That is what is happening in the 33rd Ward, which runs from Lawrence between Central Park and the River south to the "Addison Corridor" at Belmont-Webster and the Kennedy Expressway. Ravenswood Manor, in the northeast corner, between Foster and Lawrence east of Kedzie to the River, has homes in the $600,000-plus range. Albany Park, between Lawrence and Montrose, east of Lawndale, formerly in the 39th Ward, is about 70 percent tenant-occupied, with an extremely diverse population, consisting of a sizeable Ecuadorian-Mexican-Puerto Rican community, a Bulgarian-Russian community, and a Middle-Eastern community, with several Muslim mosques in the ward and many Muslim-owned businesses along Lawrence Avenue.
"It is the Brooklyn of Chicago," referring to New York City, said one observer, noting that gangs and gang-related crime are pervasive.
"That is not true," retorted Rodriguez-Sanchez, who lives in Albany Park.
"There have always been gangs" in Albany Park, said Jason Hernandez, Mell’s chief-of-staff. "But the ward’s is safer than it has ever been." The ward’s population is more than 50 percent non-white, with Hispanics the majority west of Kedzie, but the voting population is still majority white
What is true is that the single-family housing in west Albany Park, south of Mayfair in the 39th Ward, has suddenly become a red-hot market, as has the area west of Horner Park, west of California and south of Montrose, as has the South End, from Addison to Wellington, just to the north of Logan Square, site of the long-ago built Target, Home Depot and Jewel anchor stores, but with a new brewery and coffee shops. Where economic development sprouts, gentrification follows – and it is moving from the northwest east and from the south north.
The situation in Ravenswood Manor is unique, as the 2-year media circus following Blagojevich’s indictment and impeachment, and subsequent federal trial, clogged the neighborhood with media vans and helicopters every time Blagojevich went to court or for a jog. The area’s voters punished Deb Mell in 2015 and Dick Mell in 2016, giving each barely 30 percent. If Blagojevich gets a presidential pardon, it will be dŽjˆ vu all over.
Mell is stressing her record of "constituent service" and her city council "independence." For the alderman, "quality of life" issues are "paramount," said Hernandez, noting that she voted against the property tax hike in one of Emanuel’s budgets, has advocated for TIF reforms, wants to "balance public safety with police reforms," wants to "preserve ‘affordable housing’" in the ward, but also wants to encourage "new industry and new development." The ward "welcomes" new immigrants, he said.
Mell, according to Hernandez, spends the "almost all" of her $1.32 million discretionary menu funds "on infrastructure investment – streets, sidewalks, alleys," and "has used city bond funds for road and bridge repairs," as well as new playlots at schools and a hockey rink at McFetridge Park. Every proposed development must first be reviewed and approved by the local neighborhood association, and then Mell appears at a public meeting to get input. "We focus on constituent service," Hernandez said. As of June 30, Mell had $183,806 on-hand in her campaign fund.
Goldstein said that "any change" in the ward "must start with the alderman" and "with a change in the culture of City Hall." He said that Mell has shown "no leadership" and "almost always votes" with the mayor. Residents and businesses are "overtaxed, burdened with ever-rising fees…which encourages them to leave" Chicago. "For decades (Dick) Mell used his power to get jobs for people who worked precincts produced the votes to keep the Mells in office." Dick Mell made the obscure Blagojevich state representative in 1992, congressman in 1996, and governor in 2002. In 2008 Mell dumped state representative Rich Bradley and replaced him with Deb Mell. As of June 30, Goldstein had $14,055 on-hand.
Sieracki, who lives in Albany Park, said that Deb Mell is a nice person who "has moved further to the left" since her father’s political demise, but knocks her as a "defender of the status quo" and "not responsive to community needs." There is gentrification along the CTA’s Brown line, and up from the 606 trail, she said, and there "needs to be a comprehensive plan" to keep the ward "family-oriented" and "preserve affordability." She said that the ward’s plenitude of 2-4 flat apartment buildings "cannot go condominium."
She asserts that the ward should "welcome investment without displacement." Good luck with that. No developer is going to rehab an existing property, or demolish and rebuild, without a built-in profit margin.
Sieracki was an advance person during Alderman Ameya Pawar’s (47th) short-lived gubernatorial campaign, then worked for Dan Biss, who got 3,792 votes, or 46.9 percent, in the 33rd Ward, to J.B. Pritzker’s 2,372, finishing first. As of June 30, she had $17,954 on-hand.
Rodriguez-Sanchez was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and has lived in Albany Park since 2009. She is an "organizer," initially for Meegan, who has moved to Minnesota, and most recently for the Albany Park Theatre Project. "We need an alderman who will protect people who are being displaced," she said, pinpointing immigration, affordable housing, rent control, police reform and evictions as the major 2019 issues.
"People are not safe in the ward" when they "fear both the police and their landlords" and "where they lack education, health care and mental health resources" and "may be forced to move." She makes the 33rd Ward sound a lot like a militarily controlled Third World dictatorship. To her, economic development is not a good thing.
"She wants a ward filled with vacant lots," chided Hernandez.
As alderman, Rodriguez-Sanchez promises to "pressure landlords and protect tenants," noting that 70 percent of ward voters favored rent control in a 2016 ballot referendum. That will never happen, as Chicago’s home rule powers are limited, and only an act of the state legislature can impose rent control, along with an elected school board and a tax on stocks and securities. To combat gentrification, Rodriguez-Sanchez wants to ban developer contributions to aldermen, and elongate the time – from weeks to months – for evictees to move. As for police, she wants "more training in mental health issues." As of June 30 she had no campaign account.
The 33rd Ward has 28 precincts, and is overwhelmingly liberal. In the 2016 presidential race, Clinton beat Trump 16,415-2,091, or 83.8 percent. But in the 2015 mayoral runoff, Chuy Garcia beat Emanuel 5,525-4,412, or 55.6 percent. Mell beat Meegan and Annisa Wanat 4,103-2,779-1,289 in an 8,171 2015 turnout, winning 13 of 28 precincts, but an outright majority in only four. In 2016, Goldstein beat Dick Mell 5,457-5,407, winning 12 of 28 precincts.
Deb Mell has had 4 years to entrench herself and has worked assiduously to do so. But she won’t get more than 50 percent in the primary. If it’s Mell-Sieracki in the runoff, Mell loses.