This week's print edition of the Chicago Reader has hit the streets. Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke review the city's nine freshmen aldermen, three of whose wards contain slices of Back of the Yards. Their yardstick was pretty straightforward: "Are our representatives up to the task of telling the mayor 'no' once in a while?" The answer is a resounding no.
I'm not surprised that that's what Ben and Mick care about, but I can tell you very few people, especially in the South Side wards that have long been neglected and lack basic city services, give a good gol dang about that yardstick. In fact, I suspect most voters here would prefer their aldermen have a good relationship with City Hall (even a bootlicking one), if it means they can get city services to work and get access to dollars for ward improvements. They also care about whether they ever see their aldermen and whether they feel like their aldermen are paying any attention to local needs. It all comes down to "who will get me a garbage can?"
By that standard, here's my take on the freshmen aldermen I've had contact with since the were elected, starting with the one who runs my ward.
Joann Thompson, 16th Ward--Ben and Mick lump her together with Toni Foulkes of the 15th Ward, noting the similarities in how they were elected--both were backed by organized labor, SEIU to be specific--and as the gentlemen put it, "both have had their hands full just trying to set up an office and confront some of the problems in their long-neglected communities." Both, the guys tell us, have been quiet, reliable yes votes.
What this doesn't tell us is the important difference between them on the ground. I've only seen Foulkes in action once, but last summer she got herself out to an NHS block beautification event, clearly knew the block club members, and spent a good half hour or more talking with them about safety and street improvements that could be done on their block. I don't know the extent to which she followed through, but she was out there.
As for Thompson, she has sent out one newsletter, which I grant had the dates of her monthly ward meetings. I haven't been present at any yet but I have heard back from others who've been there. They weren't very impressed. A while back some of our local leading lights, including Rep. Esther Golar, went out with petitions for street resurfacing here on Marshfield Avenue. I heard a rumor that the street will be resurfaced from 51st to 47th, which includes parts of both Thompson's and Willie Cochran's ward. My guess is that it's Cochran and Golar who are really making this happen. My impression thus far in Thompson's term is that she concentrates very hard on the Englewood portion of the ward, leaving Back of the Yards and Gage Park to their own devices. My impression of Foulkes is that she has made broader and more effective outreach across her ward as a whole, but if any readers know more than I do about this, please fill us in.
In short, if I were Jimmy the Greek, I put money on Foulkes getting re-elected and not on Thompson. Stay tuned.
Willie Cochran 20th, and Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward. Ben and Mick discuss them separately and at length, giving Dowell credit both for her presence in the community and for thoughtful and occasionally-gasp-independent votes. However, they give Cochran short shrift: "He's not exactly a disappointment, since we never expected him to stand up to the mayor anyway." By contrast, the view from the ground here would lump them much more closely together because of their strong commitment to constituent service. To me, Cochran gets extra points because it would be easy for him to concentrate on Woodlawn redevelopment, especially amid the Olympic furor. Yet I saw 48th Street get plowed this winter and we've seen the long-awaited sidewalk improvements on the 4800 block of South Marshfield. There's almost always a 20th ward staffer at the local CAPS beat meeting; I think the 16th ward superintendent came once.
Just as a side note Ben and Mick join the chorus of critics who've ripped the Olympics community benefits agreement for being toothless. For reasons I won't go into here, I can say just getting the words publicly on the table in the face of City Hall opposition is not an achievement to be sneezed at. For a couple of aldermen whose wards heavily depend on city services to pull this off is worthy of a lot more respect than they're getting.