A progressive activist with deep neighborhood roots is challenging what she calls the “old-boy political establishment” of the 11th Ward, long a bastion of the Daley clan and the Democratic machine.
And as if on cue, a nephew of former Mayor Richard Daley has stepped up to oppose her.
Bridgeport native Maureen Sullivan, who has founded civic, business and park groups, and organized against school closings in Bridgeport, describes a local political elite that has become too comfortable with the status quo and neglected the neighborhood.
Sullivan may represent an approach we’ll see from more aldermanic candidates this year: emphasizing the local impact of citywide policy issues like education and TIFs along with ward service concerns — and tapping into the growing sentiment against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s policies.
She calls the mayor “a Wall Street banker from Wilmette who wants to help his friends become even wealthier at our expense” and attacks the “rubber stamp City Council” including retiring Ald. James Balcer, who’s backed Emanuel in 100 percent of contested council votes.
Balcer announced his retirement shortly after Sullivan entered the race, throwing his support to Patrick Daley Thompson, grandson of the original Mayor Daley and a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District since 2012. Thompson’s name is featured prominently, along with Balcer’s and that of his uncle’s, ward committeeman John Daley, in the windows of the 11th Ward Democratic Party building at 36th and Halsted.
A downtown corporate attorney who handles property tax appeals and represents developers seeking TIF money, Thompson said his real estate and development experience would be an asset to the ward. But it didn’t seem to help a few years ago, when the Better Government Association identified Thompson as one of several politically-connected individuals who’d been granted homeowner exemptions for investment properties. Thompson pled ignorance and paid the back taxes.
A block north of the ward office is the Ramova Theater, closed since 1986 and owned by the city since 2001, where Sulllivan got her start as a community activist. Ten years ago she started a petition drive to save the theater and collected 4,000 signatures. Since then her Save the Ramova campaign has advocated for its reopening as a 1,000-seat performance theater, arguing it would be a major economic engine for the neighborhood.
The city hasn’t done enough to market the property, and part of the reason is the “indifference” of the ward leadership, Sullivan said. (Under community pressure, Balcer and the city did allocate $330,000 in TIF funds to stabilize the structure two years ago.) That neglect can be seen on the Ramova’s block, which also houses John Daley’s insurance company and the South Loop Chamber of Commerce; it’s dominated by vacant storefronts. Most striking, one building has the red X placed by the city on unsound structures, a sign more commonly found in communities suffering extreme disinvestment.
According to Sullivan, the neglect extends to the difficulty residents have had getting garbage cans for retail areas. She said Balcer removed bins because apartment residents were using them for household waste — not the best solution, she said, especially with trash piling up on the streets.
“Back when the machine was strong, you could go to the alderman and get a garbage can,” she said. “When we request services [from the ward office], we’re made to feel like we’re bothering them.”
When she asked Balcer for a letter of support for an application by the McGuane Park advisory council for new playground equipment, he was reluctant. “His response was, if I give it to you I’ll have to give it to everyone else,” she said. The council got the equipment, and Balcer showed up at the dedication ceremony — with Patrick Thompson in tow.
Sullivan has stepped up where she’s seen gaps in ward leadership. She founded the Bridgeport Business Association, which holds networking events for local businesses and hosts social media and shared marketing drives — the kinds of things other chambers of commerce do, but not the politically-dominated South Loop Chamber, she said.
After Palmisano Park was built with TIF funds on the 27-acre site of the Stearns Quarry, Sullivan formed an advisory council. Last year Sullivan organized the Bridgeport Air and Water Show at Palmisano, featuring fishing, kite-flying, nature walks and, later in the evening, star-gazing with telescopes and guides from the Adler Planeterium. This year the event attracted 2,000 people.
Working with local park councils, Sullivan also organizes an annual Clean and Green day — an event often sponsored by aldermen in other wards.
She helped found the Bridgeport Alliance, a grassroots social justice group, and when three local schools were listed by CPS for possible closing in 2013, she spearheaded successful efforts to save them. This year the alliance also supported teachers and students protesting excessive standardized testing, and Sullivan was among neighborhood activists who successfully opposed a charter school proposal which they maintained would drain students and resources from neighborhood schools. She backs an elected school board.
Sullivan also organized one of the first TIF Illumination sessions with Civic Lab. At the time the 11th Ward had 10 TIFs accounting for 57 percent of its land area, with $57 million sitting in their accounts. She has called for far greater transparency and public participation in TIF decisions. She points out that there’s lots more money in the 35th and Halsted TIF district to restore the Ramova and revive the business strip. “Halsted Street is definitely blighted,” she said.
As Laura Washington points out, for all his high-level political connections, Thompson is no shoo-in. Bridgeport has become much more ethnically diverse, and the 11th Ward now stretches down Halsted to take in the Pilsen arts district, Maxwell Street and University Village.
A third candidate in the race is John Kozlar, a law student known for his work with the Canaryville Little League. He ran four years ago and won 22 percent of the vote without campaigning heavily; his platform is yet to be fleshed out.
If this develops into a contest between old and new politics, and if Sullivan can articulate people’s frustrations with the status quo, she has a shot at making history by beating the Daley machine on its home turf.