On a recent Saturday morning, the 29th Ward’s new alderman, former state Rep. Deborah Graham, may have been dressed casually – in jeans and tennis shoes – but she was already down to business.
In her new office at 5755 W. Division St., which still smelled of fresh paint and was not fully unpacked, Graham stood behind the reception desk talking to a constituent as phones rang and people waited to talk with her.
Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Graham March 15 to replace Isaac “Ike” Carothers, who resigned Feb. 1 after pleading guilty to corruption charges.
After almost three months on the job, she’s still keeping busy. Besides attending the Chicago City Council meetings, she’s participated in numerous community events, toured the neighborhood with police, met with community groups and social service agencies, and held two ward meetings.
“I’ve met with people across the 29th Ward who are really passionate about our community and who want to see a lot of positive changes,” Graham said. “It’s been really good to listen and hear about the thing most people don’t hear about – people who are really fighting for our community.”
One of those people – Elce Redmond, a community organizer for the South Austin Coalition – said he had a “cordial working relationship” with Graham when she was a state lawmaker and hopes as alderman she develops even stronger relationships with Austin’s community groups, social service agencies and religious leaders.
“We saw her at our foreclosure walk [on June 5], and I think she’s just getting acclimated to the issues and the enormity of her job,” Redmond said.
Graham declined to give specifics about what she has in the works for the 29th Ward, saying she’s holding “strategy meetings” and doesn’t want to share her plans prematurely, but she did say she had several “things on the horizon.”
Boosting Austin’s economy is one of Graham’s goals. She said she’s been meeting with the Department of Community Development and exploring the possibility of using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money for projects in the 29th Ward. There are 159 active TIF districts in Chicago, with several on the West Side.
“It will be my job, along with the help of some of the community groups out there, to go and solicit [businesses] and tell them, ‘Hey, look, we live in a wonderful community and we’d like for you to bring your business here,'” Graham said.
Improving Austin’s physical health is another goal, Graham said. One way she plans to do this, she said, is by encouraging residents to start community and backyard gardens where they can grow fresh fruits and vegetables.
“I want to sound the alarm on many fronts,” she said. “When you live in a community that’s high on every list the way Austin is – we’re high on violence, diabetes, breast cancer, foreclosures – we just need to keep sounding the alarm, and encourage people to take care of themselves and their neighbors.”
Graham has kept her promise to continue the ward’s regular community meetings on the first Wednesday of every month. During the summer months, however, the meetings have been put on hold, but they will start up again Sept. 1.
Redmond said Graham has been more visible and accessible than her predecessor, Carothers, who first took office in 1999.
“Carothers wasn’t as involved, and he was always Downtown with the mayor,” Redmond said. “He was an old machine-style type of ward boss. But Ald. Graham is very down to earth.”
Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John’s Bible Church and co-chair of L.E.A.D.E.R’s Network, said he’s heard from many people in the community who are disappointed by the way the mayor selected Graham, and he’s worried she will work more for Daley than the people of the 29th Ward.
Acree supported Graham in her past campaigns for state office and said she’s “a very nice person.” But he hopes she will show her independence from Daley.
“You gotta prove you’re going to be a voice for the people and not just another stooge for the mayor,” Acree said. “We need someone who will fight for the citizens of the 29th Ward – not another Daley rubber stamp. I’m waiting for a sign that she will be willing to go against the grain or take a courageous stand against the status quo.”
After Carothers’ indictment and resignation, Daley posted a “help wanted” ad on the city’s web site. By law, Daley can appoint whomever he wants to fill a vacancy on the Chicago City Council, but this time, he decided to accept applications.
Potential applicants had to be residents of the 29th Ward for at least one year, owe no taxes or debts to the city – though Graham actually did owe $5,000 to the city for moving out of a home too soon under the conditions of an affordable housing program – be registered voters and not have a criminal record.
In the end, Graham beat out 22 other eligible applicants for the $110,556 per-year city job.
“I’m happy that I got the appointment,” Graham said. “I think with my previous eight years in the General Assembly that the people of the 29th Ward will benefit from that experience . . . and my relationship as a former state rep gives us the access to all those partnerships that I’ve built at that level. So I think the 29th Ward gets the best of both worlds.”
Here are the applications of 20 other eligible candidates:
Bernard Cobbins, Jr.
Sherry A. Cobbins
Rev. Lewis Flowers
Rev. Marshall Hatch
Margaret M. Parker
Cherol A. Perkins
Mary Russell Gardner
Ulric S. Shannon
Thomas A. Simmons
Kyle F. Smith