On a chilly Saturday afternoon, Roman Morrow stands at the corner of Chicago and Mayfield avenues, gazing out over a vacant piece of land that will soon be a memorial garden. On this day, the lot is clean, save the occasional bottle, but Morrow explains this wasn’t the case a few weeks ago before he organized a team to pick trash out of the area’s alleys and vacant lots.
Dressed in a black jacket and striped button-down shirt, the 34-year-old looks the part of a politician. But he doesn’t completely sound the part yet; he chooses his words carefully and is hesitant to talk about himself.
“This lot was in terrible shape,” he says, pausing to smile and shake hands with passers-by. “You found used condoms, you found drug needles … You’d be shocked to see what goes on in these lots.”
If you haven’t met Morrow yet, you may be seeing him over the next few months: spearheading one of his many neighborhood clean-up efforts, handing out Christmas turkeys or giving away glossy postcards touting his accomplishments. After spending the past decade working in radio and TV — first as promotions assistant for V103 and later as an archivist for ABC7 Chicago – the community activist is now wading into local politics with a run for 29th Ward alderman.
That puts Morrow – and roughly a dozen other 29th Ward residents rumored to be vying for the seat – squarely in campaign mode for the next three months, as he scrambles for signatures, gets his name out and develops a platform that he hopes will be enough to surpass the current alderman, former state Rep. Deborah Graham. Graham, who was appointed to the city council in March in the wake of the Isaac Carothers scandal, is running to retain the seat for the first time – an opportunity that has many would-be politicians clamoring to contest her.
Chicago election news site Early and Often lists seven potential contenders for the 29th Ward race, in addition to Graham and Morrow – Rev. Marshall Hatch of West Garfield Park’s New Pilgrim Church; retired police officer Beverly Rogers; teacher Ulric Shannon; retired city employee and community activist Thomas Simmons; Loretto Hospital Foundation Associate Director Jill Bush; Forest Preserve District board member Mary Russell Gardner; and C.B. Johnson, CEO of Campaign for a Drug Free Westside.
Morrow says he’s heard rumblings of 14 people interested in the seat. Candidates have from Nov. 15 until Nov. 22 to submit their candidate petitions containing a minimum of 157 signatures to the Chicago Board of Elections.
A series of recent shake-ups in city politics has no doubt upped interest among first-time politicos. Mayor Richard Daley announced in September that he would not run for re-election, and so far, seven aldermen have followed suit, opening the floodgates for political newbies eying a prize in the Feb. 22 election. Some hope these fresh faces will mean fresh ideas.
Morrow, for one, says he supports incentives to bring small businesses to Austin and as alderman, would push to bring anchor stores and well-paying jobs to the area. He also stresses his experience and reputation as a community activist; in addition to his street clean-up projects, Morrow says he worked with local nonprofits like Mad Dads and Sisters Embracing Life.
“I want to help the community. I don’t want to play politics,” said Morrow. But he acknowledged the transition from engaged community member to hopeful-leader can be a difficult one. “You say, ‘Give me five minutes to tell you what I’m about.’ You find out there are people who just don’t want to hear it.”
James Spearman, a West Side native and owner of two businesses on West Chicago Avenue, said he believes Morrow is the kind of fresh face Austin needs. He recalled meeting the candidate for the first time four years ago, when he approached Spearman, who was organizing a community service project.
“He said, ‘What do you want me to do (to help)?’” recalled Spearman, 64, laughing, with an air of disbelief. “He just said, ’What do you want me to do?’ … We need more people like him in this community.”