Six candidates vying to lead the 37th Ward

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Five candidates want to challenge Ald. Emma Mitts for her 37th Ward seat in the Feb. 22 election.

Maretta Brown-Miller, Minerva V. Orozco, Steven E. Pleasant, Tommy O. Abina and Shanika J. Finley submitted nominating petitions by the Nov. 22 deadline to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

“It’s official, I’m running, and I’m going to make a difference in the 37th Ward,” said Brown-Miller, a staff assistant for the Chicago Park District. “I’m going to take this ward block by block, house by house and person by person and make some real changes.”

Incumbent Mitts and challenger Brown-Miller filed by 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 15, qualifying for a lottery to be held Dec. 1 that determines who gets the top spot on the ballot – a preferred spot for candidates since it’s thought to be the most likely picked by voters.

Any candidate’s petition can be challenged until Nov. 30.

Brown-Miller says a top priority if elected would be getting a Jewel or Dominicks in the West Side ward, which includes parts of Austin, Belmont-Cragin and Humboldt Park. The Austin grandmother also would like to build a recreational center for seniors and provide more activities for children.

While the office comes with an annual salary of about $110,000, another candidate says she’s not running for the money and vowed to donate 20 percent of her salary back to the community.

“For me, this has nothing to do with money, it’s about the best interest of the community,” said Finley, a Realtor who lives down the street from Ald. Mitts. “In the past 10 years the only thing we have gotten is a Coca-Cola distribution center and a Walmart. We can’t live on that alone.”

Finley said if elected she would help the smaller businesses grow, build an entertainment site and attract more restaurants.

In addition to stimulating the economy, Finley’s platform focuses on security, crime and affordable housing in the ward.

Abina said he’s been thinking about how he would lead the 37th Ward since he unsuccessfully ran against Mitts in 2007. In that last election, five candidates challenged the incumbent, and she won easily with 59 percent – or 4,485 votes.

“In my sleep I dream about how to clean up the ward,” said Abina, a manager in the administrative hearings office for the Illinois Secretary of State.

Abina – who has a master’s degree in public administration, and professional experience in both the public and private sector – said he would like to make Chicago’s West Side attractive and affordable, and focus on creating new jobs for the community, including people who’ve served time in prison.

“People like to pretend the ex-offenders aren’t there, and then we pay a big price,” Abina said.

Mitts – first appointed by Mayor Daley in 2000 to replace former Ald. Percy Giles, who was convicted of taking $10,000 in bribes in the federal government’s Operation Silver Shovel investigation of City Hall corruption, and elected in 2003 and 2007 – says crime has been a constant issue in the ward, so one of her major priorities next term would be focusing on the youth.

The alderman said she’d also be focused on finishing projects already in the works, such as the new Near North Health Center and New Moms Inc., a residential facility for homeless teen moms and their children being built at 5327 W. Chicago Ave. Mitts would also like to expand additional retail and other small and medium-sized business opportunities along the major industrial corridors in the ward.

The alderman said she’s proud of the Walmart and Menards, and that in the past four years, both big-box stores have created employment opportunities and economic growth.

Chicago’s only Walmart, located at 4650 W. North Ave., employs 429 associates, paved the way for 22 new businesses to open in the community, created over 500 new jobs and has generated more than $20 million in tax revenues according to Andrea Smith, a spokeswoman for Mitts.

Securing a big box retailer in the 37th Ward should help not hurt Mitts chance at a fourth term, said Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Chicago at Illinois and a former alderman.

“I don’t think Mitts will get a lot of backlash from her constituents about Walmart,” Simpson said. “It’s a good campaign point and a big city issue that plays well in her ward.”

But Maywood resident Virgil Crawford says Mitts’ stance on at least one other issue could hurt her. While the alderman supports a new high school in Austin – something that residents have been pushing since Austin High School closed its doors three years ago — Mitts’ vision falls short of what is needed in a community of Austin’s size, Crawford said.

He notes that Mitts opposes a new school at the site of the 32-acre, former Brach’s candy factory site at 401 N. Cicero Ave., not far from her ward. Instead, Crawford says Mitts is interested in a school opening at 1450 N. Cicero Ave., which Crawford said would not be a good use of taxpayer money.

“We shouldn’t waste money on a rinky-dink corner lot for a school,” said Crawford, who works at the Westside Health Authority.

“Why should we use taxpayers’ money for a school that won’t seat all our kids? No, we need a complete campus high school with a location that is central.”

Crawford said he hopes the influx of new candidates will bring new ideas and less fighting within Austin.

“What happens in the community is a direct correlation to what kind of leadership we have,” Crawford said. “I would hope all the candidates realize that the race is not about personalities, but a race about who is best qualified to build community.”

Candidate Orozco did not respond to a request for an interview, and Pleasant could not be reached for comment.

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