On a desk in Carmelita P. Earls’ garden-apartment campaign office lies a photocopy of a Chicago Tribune news clipping, peppered with staple holes and grainy from repeated copying.
In it, a younger Earls, saddled with heavy boots and a thick firefighting jacket, stands behind a caution tape line at the Henry Horner Homes, comforting a woman whose niece had just been killed in a fire. It’s a tender moment: The two stand close together, Earls speaking quietly with a hand on the woman’s shoulder. The mourner looks lost.
Ten years later, Earls, now commander of operations for the Chicago Fire Department Training Academy, says she’s ready to trade in her firefighting career for a spot on the Chicago City Council. She says it’s not that far a leap.
“What (firefighting) taught me most is how you have an opportunity to make an impact on someone’s lie at the most turbulent times,” said Earls, sitting at her desk in a blue Chicago Fire Department fleece. “That, I think, is the most rewarding, knowing that you can go in and make a difference in crisis.”
“Politics is just an extension of service,” she added. “There’s a fire on the West Side. I’m here to put it out.”
Other candidates on the ballot
Earls has a knack for talking to people. She speaks easily and openly, describing conversations she’s had with strangers in the community, from drug dealers on corners to kids headed down the same path. She speaks about change happening one person at a time; she says often that she “sees what she wants to believe.” She sometimes refers to herself in the third person.
At the same time, the 45-year-old mother and grandmother comes across as a “knock-‘em-down, drag-‘em-out” fighter. Earls has been perhaps the most vocal critic of her opponent, the establishment-backed Jason Ervin, criticizing his relationship with recently retired Ald. Ed Smith on online message boards, and distributing thick, research-heavy packets to the media accusing the newly appointed alderman of cronyism and dodgy accounting.
“This smells of nepitism (sic) and cronyism at its lowest point,” Earls commented on a recent AustinTalks story. “Change is coming to the 28th Ward, in the person of Carmelita Earls.”
There is an urgency in Earls’ voice as she speaks about voting out the current 28th Ward leadership; she talks about residents being “exploited and manipulated” by those in power.
She says she tried to rent a campaign office space in a long-vacant storefront, but the owner refused, fearing retaliation from her more powerful opponent. She recalls a woman’s response when Earls asked her to sign her candidacy petition: “I need to check with my ward boss first.”
“That’s your signature. That’s your vote,” Earls later said. “That’s extortion.”
Earls says her priorities for the ward are making government more transparent, making neighborhoods safer and improving services for residents. In explaining how she would achieve these goals, her responses are reminiscent of a community organizer’s; she draws on touching anecdotes and experiences with neighbors, rather than numbers and public-policy speech that a more seasoned candidate may use.
The lack of lingo may be unsurprising, given Earls’ lack of political experience. Before starting her career at the fire department, she worked as a customer representative for AT&T; before that, she was employed at a grocery store, where she worked her way up from cashier to manager.
In a Chicago Tribune endorsement questionnaire, she admitted that she was unable to answer several of the more complex questions without further information.
“Community activism in the 28th & 37 Wards as a resident,” Earls wrote in a section asking for previous political experience. “Committed to upward mobility. No official titles associated. I’m just a trench working individual who recognizes needs, while acquiring the resources to erradicate (sic) them.”
She did not complete a questionnaire for AustinTalks or the Chicago Sun-Times. That may be one reason why the Sun-Times endorsed another candidate.
Earls is not doing much fund-raising for her campaign. She reports raising $7,800 in in-kind contributions for the reporting period ending Dec. 31: $3,000 from a relative for office furniture and computer equipment, and $4,800 from herself, as rent for the apartment she owns that has been converted into her campaign headquarters.
She admits her lack of fund-raising puts her at a disadvantage to her cash-laden incumbent opponent.
“I’m not the candidate that’s sponsored,” she said. “My opponent has a nice war chest … I’m a novice to this.”
But she did cement an endorsement and a $5,000 contribution from the Chicago Fire Department Union Local 2.
“She’s a woman of very strong conviction, and she’s very dedicated to the members,” said Tom Ryan, the union’s president.
Earls says she’s been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support she’s had from the community, largely from people who say they’re ready for a change of scenery in the 28th Ward office. Earls takes that as a sign of hope.
“No one has a monopoly of your choices,” she said.
Web site: http://www.change28.org/
Campaign office: 555 N. Lawler Ave.
Phone: (773) 261-7300
Campaign finance report filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections (July 1, 2010 – Dec. 31, 2010): http://www.elections.state.il.us/CampaignDisclosure/CommitteeDetail.aspx?id=23100
Chicago Tribune Questionnaire: http://elections.chicagotribune.com/editorial/carmelita-p-earls/
Application for 28th Ward vacancy: www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/about/aldermanicapplications/carmelitaearls.pdf