Ex-alderman attempting comeback

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This week, AustinTalks will be profiling each of the five candidates seeking the Democrat nomination for the 1st District seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

Back in 1999 when Isaac “Ike” Carothers ran the first time for alderman — a seat he won — about 25 contributors donated to his campaign, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records.

This year, he reports just four donors as he attempts a political comeback by running for the open 1st District Cook County commissioner seat.

Still, some believe Carothers is one of the front runners to replace retiring commissioner Earlean Collins.

Of the five candidates on the March 18 Democratic ballot, Carothers is the only one who’s been an elected official. But it’s the first time he’s campaigning for public office since pleading guilty to corruption charges and going to prison.

His most public supporter is his campaign chair Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), who said she supports Carothers because he knows the community better than the other candidates. She’s overlooking his past.

“I believe in giving people a second chance,” Mitts said.

Carothers said he has more supporters than it appears and understands that not everyone wants to be vocal about backing his candidacy.

He said this year’s campaign has taught him an important lesson.

“You find out who your real friends are,” Carothers said.

Carothers’ 2010 conviction stemmed from a federal probe that revealed he accepted $40,000 worth of free home renovations from a contractor who wanted a zoning change in the 29th Ward.

Federal prosecutors said Carothers accepted the money as a bribe, but Carothers told AustinTalks he took the money as an innocent gift from someone he previously worked with as alderman.

“My biggest mistake was allowing him to pay for it,” Carothers said. “It was not ‘something for something.’ I pleaded guilty not because I felt guilty of that crime. I pleaded guilty because I didn’t believe a jury would find me not guilty.”

That brought to an abrupt halt his decade-long aldermanic career – a position he said he was destined to hold.

His grandfather was a 29th Ward committeeman and his father – who also served time in prison on corruption charges – was alderman of the 28th Ward. Carothers said he spent his childhood growing up in Austin – where he still lives – watching both men function in the political sphere.

During his time as alderman, Ike Carothers said he built the ward’s first senior community center, revamped Madison Street and built two elementary schools — Edward K. Ellington and Oscar DePriest.

He remembers a beaten-up cul de sac at the corner of Midway Park and Waller Avenue. There was no money in his aldermanic budget to repair it. But he happened upon a city-funded program that would add a fountain in the space.

That’s how to leverage government, Carothers said.

“When that fountain’s running, that’s seeing how your dollar has really worked for you,” he said.

If elected commissioner, his top priority would be to reduce bond rates for non-violent offenders. Carothers said there needs to be a revamp of the high fees for those charged with less-severe crimes who can’t afford to bond out.

He would sit down with Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans and figure out why some bonds are set so high, he said.

Carothers has worked at the Safer Foundation since his release from prison, helping ex-offenders get jobs, he said.

Community health is another priority for the candidate, who said he wants to explore how the county can “level the playing field” for its public hospital, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital. He said area hospitals can send uninsured patients in stable condition to Stroger but doesn’t think the hospital can continue to carry the burden of treating so many people.

His fellow 1st District hopefuls say they would focus on many of the same issues, but Carothers said he stands out because of his experience and roots in the community.

Blake Sercye, an attorney who’s won many key endorsements, grew up in Austin but has no political experience, Carothers said.

And while Richard Boykin served as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, Carothers questioned the lawyer’s ability to understand the less wealthy parts of the 1st District.

Said Carothers: “Having served in a local ward for many years, serving people on a day-to-day basis with mundane things like refuge pick up and filling potholes, I think I’m a lot closer to the people.”

One political science expert predicts the race will come down to Carothers and Boykin – but with Boykin winning Tuesday’s primary.

“(Carothers) hasn’t distinguished himself other than saying, ‘I made a mistake’ or ‘I’ve had decades of public service,’ said Jaime Dominguez, a lecturer in political science at Northwestern University.

Dominguez said he thinks people see Carothers as a familiar face but also a reminder of the Chicago machine.

That could be why Carothers has significantly fewer supporters for this public office run. His backers in 1999 included now-fellow candidate Brenda Smith, who used to serve as an aide to Carothers when he was alderman.

But Carothers said he doesn’t think she’s a formidable opponent. Smith hasn’t reported any contributions, while Carothers’ records show he has raised about $15,000 — $8,800 of that from Mitts’ ward organization.

Carothers also received $2,500 each from Barbara J. McGowan and Mike A. Alvarez, both commissioners on the city’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

Carothers stresses it’s the connections he’s built over the years that make him the best choice.

“I know the players who are involved. I know the in’s and the out’s. None of them have the experience that I have. I have a reputation for getting things done.”

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