37th Ward hopefuls want to invest in schools, jobs

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The four people hoping to unseat Ald. Emma Mitts can agree on one thing: some of her constituents feel ignored.

At least that’s what 37th Ward residents have told Leroy Duncan, Tara Stamps, Otis Percy Jr. and Maretta Brown-Miller as they’ve walked door-to-door, gone to church or just talked to friends, the four said in separate interviews.

“There’s a disconnect between the alderman’s office, the alderman and then the rest of the community,” said Stamps, who has lived in the ward four years. “The community is not getting all of the information.”

Communication gaps are among several issues the candidates promise they will focus on if elected to the Chicago City Council in early 2015.

Interviews with each revealed their visions of a ward that would invest more in schools, spark community engagement and increase small business development.

The hopefuls, including Mitts, said they have easily collected the minimum 473 signatures required for a candidate’s name to appear on the Feb. 24 ballot.

Only ward residents can sign the candidates’ petition sheets, which must be submitted between Nov. 17 and Nov. 24 to the city’s Board of Election Commissioners office.

This means voters could have four other choices besides Mitts, who was appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2000 and has held the seat since.

Mitts will be officially kicking off her re-election campaign Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at 4926 W. Chicago Ave.  

Her competitors say Mitts hasn’t done enough and fails to stay in touch with her constituents.

But the alderman said she only hears those accusations around election time from people hoping to unseat her.

“I work every day in my neighborhood; I want to try to do more,” Mitts said. “I think that my constituents say the same thing.”

But if good communication already existed, more residents would understand different programs like tax increment financing, said Brown-Miller.

In fact, while collecting her signatures, Brown-Miller said she met people who don’t know what an alderman does, or even who represents the 37th Ward.

This is Brown-Miller’s second run for the seat, but she doesn’t consider her 2011 defeat a loss. Running both then and now, she said, is part of a larger “movement for change.”

In the last election in 2011, Brown-Miller won about 24 percent of the vote compared to Mitts’ nearly 59 percent, according to Chicago Board of Elections records. (Four other challengers were on the ballot, none of whom got as many votes as Brown-Miller.)

Her idea of change for the ward includes a strong emphasis on education and job training. If elected, she would seek grants to cover costs for licensing programs, such as one for truck driving.

“I believe everybody has a skill, and we need to pull it out,” said Brown-Miller, who works as the assistant to the director of legislative and community affairs at the Chicago Park District.

She would also consider funding trips for college-bound kids to historically black colleges and universities, as well as state schools.

Education is also a large focus for Stamps, and the key reason she decided to run. As a teacher for the past 15 years, she first got seriously involved in city politics during the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012.

“When the education fight also became included in this push for privatization, it became a more of an authentic fight for me because I had been a teacher for so many years,” Stamps said, who teaches at Jenner Academy of the Arts on the North Side.

Stamps and two other teachers running for different aldermanic office were recently endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union.

“[These teachers] have been base-building in their wards and in this city for years on social justice and educational issues, and are hardworking leaders who love Chicago and have a vision for its future,” Stacy Davis Gates, CTU Legislative and Political Director, said in a press release.

In a 2012 AustinTalks story, Stamps was quoted saying residents needed to start “street fighting” to bring attention to school closures.

When asked about this recently, Stamps laughed and said she didn’t mean that in literal terms, but meant for residents to organize in protest so the media could cover how serious people felt about the issue.

“But am I for a little civil disobedience? Yes. Absolutely,” Stamps said.

She said she plans to push for technology and language investments in schools to make them “well-rounded.” In today’s society, Stamps said a monolingual education is unacceptable.

Mitts has been criticized for not speaking out against charter schools, believed by many to be sucking time and resources from neighborhood schools.

But Mitts said the addition of charters to the 37th Ward helps provide choices for parents, and she doesn’t believe she is disproportionately supporting either CPS or private charters.

Stamps and Mitts both said they want more after-school programs to help parents who work late and to keep kids out of trouble.

“When I was growing up, there was this saying, ‘Idle time is the devil’s workshop,’” Stamps said.

Percy, who works at the Chicago Lighthouse, agrees kids could benefit from after-school activities. He cited a need for simple resources in schools, like new and updated books.

After receiving a life-changing kidney transplant in 2009, Percy said he wants to “pay it forward” to the ward by running for alderman and advocate for services he thinks his neighbors deserve.

Plans for a youth center are in the works, Mitts said, but she couldn’t say exactly where she was thinking of placing it.

Duncan, a former CAPS facilitator for a beat in the Chicago Police Department’s 25th District, said a mix of schools, churches, businesses, community organizations and residents creates a wholesome community.

If elected, Duncan promises to keep in touch with residents through email and community meetings to hear their concerns.

“You have to come up with a way to get everybody involved,” Duncan said. “You have to give them an incentive.”

Duncan wants to hear what services residents need and use that input to recruit the right small businesses to the ward. It’s the only way to make people stay in the ward but also make it an attractive place to visit, he said.

Stamps admits she has a rather bold plan for the small business front: she wants a dry ward.

“When you look at healthy communities — healthy, thriving communities — they don’t have liquor stores on every corner,” Stamps said.

Although liquor stores bring in revenue, Stamps argued that some area shops are notorious for selling to minors and are open too late, helping fuel more crime and general mayhem.

Like Duncan, she vowed to hold a “plethora” of community meetings for anything she would want to change in the ward.

Areas that are not Downtown get noticeably and visibly less funding, Percy said, and he wants more money allocated for “poorer areas.” Though he had no specific plans in mind, he said investing in schools would be a good place to start.

Ald. Mitts said she specifically wants to work on redeveloping Chicago Avenue. She said her office is trying to come up with a plan on how to “entice businesses” to that area. (That’s something businessman Malcolm Crawford has been pushing the last few years.)

Mitts said her future goals for the ward include working on some of the same things potential candidates have mentioned: education, reducing crime, economic development. She also wants to bring senior citizen housing in to the ward.

Her four challengers all said they would not be puppets for the mayor if they win a four-year term to the Chicago City Council.

But unseating an incumbent is no easy task, said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former alderman.

“It takes getting name recognition, it takes money and it takes workers,” Simpson said. “You have to be able not only to have … the best platform or message, but you have to make sure the voters know that. And that can be challenging.”

To unseat Mitts, candidates will need to have at least 150 people working all 41 precincts during the campaigning process, Simpson said.

“You can’t just do it with you and two friends,” he said.

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