Four years ago, Ald. Deborah Graham avoided a runoff by winning the 29th Ward seat in a crowded field of eight candidates.
Today, Graham, 48, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. She won just 41 percent of the vote in the Feb. 24th election, forcing her into the April 7th runoff with police Sgt. Chris Taliaferro, 49.
But Taliaferro isn’t too concerned about falling behind in the funding race. He pointed out that he spent less than Graham leading up to February’s election and was still able to force a runoff.
“The vote is stronger than the dollar,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to get the support of the community.”
The race was neck in neck March 17, when a poll conducted by Ogden and Fry for Aldertrack showed each candidate each getting 30 percent of the vote, leaving 40 percent of those surveyed undecided just three weeks before election day.
That’s not good for the incumbent, said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Northside alderman.
“There wouldn’t be a runoff in each ward where there is one unless it was clear that there were people that were unsatisfied with the incumbent.”
Simpson co-authored an often-cited report that found Graham has voted 100 percent of the time with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also faces a runoff Tuesday.
Several of Taliaferro’s supporters say they back him because they want a change in how the 29th Ward is represented in the Chicago City Council. They say they need an alderman who’s more independent.
Galewood resident Gulia Huertas said she decided to support Taliaferro, a first-time candidate, after she had trouble getting the alderman’s help with a zoning issue involving her yoga and massage business.
Huertas said it took over a year – and a change in lawyers to one Graham was familiar with – before the alderman was finally willing to help.
“The thing about (Taliaferro) is his motto is he wants to build committees, and he isn’t caught up in the machine,” Huertas said.
Ald. Graham declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.
Others are remaining neutral in the race, saying they hope the focus remains more on the issues than the candidates.
“I support a message, and the message is economic development for the Austin community,” said Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association and co-owner with his wife of Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center.
“We have to become more sophisticated in our thinking and in our ability to care about a candidate versus to care about a message. And so we have to look at which candidate will address our needs, will address our message.”
Taliaferro said if elected next week, his plan on Day One is to put together committees to look at all the issues the ward faces.
“I immediately want to sit down and start assessing where we need to go as a community, but first determining exactly where we are as a community,” Taliaferro said. “I’d like to put together committees that will assist me in building a brighter future for the Austin community, the Galewood community, Montclare, Belmont Heights and Schorsch Village.”
A 21-year-veteran of the Chicago Police Department, Taliaferro has been working in an “operation impact zone,” which places probationary officers on patrols in high-crime areas like the 29th Ward.
He’s also worked as a supervisor in the 25th Police District, which includes parts of the north end of the ward.
That experience and leadership is one reason Taliaferro, who also served in the Marines, has the support of U.S. Congressman Danny Davis, an Austin resident.
“I think leadership and representation of the people is the No. 1 issue,” Davis said. “So you need somebody who can bring the community together. I think Chris Taliaferro is the kind of person who can do that.”
Taliaferro, a founding partner of the law firm Nexus Legal Group, said he will turn over day-to-day operations of the family law firm to his partners if elected and he’d also take a leave of absence from CPD until he’s eligible for retirement.
Taliaferro has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7, the Chicago Police Sergeants Association, the Chicago Tribune and former Ald. Isaac “Ike” Carothers, who represented the ward until pleading guilty to corruption charges and going to prison. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Graham – a protégé of Carothers’ – in 2010 to complete the rest of his term.
Graham has received endorsements from the Chicago Sun-Times, Secretary of State Jesse White and the Chicago Federation of Labor. She’s also received the support of Galewood attorney Larry Andolino, who challenged Graham in the February elections, finishing third.
Among her biggest financial backers: Mayor Emanuel’s Chicago Forward PAC, which has contributed more than $80,000, and state Sen. Don Harmon, who’s donated more than $60,000. Harmon, a colleague of Graham’s when she served in the Illinois House, declined to comment.
Graham’s campaign has also received nearly $20,000 from IMPAC, a political committee recently created by Ald. Jason Ervin, who represents the nearby 28th Ward. Donors to IMPAC include developers seeking to do business with the city, according to an an article published this week by DNAinfo.
Those who support Taliaferro say they’re impressed by his experience as a leader within CPD and say they view him as a welcome change to Graham’s leadership.
“It’s very important that we get change,” said Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church. “There is nothing I can say about Ald. Deborah Graham personally — she’s a Christian woman and a very nice lady — but I don’t think she has the necessary buoyancy that’s required to lead our ward through change.
“She doesn’t have a broad enough vision for our community, and we have so many issues that we’re facing over here that we need somebody who is up for the task.”
But community members who support Graham say she has a record of bringing improvements to the ward during her five-year tenure.
“The ball fields down at Columbus Park were totally unusable during the spring, and probably until mid-summer, because of the flooding problems,” said Dwayne Truss, a long-time community activist who’s supporting the alderman.
She “not only corrected the problem but built a new football field, soccer field and baseball diamond with lights, equal to the good stuff you see in the suburbs, and I’m thankful she brought that into the community,” he said.
Truss said he’s also been impressed with Graham’s economic plans for the ward, which include creating training centers that would focus on jobs that are in demand and require special skills.
“The reality is economic improvement in poor communities is really (based on) education, improving peoples’ skill set, improving their education, so they can go out and get the high-paying jobs,” Truss said.
Graham has faced sharp criticism over her role in lifting a moratorium on liquor stores when she allowed one to take up business in the 5300 block of West Madison Street in 2013. She also faced public backlash when she allowed another pawn shop to open along North Avenue in the Galewood community.
As recently as Tuesday night’s AustinTalks/Austin Weekly News debate, Graham has called the pawn shop debacle a “humbling experience” and defended the liquor store opening by insisting the grant money the business received had already been sought before she became alderman in 2010.
The two also appeared together on CLTV.