Last summer, Tara Stamps got a letter from a clerk who worked at Franklin Fine Arts Center when Stamps was a 7th grader there years ago.
June Davis’ handwritten note reminisced about a strike Stamps had organized in Franklin’s cafeteria when she was 11 or 12.
“She recalled I had a strike because the lunches sucked, which they did,” said Stamps, now a 46-year-old CPS teacher who teaches 5th grade.
School staff shut down the pre-teen protest after a couple days, but it ended with better, warmer food, according to Stamps.
“(Davis) was tickled that at such a young age, I had the fire and defiance,” Stamps said.
Davis used the anecdote to explain why Stamps should run for 37th Ward alderman. Stamps, who had been contemplating a run, called the woman’s note the “vote of confidence” she needed.
It’s confidence that has sustained Stamps through the Feb. 24th election and now to the April 7th runoff, the first Ald. Emma Mitts has faced in her 15 years on the Chicago City Council.
Mitts received at least 58 percent of the vote in her past three elections. But this time, 49 percent of voters chose her – just shy of the 50.1 percent needed to win outright.
Stamps, who garnered 32 percent of the vote in February, has raised more than $221,000 since her campaign officially launched last summer, state election records show. Nearly $57,000 of that is from the Chicago Teachers Union, while another $72,000 has come from the healthcare branch of the Service Employees International Union.
This support has caused some to question whether Stamps would be a union puppet; in turn, she has criticized Mitts for being a rubber stamp for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The alderman voted 97 percent of the time with the mayor from 2011 to 2014, according to a study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Stamps moved to the area four years ago after leaving an area slightly west of Logan Square. She gets heat about that from the alderman — who likes to point out that she’s lived in the ward for decades — and Mitts’ campaign also has made an issue of a welfare lawsuit filed years ago against Stamps.
Stamps vows that if elected, she will focus on spurring economic development, holding civic engagement classes, bringing more resources to neighborhood schools – but mostly, being a voice for the residents and no one else.
On a recent Saturday, Stamps’ volunteers were sticking “April 7” stickers on mailers reminding people to vote for “an independent voice for working families.”
Stamps, clad in a pant-suit, had just returned from a 200-person protest at the Food 4 Less near North and Cicero. The rally had spilled from the parking lot into the store’s aisles, prompting a half-dozen police SUVs to zip in to clear the crowd.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Stamps said that afternoon.
She didn’t go inside the store but said there was nothing wrong with making a little noise in the name of equality.
She argued that the promise of a $13 minimum wage by 2019 — passed by City Council in December 2014 — was mostly a political move by the mayor, who is now facing his own runoff against Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Activism runs in Stamps’ family: she’s the daughter of the late Cabrini-Green activist Marion Stamps, known for her public housing advocacy. She died in 1996, a year after unsuccessfully running for alderman in the 27th Ward.
Activism is what Stamps said pushed her to begin campaigning last summer. Fellow community organizers encouraged her to run after she rallied against the closure of 50 CPS schools in 2013.
Stamps grew up in the Cabrini-Green homes with four sisters, attending several CPS schools before she was accepted to Central State University in Ohio in the late 1980s. There, she received a communications degree with a concentration in radio and television.
Things got hard after she gave birth to her oldest daughter, just as she was graduating from Central State.
After moving home and being in and out of work for a few years, Stamps said her mother suggested she take up teaching, through which she could connect with children who grew up like her. Stamps took the advice and enrolled in a teaching program in 1996 at Concordia University in River Forest.
On her first day teaching at Leslie Lewis Elementary, her mother – who Stamps calls her hero – died of heart disease.
“Those kids saved my life,” Stamps said of her students. “They required so much that I couldn’t grieve.”
Charlie J. Jones was in that first class and remembers Stamps as a teacher who celebrated only when the entire class did well. At first he liked her “because she was pretty,” but he grew to find she truly cared about each student, he said.
Jones recalled how his class took the IOWA standardized exam, and all but two or three students got passing scores.
“And she literally broke out into tears and cried,” said Jones, who is now 30. “She didn’t cry because two or three students failed . . . but because the classroom was boasting while our classmates failed.”
Jones said his parents raised him well, but it is Stamps who instilled leadership in him.
In 1999, while at Leslie Lewis, a lawsuit was filed in Cook County Circuit Court against Stamps alleging she had committed welfare fraud by failing to report she’d gotten a job with Chicago Public Schools, according to court records and the Chicago Sun-Times.
The suit, which also names the Chicago Board of Education as a defendant, came to light after Mitts’ campaign highlighted it in one of its mailers sent to voters before the Feb. 24 election.
Records show Stamps agreed to pay off the $2,000 debt in $50 payments.
“I was in and out of work, on and off public assistance,” Stamps said in an interview last week.
She said she did not purposely misreport her employment and paid back the “inadvertent overpayment.”
Stamps, now a divorcee, had two sons while at Leslie Lewis and eventually left in 2003. A year later, she found herself right by her childhood home — at Jenner Academy of the Arts near the former Cabrini-Green homes. She’s taught there since.
Jenner Principal Robert Croston said he has missed Stamps after she took leave from the school to devote time to the campaign.
He called her a “constant advocate” for students and said he especially admired a recent interdisciplinary arts project she created to teach students about the Mexican holiday, Dia De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
“I know if her experience here has demonstrated anything, the Austin community will be blessed to have her as an advocate,” Croston said.
Stamps’ teaching background likely landed her the CTU endorsement; it’s backing that one of her supporters says may make it hard for her to remain independent.
“It does concern me a little bit,” said Leroy Duncan, one of the candidates who lost to Stamps and Mitts in the February election. “The teachers union may put their hands in something and do whatever they want.”
But if the union’s goals are in line with empowering the community, Duncan said there’s no problem as far as he’s concerned.
When asked about this at a recent debate, Stamps argued it’s an independent voice that created unions.
“My vision happens to be the same as the union,” she added.
Duncan is throwing his support behind Stamps because he said their visions are “pretty much the same.” He believes she will keep her door opened as promised, and he pledges to hold her accountable if she wins Tuesday.
He likes that Stamps wants to bring “desirable storefronts” to North, Chicago and Division rather than more liquor stores and pawn shops.
Stamps does not want to see more liquor stores in the community, telling AustinTalks in November that she’d push for what she expected to be a ban on liquor sales in the entire ward.
When asked recently if she still stands by that, Stamps said she’d do what the residents wanted but wasn’t afraid to be stern with liquor store owners.
“What I will do as alderman is crack down on them and crack down on the element that makes elders and women feel unsafe,” Stamps said. “I will crack down on them to keep this community clean.”
Stamps, who is supporting Garcia for mayor, has said she wants to offer classes to teach residents about civics, like how a TIF (tax increment financing) district works. She doesn’t think there’s enough engagement in the community, saying too many residents don’t seem to know how their tax dollars are allocated.
It’s important to investigate how TIF dollars are being spent, Stamps said – one of the first things she would do if elected.
Schools are also high on Stamps’ to-do list. She said children need more wrap-around services, so they have what they need during and after school. Stamps also wants to add more technology-based classes and programs.
In an area that’s seen its share of violent crime, Stamps wants a reinvestment in community policing.
Duncan, a former CAPS beat facilitator, had a one-on-one with Stamps after losing the February election to discuss how to use his connections to the police department to increase engagement with officers.
That idea of community engagement is what Stamps has been driving home for months. She doesn’t think there’s enough of it and thinks the ward needs fresh leadership.
Though she’s lived in the area only a few years, Stamps said it doesn’t take a life-long resident to know people feel ignored.
“(The voters) know they have a clear choice to make.”
Next: AustinTalks will feature Ald. Emma Mitts.