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Winning a referendum is no silver bullet

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The idea behind a referendum is to give voters a direct voice in making their community better. These ballot questions can cover anything from stem-cell research to the fate of an empty lot. They may be binding or just advisory. Last month, referenda were on ballots in nine Chicago precincts. But it’s not clear the voters will get what they had in mind — even if they were on the winning side. We’ll hear now from WBEZ reporters in three parts of the city. We start with Chip Mitchell at our West Side bureau.

MITCHELL: Kurt Gippert lives near a building here in Humboldt Park that seemed like a magnet.

GIPPERT: Gang banging, loitering, drug sales, some prostitution, tons of urinating.

MITCHELL: It was a liquor store.

GIPPERT: In 2010, we had at least nine people shot in front of that store.

MITCHELL: Under city pressure, the store closed last fall. Gippert and his neighbors wanted it gone for good, so they turned to a 77-year-old Illinois law that lets voters ban selling alcohol in their precinct.

GIPPERT: It’s the only power we had — the only surefire, effective thing that was going to last longer than six months or a year.

MITCHELL: They petitioned to put the referendum on last month’s ballot. And voters passed it about 4-to-1. Starting next week, the precinct will be dry. There’s just one problem.

SOUND: Car alarm.

MITCHELL (on the scene): The place with the gang bangers in front wasn’t the precinct’s only store selling alcohol. I’m outside a CVS a few blocks west. The clerks inside tell me booze accounts for about half their sales. But there’s also a stream of customers who rely on this CVS for everything from prescription drugs to shampoo and milk. Without its liquor sales here, some of these folks worry CVS might close this store.

CUSTOMER 1: Some of my family members get their prescriptions filled here. And it’s really convenient that they can walk here instead of worrying about getting a ride or catching the bus.

MITCHELL (on the scene): Do they have cars?


CUSTOMER 2: I got three kids, so we need milk. If you get something for them from the corner store, it’ll probably be old.

CUSTOMER 3: Everybody around here, I guess, is poor. So they need to get to a place that most of them can walk to. Bus fare is high. Cab fare is high. So, yeah, it would hurt them.

MITCHELL: CVS isn’t answering whether it’ll keep the store open once it quits selling alcohol. Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) supported the referendum. But he admits there’s collateral damage.

MALDONADO: We don’t have a lot of retail in the area. And we have never heard complaints about CVS. However, if they depend on liquor to remain viable, then they should not be open.

MITCHELL: I ask Maldonado about other precincts in his ward.

MITCHELL (on the scene): Businesses that are selling alcohol and doing so responsibly, without a lot of problems out in front, do they have anything to worry about?

MALDONADO: No, they don’t have to worry as long as they are conscious about their own responsibility [to be] a good business neighbor.

MITCHELL: And as long as residents don’t vote the precinct dry. Reporting from Chicago’s West Side, I’m Chip Mitchell.

MOORE: And I’m Natalie Moore at our Side South bureau. The situation was different in a 3rd Ward precinct along East 47th Street. Voters didn’t take aim at all liquor. They had specific targets: Night Train, Wild Irish Rose, Thunderbird — cheap, fortified wines that some residents say attracted low-end elements to the neighborhood. The referendum was nonbinding, nothing more than an opinion poll. Still, the majority voted to ban fortified wines at two stores. No more malt liquor either. But one of the stores took 22-ounce malt liquor off the shelves in July.

MICHELIS: Took a hit on sales, between $20,000-$25,000 a month, but I gained it from the wines I put in the store.

MOORE: Steve Michelis owns a store called 200 Cut Rate Liquors. Michelis says voters got what they wanted. He says the loitering and begging in front of his place stopped last year. Still, he didn’t mind last month’s referendum.

MICHELIS: I don’t care. I don’t have anything to hide.

MOORE: Maybe another reason Michelis didn’t mind so much was because he was already getting other pressure — from Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

DOWELL: You have people who stand outside, they drink it, they throw the can down, they beg for money or they go back in and get some money from somewhere and go back and buy another can.

MOORE: Residents targeted Aristo Food and Liquor on the ballot, too. While residents gathered signatures for the nonbinding referendum, Dowell had her own approach. She’s been working on getting the owners to sign agreements to stop selling the cheap liquor. She’ll then attach them to their liquor licenses with the city. That would make them binding. The owner of Aristo says he plans to comply with Dowell. But the alderman says she’s still waiting to hear back from him. Reporting from the city’s South Side, I’m Natalie Moore.

YOUSEF: And I’m Odette Yousef. Here on the North Side, one alderman and some voters are not on the same page. And, the issue isn’t liquor. It’s land use.

GLAZIER: There’s going to be three large driveways next to each other.

YOUSEF: This is Josh Glazier.

GLAZIER: Two for trucks coming in and out of the project, and one for several hundred cars that are going to remain inside the building.

YOUSEF: Glazier lives behind this unused hospital garage in Lincoln Park. He’s not happy about a developer’s plan to turn it into a grocery store.

GLAZIER: The community really objects to the grocer and the trucks.

YOUSEF: Glazier says Ald. Vi Daley (43rd) has heard him out. He and others recall her saying she’d stay neutral until the community reached a consensus on the project. But in spite of overwhelming opposition at public meetings. . .

GLAZIER: We’ve been hearing for quite some time that the alderman had this secret list, with the names of all the project’s supporters and opponents. And increasingly she’s been telling us the count was very close. And we didn’t feel like a secret list should be the basis for any decision on the project.

YOUSEF: So Glazier and fellow opponents gathered signatures to put the issue on their precinct’s February ballot.

YOUSEF (on the scene): So you knew going into this that this would not be a binding result?

GLAZIER: Of course it was not going to be a binding result, but it was going to create some transparency.

YOUSEF: And that’s what Glazier says he got. Most voters opposed the project at the polls. So he was stunned to hear Ald. Daley’s official position just days later. In a statement, she wrote, “I will not delay this project any longer and I will vote to approve this project at City Council.” Daley said only a narrow majority of voters opposed the development. She said she heard from many ward residents who do want it. They live outside the precinct that voted on it. I asked Prof. Christopher Berry of the University of Chicago if that was a legitimate reason to discount the referendum results:

BERRY: Well, it’s a legitimate tack to take, but the only way we would really know the answer is to have some sort of scientific public opinion poll that was done, that included everyone in the affected geography.

YOUSEF: Berry says referenda are anything but scientific. They’re often put together by self-selected groups on one side of an issue. And, usually, only a small fraction of voters come out to decide it. Berry says with referenda, the real story often isn’t about how the vote came down. It’s that an issue came down to a vote at all.

BERRY: When you see a referendum, which means citizens have to be directly making this policy, it suggests some sort of failure or breakdown in the process between the citizens and their representatives.

YOUSEF: Berry says those breakdowns are rare because politicians usually want to get reelected. But, in Lincoln Park, that’s not the case. Ald. Daley retires in May. On Chicago’s North Side, I’m Odette Yousef, WBEZ.

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