Despite Federal Heat, Loyal Supporters, Donors Defend Chicago Ald. Austin
It’s been a rough couple of months for the second longest serving alderman on Chicago’s City Council.
But a recent FBI raid and an ongoing federal criminal probe didn’t stop South Side Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, from holding her fall fundraiser at a banquet hall in the south suburbs Friday night. Nor did it scare away many of her donors or supporters.
Austin arrived early to the Martinique Banquet Complex in Burbank, getting dropped off in a black SUV driven by her chief of staff, Chester Wilson, Jr. Federal records obtained by WBEZ show investigators issued a subpoena seeking documents related to both Austin and Wilson, along with Austin family members. Neither have been charged with wrongdoing.
Despite the legal cloud, attendees who spoke to WBEZ at Friday’s event praised the alderman and defended her reputation.
Others made it known that WBEZ’s reporter was not welcome to the private fundraiser.
“We don’t have anything bad to say about her, so report your little ass off,” supporter Yolanda Brown told a WBEZ reporter stationed outside the banquet hall parking lot, before walking into the event.
Meanwhile, Wilson threatened to have the reporter escorted off the event site while the event’s photographer snapped a series of pictures of the reporter, asking how it felt to have a camera pointed in one’s face.
The hostility followed publication of a WBEZ investigation this week into one of the properties connected to the federal probe. It revealed the building had been at the center of a questionable real estate deal involving Wilson. The story prompted the county agency involved in that deal to announce just hours before Austin’s Friday fundraiser that it’s now investigating the transaction.
Austin once held the second most powerful leadership post in the City Council, and she had been one of the most influential African American aldermen for more than two decades. But mayor Lori Lightfoot stripped Austin of her committee chairmanship this spring, and federal agents raided her South Side ward office in June.
Still, loyalty to the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Organization runs deep for some like Carl Byrd, who identified himself as a city employee. He’s a deputy commissioner with the Department of Buildings, according to city records. He got his first city job in 1988.
Byrd says he’s known the Austin family since the alderman’s late husband held the City Council seat. Carrie Austin was appointed to the seat by former Mayor Richard M. Daley after her husband, Lemuel, died of a heart attack in 1994.
“This is all just temporary noise and fury signifying nothing,” Byrd said of recent events involving the federal investigation. “She’s a woman of faith. God’s got her.”
Alderman David Moore, 17th Ward, described Austin as a mentor and even called her “the mom.” His ties with Austin date back to well before he was elected to the City Council in 2015. He says he’s worked on campaigns with her going back to the 1990s.
“She was just being Carrie, being a person that just cares about young people, she has a giving heart, you know, she’s the mom,” Moore said.
Before Friday's event, Austin's political funds had raised little money since the summer raid, according to state campaign finance disclosure reports.
The beneficiary of the money raised, her Democratic ward organization, had received just $3,500 from two donors since the federal investigation burst into public view in June, records show. Two other Austin-controlled political funds have taken in only $1,000 in the past three months, and that money was from the alderman herself.
A federal subpoena obtained by WBEZ shows investigators asked state election officials to provide all documents on Austin's political committees.