From classroom to campaign trail: 5 teachers eye city council seats
Susan Sadlowski Garza is the only counselor at Jane Addams Elementary, a school of about 850 students on the far South Side of Chicago.
But there, she says, she can only do so much. So she’s moving beyond the walls of her school.
“Hi! Good morning, how are you? My name is Sue Sadlowski Garza, I’m running for alderman,” Garza said to a potential voter, while door-knocking in the 10th Ward in early January.
Teachers are embedded in their communities and are often among the first people to see how policies made downtown play out on the ground.
“Ward by ward and everywhere we go, people have had it,” she said.
Garza is one of five teachers running this time for Chicago’s City Council, an unusually high number, propelled by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.
Lewis spent much of last fall building political momentum to see if she could challenge Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but then was sidelined by a cancerous brain tumor last October. Rank-and-file teachers had started to line up behind her, challenging aldermen loyal to the mayor. Those still running include: Ed Hershey (25th), Tim Meegan (33rd), Tara Stamps (37th), and Dianne Daleiden (40th).
As harp-tongued as ever, Lewis gave her first public address on Monday at a City Club of Chicago luncheon. Afterward, Garza and Stamps stood next to Lewis as she answered questions from reporters.
“This is not about one race or one year, one electoral cycle,” Lewis said. “It’s about building, changing the political landscape in Chicago because it’s not going to change if we don’t try.”
All of the teachers running have gotten endorsements and cash from the CTU -- anywhere from $5,000 to $32,000.
But those campaign contributions pale in comparison to those of incumbents, who are all close allies of Emanuel: John Pope (10th), Danny Solis (25th), Emma Mitts (37th), Deb Mell (33rd), and Pat O’Connor (40th).
The CTU also doesn’t have a deep-pocketed Super-PAC helping get their message out. Emanuel ally and former CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll is head of Chicago Forward, a Washington-style political action committee with millions to spend on ads, mailers, and other campaign efforts that support aldermen who side with the mayor.
Aldermen like Garza’s opponent, John Pope. City council records show Pope has voted with Emanuel 100 percent of the time since 2011.
But Pope scoffed at the thought that he is “a rubber stamp”.
“I’m not a rubber stamp for anyone but the 10th warders, my neighbors, my friends, my family members,” Pope told WBEZ.
He said he’s proud of his record bringing jobs to the ward, improving schools, and more recently working to control pet coke pollution.
Garza said he could still do more to involve local residents; that sentiment of 'more needs to be done' was echoed by the other CTU-backed candidates. They want wards to be run more from the bottom up.
“It should be residents driving decisions,” said Tim Meegan, a candidate for 33rd Ward alderman and a teacher at Roosevelt High School. “It shouldn’t be the alderman saying this is what you’re going to get.”
Meegan noted that idea—getting more people on the ground involved—is the same one CTU leadership came to power with in 2010.
“In 2010, when CORE took over the Chicago Teachers Union, we switched from a top-down, service-oriented union to a bottom-up, social justice like, grassroots movement.”
When Lewis, and a group called CORE, took over the union in 2010, they vowed to include the voices of rank-and-file teachers. They saw previous CTU leaders as too narrowly focused on wages and benefits, and not fighting back on the broader policies of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, like the expansion of charter schools.
Meegan is running for 33rd Ward alderman on the North Side against incumbent Deb Mell. She was appointed by Emanuel after her father, Dick Mell, stepped down. The older Mell was one of the longest serving aldermen in City Council history.
Deb Mell said she’s running the office differently than her dad did, including bringing the community into decision making.
“I think it’s great that people get involved in the political process,” she said of Meegan’s candidacy. “The voters now have a chance to comment on the job I’ve done in the last year and a half.”
Mell has raised more than $75,000 to Meegan's roughly $32,000. But, Mell pointed out, the largest single donation made in the 33rd race so far has been $15,000 given to Meegan by the CTU.
It’s a different story for Garza. Pope has raised almost triple what she holds in her campaign coffers.
Garza’s headquarters are in an old taco shop that closed a few years ago. The soda machine still sits next to the counter with a sign that reads: No Refills. Above a booth in the corner hangs a faded old campaign sign.
It’s not her's. It’s her dad’s.
Garza grew up just down the road, in the shadow of the old steel mills, where her dad, Ed Sadlowski, served as president of the local chapter of the United Steelworkers of America. The 10th Ward looked a lot different then.
“Everybody was working,” Garza said. “It was a very prosperous neighborhood. There was a restaurant and bar on every corner. And when the mills went away, things really started to change.”
Garza said her father's fight to keep the mills open wasn’t just about saving jobs. It was also about the health of the communities surrounding the mills.
It’s not all that different, Garza argues, from what the CTU is trying to do now.