What’s in a name? Legacy aldermanic candidates defend 'The Chicago Way'
A few weeks ago, WGN news anchor Dan Ponce stood in front of a packed crowd in the echoey auditorium of Bateman Elementary School on Chicago’s northwest side. He was there to moderate the 33rd ward aldermanic debate, a ward that he himself lives in.
“Machine politics and the Chicago way, legendary in this city,” Ponce says to the three candidates. “How will your office work to break from this influence?”
By the end of this question, the audience, and one of the candidates Tim Meegan, burst into laughter, and likely for a few reasons. The first is the great irony of a member of the Ponce family answering this question: Phil Ponce is a longtime journalist on WTTW, and his two sons Dan and Anthony have both gone on to successful television careers themselves. The audience is also laughing because right next to Ponce and Meegan is incumbent alderman Deb Mell.
Mell was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year to take over for her dad, former Ald. Richard Mell. He’s a powerful guy on the Northwest Side (and that could be putting it lightly) -- he was alderman for 38 years before his daughter took over.
Tim Meegan gave the first answer to Ponce’s question:
“It needs to end. It needs to stop. Nepotism and political dynasties in this town are the problem with why we’re all so unsatisfied,” Meegan said to loud applause from the audience.
And the fear of “nepotism” that Meegan mentioned is at the core of why Chicagoans often shudder at the thought of political jobs staying in the family. The idea that power could be based on who you know, rather than what you know.
Turns out, this election cycle, there are eight candidates who are facing that criticism; Eight people, including incumbents and new candidates, who are running for alderman this year, but who are either related to or were married to a former alderman or mayor.
For incumbents, the list includes 34th ward and budget chairman alderman Carrie Austin. She took over for her husband when he died in 1994. Alderman Harry Osterman in the 48th ward followed in his mother’s footsteps, while 39th ward Ald. Margaret Laurino and 14th ward Ald. Ed Burke followed their fathers. Roderick Sawyer, alderman in the 6th ward, is the son of the late Mayor Eugene Sawyer.
And this is the year that 38th ward Alderman Tim Cullerton retires -- making it the first time since the Great Chicago Fire that a Cullerton isn’t working in City Hall.
But when you take a look at some of these newer candidates, how they’re trying to combat that “Chicago Way criticism” varies completely.
When it became Deb Mell’s turn to answer Ponce’s question, she first expressed her love for her dad. But then, she brings up a recent Walgreens project as an example of how different the two are. She says her father didn’t talk to any of the neighborhood groups about the project. Instead, he just went right ahead with it.
“I don’t think that way,” Mell said. “I think our ward is too important to just throw stuff in there. And so I stopped the project, and that made for a very interesting Christmas, to be quite honest.”
Meanwhile in the 16th ward, on Chicago’s south side, the candidate-family dynamic couldn’t be clearer. Shirley Coleman was alderman of that ward for more than half of her daughter Stephanie’s life. Now 27, Stephanie is running for the seat herself, and has pictures of her and her mother prominently displayed on everything from campaign mailers to social media.
Even her campaign slogan is a blatant reminder of where she comes from.
“Built on proven leadership is a model and theme in this campaign, that look, what I may lack in age I gain in experience, I have someone who has mentored me who has 16 years of experience,” Coleman said.
And almost to belabor the point - her mom happened to show up during our interview.
“We’re just proud that this is the route that she chose, not I,” Shirley Coleman said, laughing and smiling toward her daughter.
But what if you’re running to represent a neighborhood that’s steeped in family political history? What if the doors you’re knocking on are in the ward that many consider the epicenter of nepotism and machine politics?
Those are the questions Patrick Daley Thompson faces as he drives his Jeep Cherokee through his community, the 11th ward.
“I’m very proud of my family, I’m not running from my family, nor am I running on my family name. I’m running. The fact is, my name is Patrick Daley Thompson,” he said.
That means his Uncle Rich is Mayor Richard M. Daley. Thompson even lives at 35th and Lowe in the house his grandfather built. His grandfather, of course, is Mayor Richard J Daley. And Thompson knows well - that Daley name is something voters won’t ignore - his opponents certainly haven’t.
“In this race in particular, yeah I’ve heard by the other people about the old machine politics, and first of all I have no idea, that’s like the 1920s they’re talking about,” Daley said. “Our campaign is organized with people who have never been involved with political campaigns, ever.”
One of his aldermanic opponents, Maureen Sullivan, a community activist and longtime Bridgeport resident, says another Daley in office means a return to the old “machine style” of politics.
“He’s just a different face, it’s the same mechanism that’s going to be operating this area, and they have an old school way of looking at things and we need someone who can look forward not backwards,” she said.
But as Thompson drives around the neighborhood he’s called home his whole life, his last name isn’t what he wants to discuss. He’d rather go through his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the ward: He knows every alley, every park, every development and he promptly points out every viaduct that needs repairing -- even suggesting potential partners to help him clean them up.
Thompson will say he wanted to run for office, not be appointed, and he says that he wasn’t forced to do any of this. And besides, he adds: lots of families are this way.
“For example at my law firm - there’s a lot of people whose parents were lawyers. And their kids are lawyers. Because they’ve seen what their parents do,” he said. “In the media, there are a lot of fathers and daughters. You know, [like] Phil Ponce?”
But lawyers or reporters - even the Ponces - aren’t the ones responsible for delivering city services - or fixing the city’s finances. And so experts say even if these candidates pass the first test of getting elected, the tough scrutiny or jabs about the Chicago way should not disappear overnight.
Former Alderman and now University of Illinois at Chicago political professor Dick Simpson says if these alderman deliver city services equally, and if they vote in the interests of their ward, rather than the mayor, and if they appoint people outside of their family circle, only then can voters overlook that their last -- or middle -- names have been seen many times before.
Lauren Chooljian is WBEZ’s city politics reporter. Follow her @laurenchooljian.