Three times a week, Otis Percy Jr. starts his day getting blood pumped out of his chest through a thin tube into a large machine. It filters out the waste before returning the filtered fluid back into his body.
The process — haemodialysis — is necessary for people suffering from kidney failure, a disease that is three times more likely to affect black people than whites. While the process is not painful, it is lengthy taking up to four hours for each treatment.
“Yesterday I went out and I worked the neighborhood and I got sick; sometimes that happens. I had to sit down and I passed out … It ain’t like I collapse I just rest and my body tells me it’s time to sleep,” said Percy.
It takes a lot out of you and so does running for alderman, especially when your chances appear miniscule. Percy won’t be on the ballot. He won’t be receiving any endorsements. Still he walks the 37th Ward asking his neighbors to write him in on Feb. 26.
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Despite this, he’s not counting himself out of the race he considers “bigger than me.” His pace may be slower, but he’s made his way to doorstep of three-fourths of his ward by foot, he said.
“It depends on the people. I don’t take any funds from no one. I’m self-funded. I eliminated the politics out my campaign. I don’t want no debt I have to pay back. The only debt I want is to the people so any money I get is from them,” Percy said. “It’s long, it’s tedious and it’s cold, but I mapped out a pretty good route.”
While the path from ward to City Council is littered with quality-of-life cliches like potholes and streetlights, the 37th Ward race will have very real consequences. Namely, the controversial $85 million police and fire academy slated for the ward, which the incumbent is a proponent of and all other candidates are against.
Labeling opponents of the training facility outsiders and “professionally paid anti-activists” with “dubious agendas,” Ald. Emma Mitts, who has run the 37th Ward — includes parts of Austin, West Garfield Park and West Humboldt Park — for nearly two decades, argued the majority of her ward is in favor of it.
“It’s hardly a secret that there exists a series of complex and long-standing issues and problems between communities of color and the police in Chicago, including deeply ingrained and evidence-based perceptions of inequality, and a lack of trust between residents, young people, parents, communities, local advocates, partnership organizations and CPD. However, I firmly believe this situation is one that we can — must address and correct,” she said in a statement. “By establishing this new training facility, we are also seeking to let everyone know the Black community is actively aware, watching and will not tolerate continued implied or actual police misconduct.”
While #NoCopAcademy may grab headlines and inspire more hashtags, Mitts’ voting record on the minute things may be what puts her seat in jeopardy, especially if the race comes down to younger voters.
Mitts has been considered a rubber stamp for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voting with him 100 percent of the time since April 2017. She argues her overall goal has always been connecting her community to more opportunities.
“Sometimes that requires a strategically pragmatic negotiating approach when dealing with the Mayor’s office, but I always maintain my core values of quality public service and personal integrity. In many instances, I have been more willing to take the hard steps needed to deal with city’s financial, public safety and other problems, even if it differs from conventional wisdom. The bottom line is I’m no one’s rubber stamp,” she said in an emailed response.
While Percy takes pride in receiving no funding from groups, Mitts has a stockpile of campaign donations totaling more than $400,000. Repeat challenger Tara Stamps has received $10,000 from the Chicago Teachers Union and another $5,000 from United Working Families.
As a Chicago Public School teacher, CTU’s support was only natural after standing with her fellow teachers during some of Chicago’s biggest political moments in the last decade including the Chicago teachers strike in 2012 and the mass closings of schools in 2013, Stamps said.
She also lists the fights that didn’t occur at City Hall: the $5 million dollar settlement for Laquan McDonald and handing over a chunk of the industrial corridor for the cop academy.
”We need a fighter we need someone not indebted to the system,” said Stamps. “Our people need an advocate. Many people have been failed by their elected representative. They’re pigeonholed. [Politicians] are doing the bidding of the people they’re beholden to.”
Mitts’ biggest donations come from politicians, a lobbyists, businesses in her ward, charter school associates and People’s Gas.
Political donors include Mayor Rahm Emanuel and incoming Governor JB Pritzker, who has donated to many of the Black aldermanic incumbents. In total, she received more than $67,000 from the two politicians and the governor’s exploratory committee.
She also received $8,500 from controversial lobbyist Michael Alvarez, who was charged in early 2018 with violation of Cook County Lobbyist Registration Ordinance for failing to log emails lobbying for IlliniCare. He was charged $1,750 for the seven infractions, but not barred from lobbying. In 2013, Emanuel returned a donation from Alvarez after the Chicago Tribune questioned if it was a violation of an executive order banning lobbyist from donating to the mayor. At the time, Alvarez was an elected member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, and Emanuel argued it was a political donation, but ultimately returned the donation.
Mitts may be the incumbent, but Stamps has proven herself a fan favorite by grabbing ovations at a local aldermanic forum with her anti-charter school and anti-cop academy stances. Stamps landed an endorsement from the Chicago Sun-Times. Rutues was endorsed by the Chicago Tribune.
In the 2015 runoff, Mitts was able to pull out the win by a mere 600 votes.
“This race unlike the previous one is grassroots. In a lot of ways I’m even more engaged than the last time. The people are tired. Tired of the status quo. Tired of business as usual,” said Stamps.
Appearing last on the ballot is business-minded Deondre Rutues, who secured the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune, positioning himself as an outsider not compromised by political donations while pushing respectability politics and a focus on small businesses.
His platform boils down to more juice and salad bars, more art galleries, and less fast food.
“Our community needs small development. Period,” he said, comparing Austin to Wicker Park, “where every single corner is filled with small businesses. That’s how you stimulate an economy inside a community.”
While his comments on parents “send(ing) kids to get parenting,” drew the ire of parents at a forum at Jensen Academy, his economic ideas, which include luring hemp manufacturers to the empty warehouses in Austin, helped grab the Tribune’s endorsement.
The morning after exhaustion hit, Percy was back on the campaign trail at McDonald’s struggling to put what the ward actually needs into words.
“Resources. Proper funding for education. Proper funding for most …” he said. “Most people you see walking around in this community, most of them are feeling a lack of opportunity and are trapped in this particular lifestyle.”
Before the kidney and pancreas transplant, Percy, a diabetic, was an athlete: a boxer and a wrestler. It exposed him to places outside of Chicago, where the grass appeared greener and residents were able to take opportunities for granted.
While Black people only represent about 13 percent of the population, they make up more than 35 percent of dialysis patients. Diabetes and high blood pressure is the leading cause of kidney failure for Black people.
“They’re building up dialysis centers like they’re McDonald’s. We’re in a food desert. We’re in a business desert. We’re just in a desert and what’s needed in a desert is an oasis. We need more healthy foods,” he said. “We have to go outside this neighborhood to eat certain foods.”
Following his first transplants, he had an “epiphany” that he had a debt that he had to pay back, but he moved too slowly.
“I sat on my hands too long and I lost my kidney after three years but it helped me to understand you don’t have time to wait, too much time to just overthink things. You got to go for it right now like it’s your last day and that’s how I live right now,” he said.