You could learn a lot about our leading mayoral candidates at their neighborhood appearances last weekend.

On Friday, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia picked up the endorsement of a new activist group in Bronzeville. It’s the kind of grassroots support he’ll need in the black community in order to reach across the black-brown divide and build an effective multiracial coalition.

People United for Action is a different kind of political action committee, focused not on raising and distributing money but on “sweat equity,” said steering committee member Rod Wilson, a longtime community organizer. PUA plans voter-registration drives, report cards for elected officials, candidate forums and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The group grew out of Jay Travis’ recent challenge to state Rep. Christian Mitchell (26th District), which came close to ousting the incumbent despite being heavily outspent.  Its members have two recent partial victories under their belts: the reversal of CPS’ decision to close Dyett High School — though the new plan is to run Dyett as a contract school rather than a neighborhood school — and the announcement by the University of Chicago that it will raise the age of children treated in its trauma center from 15 to 17.

People United for Action also announced its endorsement of Norman Bolden, who is challenging 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns, one of Mayor Emanuel’s closest African-American allies.  “We will no longer allow politicians to claim to be progressives and then vote against our interests,” Travis said.

“People all over the city have decided that 2015 is the year that we take Chicago back, that Chicago is our city and that our neighborhoods matter,” Garcia told the group, gathered in a church hall.  He proposed “real community policing” to put law enforcement “on a foundation of trust and respect, with neighborhood residents taking the lead,” and called for investments “to make neighborhood schools centers of our communities,” with after-school and adult programming.

Garcia promised neighborhood-centered economic-development policies “in a new Chicago” that “will not be only for the 1 percent; it will be for the 100 percent.”

I asked one PUA member about Garcia’s prospects for attracting broad African-American support.  “If he goes community by community and church by church, if he walks the streets, it could be a grassroots thing,” said Dianne Baskin.  “People are disgusted.”

A day later, Alderman Bob Fioretti (2nd Ward) was in South Chicago — not too far from the neighborhood where he grew up, Roseland — to support the Alliance of the South East and the Coalition for a Lakeside CBA, pushing for a community benefits agreement from the developers of the vast tract that once held U.S. Steel’s South Works.

“Look at all the people on the other side of the street” from the development site, he said.  “Look at all the foreclosed homes, all the people that don’t have jobs, all the people that need economic opportunity.”  He pointed to his record requiring local hiring from all city-backed development in his ward. And he said Chicagoans deserve a mayor who will advocate on their behalf against powerful interests.

Dozens of teenage Southeast Side residents led a walk from Lakeside Development’s marketing center to Sullivan Elementary School, and four of them spoke later about their life dreams and the hope that they can be trained for good jobs in the new development, all of them addressing their remarks to developer Dan McCaffrey.  “If Mr. McCaffrey believes black and Latino lives matter, he should partner with us to provide summer jobs and internships,” said Azaniah Shelton, a junior at Hyde Park Career Academy.

So far McCaffrey has refused to meet with the coalition, said organizer Amelia NietoGomez. She said efforts to arrange a meeting with the mayor’s office have yet to bear fruit.

Most notable at Saturday’s event — especially considering sharply contested elections coming up in their wards — was the absence of the area’s two aldermen, Natashia Holmes (7th) and John Pope (10th).  Holmes has spoken supportively of the coalition’s effort; Pope has ignored it.  Both are working with McCaffrey to create a developer-controlled community advisory committee.

Their challengers were out in force: from the 7th Ward, Keiana Barrett, Sidney Brooks, Lashonda Curry, Flora Digby (a founding member of the coalition), Stephanie Roddy and Queen Whittier; and from the 10th, Olga Bautista, Sue Garza and Rich Martinez.

NietoGomez said the coalition is planning a candidates forum for January.

On Sunday, Mayor Emanuel went to Little Village — coincidentally or not, Chuy Garcia’s home base — to open a park and accept Gery Chico’s endorsement.  His reception was mixed, with a dozen protestors at each event; their chants of “Fire Rahm” could be heard throughout the news conference with Chico, and one of them got inside and challenged Emanuel as he spoke of his dedication to immigrant rights.

Emanuel has been a protest magnet throughout his administration, beginning with his closing of six mental health clinics.  Add the NATO summit, the teachers strike, the school closings and various other mayoral actions, and it’s undeniable that he has done much to energize the labor-community movement that demands new priorities for the city.

Under Emanuel, “we get school closings, we get speed cameras all over the place, our residents are being nickled and dimed to death, we’re forced to pay higher property taxes,” said protest organizer Rebecca Martinez.  “And yet the poverty rate has gone up under this administration.  Downtown continues to progress and our neighborhoods continue to go down.”

She pointed out that Emanuel spent six times as much money on the 25-acre Maggie Daley Park as on the 22-acre Little Village Park — “that’s because it’s for tourists, not for residents.”  (Indeed, Maggie Daley Park is just one of four major downtown park projects under Emanuel.) The mayor appeared for a “soft opening” of Maggie Daley Park on Dec. 13, though most of the park is still under construction.

Emanuel’s current campaign strategy features a slew of TV commercials with minority surrogates praising him, while he attends a constant round of park and playground ribbon cuttings.

The Park District has completed more than a hundred playground renovations this year. This remarkable feat has been accomplished by shifting tens of millions of dollars from renovation of field houses — facilities that provide programming for children and teens — to fixing up playgrounds, which provide ribbon-cutting photo ops for politicians.  And Emanuel is a regular at those events.

Another factor in financing the playground boom was a decision to use wood chips rather than soft rubber surfaces.  Residents who want the safer ground cover can raise the money for it themselves.

Not at Maggie Daley Park, however.  The $60 million price tag includes “a bright, soft surface on the playground.”


Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.