The Contenders in Chicago's 32nd and 43rd Wards

Do you know what’s happening on February 27, 2007?

If you live in Chicago, you oughtta.

It’s election time for our aldermen, an election curiously staggered so as to be held separately from state, national, and even local judicial elections.

While I personally believe that this is done to reduce voter turnout and protect the incumbents, it is still a decent time to be a Chicago progressive — and I am cautiously optimistic. As local pundits have noted, no longer do we have to resign ourselves to a club of compliant aldermen in City Hall. In 2006 a host of unruly upstarts is rising up to challenge the status quo and demand change, and while I have chosen to focus on only a few, there are many more. Maybe — just maybe — I will see City Hall function as an independent body some time in my lifetime. Former independent Alderman Dick Simpson has even gone so far as to say that, “This is the best group of aldermanic challengers to run in the past 20 years.”

I’d like to note that neither of the incumbents I discuss here have any plans to debate these challengers, although at least challenger Peter Zelchenko is pushing for it. This is yet another way we Chicagoans have been failed by the current system, and serves as a glaring reminder that it is time for change.

In the 32nd Ward we have Scott Waguespack running against longtime Alderman Ted Matlak. This race interests me both because I live near the area (and its overdevelopment is encroaching on my living space) and also because I lived in the ward from 1997 to 2002 and personally experienced the mediocrity of Mr. Matlak’s service as caretaker of the neighborhood.

Whatever the problem — whether it was gridlock, streets being torn up shortly after being resurfaced, noisy building construction starting too early on the weekend, a Damen Avenue bus that exists largely in theory only, homeless people starting fires for warmth on construction sites, condos being built far in excess of allowable height — you could count on a non-response from Mr. Matlak’s office, which told me and various neighbors numerous times “Well, whaddya expect us to do about it?”

Scott Waguespack knows what needs to be done about it. It’s called listening to your constituency and putting the greater good of all above the good of a few.

I had the pleasure of working the Hamlin Park precinct (collecting signatures to get Waguespack on the ballot and distributing literature) on the November 4, 2006, election day. I was teamed with an old friend of his, Charles Moynihan, who spent years working in the Peace Corps with Waguespack, and I can tell you that this is one unusually well-qualified candidate.

In addition to his irreproachable character, Waguespack also helped take down one of the oldest, most corrupt political machines in the area when he managed the campaign that catapulted Michael O’Connor into the mayor’s office in Berwyn in 2005. After serving under that mayor for a year, he decided a similar change was needed in Chicago’s 32nd Ward (which encompasses parts of Bucktown, Wicker Park, Lake View, and Roscoe Village).

As Waguespack says, “The biggest things that I hear about from people are rising property taxes — which have affected a lot of different issues — and services in the ward. Services in the ward are affected by all the clout and all the hired-truck scandals and all the corruption that’s out there. Our property taxes go up and our service costs go up because of those issues and the unplanned development, where you have all this spot zoning.”

The first weakness in Matlak’s considerable armor appeared when he allowed the Artful Dodger building in Wicker Park, a beautiful, historic building loved by the community, to be demolished. For many this was the final straw, as it clearly showed that Matlak was more interested in serving developers than the neighbors. You can read more about that issue at Preservation Chicago.

Since then, little has changed; 32nd Ward residents have increasingly demanded more say in zoning matters, but according to Roger Romanelli, one of Waguespack’s tremendously energetic volunteer coordinators, Matlak has responded by simply “going around nonprofit community organizations” and approving zoning changes on his own without public input. Let me tell you, this is a surefire way to get booted from office.

The momentum is shifting in Waguespack’s favor, as people see a proven political reformer as a viable alternative. On November 7, even after the general election excitement had died down a bit, Waguespack volunteers still went out and covered 20 out of the ward’s 50 precincts with a signature petition drive. His first fundraiser on November 13 attracted 50 people who contributed thousands of dollars, so this guy is for real.

In a nutshell, if you live in the 32nd Ward, vote for this man. Encourage friends and neighbors in the ward to do the same. It’s time the 32nd Ward had an alderman who gave as much consideration to schools, the CTA, congestion and density issues, demands for curbside recycling, and our collective architectural heritage as Matlak does for the developers and special interests.

There is an equally excellent candidate running in the 43rd Ward (which largely consists of the Lincoln Park neighborhood). Peter Zelchenko, a lifelong resident of Lincoln Park, is running on a platform of more transparent government and a better response to city service needs — basically, just running a smarter version of city government. Contrary to what Fox News and the well-known spoof site (now defunct) may imply, there is a lot more to Lincoln Park than just a great selection of latte shops and attractive singles looking to mingle. Lincoln Park has long been home to white-collar and blue-collar working-class folks, artists, retirees, you name it — it’s a lot more diverse than people think. Zelchenko is on the same wavelength as the residents of the neighborhood who think of it as their home and know that the city has been slipping in terms of its responsibilities.

So what got Zelchenko motivated to run for office after many years of political activism as a journalist and unpaid volunteer?

A trash can.

Or rather, the lack of one. While current Alderman Vi Daley has bent over backward to facilitate development and to bring in new residents, once the newcomers are there that’s where the love fest stops. Zelchenko’s campaign office is on the 2200 block of North Lincoln Avenue, noteworthy for some of the last remaining venerable businesses dating back to my youth — the fine establishment Sterch’s, incredible deep dish pizza joint Bacino’s, and Potbelly’s subs.

However, the block is also home to many bars serving the 20-something crowd that has made Lincoln Park its home. The result has been maddening for local residents, who now have a quasi-Wrigley Field atmosphere on weekend nights, but without the extra police and Streets & Sanitation attention that Wrigleyville gets.

Now, you would think that with the astronomical property taxes in Lincoln Park, getting a trash can on a highly trafficked commercial strip would be no problem.

But you’d be wrong.

Most aldermen live for these kinds of no-brainer, inexpensive requests, since for minimal effort (a phone call from the alderman’s office) you can keep a constituent happy. However, Zelchenko says, “Vi Daley refused my request to have five or six trash cans put on the busiest night-life stretch in her ward. She refused even to put one out. I did it myself.”

Then, adding insult to injury, Vi Daley went and placed a special tax assessment (an SSA in city parlance) on a long stretch of Lincoln Avenue including the block in question, sneaking it right by many of the residents, who likely won’t know what an SSA is until they start paying for it. This is a tax levied in addition to the regular property taxes, extracting by force some $100-$200 per resident (business owners, property owners, and renters) on the blocks of Lincoln covered by the SSA. As of this article, $130,000 had been collected, and current plans were to spend $50,000 of that on 100 flower pots (at an annual maintenance cost of $500 per pot).

I can’t speak for anybody else, but if I couldn’t get trash cans to help alleviate the effects of drunken, urinating, vomiting party animals on my block, and then I was forced to pay extra money for flower pots (and at $500 per year? Who are we paying for this, the mob?), I’d be pissed. I imagine many Lincoln Parkers would be as well if they knew about these shenanigans. Let’s hope they find out before the election.

Backing up a bit, I first heard of Zelchenko when I stumbled upon his master tome, It Happened Four Years Ago: Mayor Daley’s Brutal Conquest of Chicago’s First Ward. This is a detailed and gripping account of the Chicago political machine’s recent tactics to cheat 1st Ward voters out of a fair election via a wide array of techniques both sophisticated and thuggish (the machine still knows how to intimidate and crack skulls under the public’s radar). The book was lauded by former independent aldermen Dick Simpson and Leon Despres, two of that very rare and elusive breed, “Chicago Alderman Judged Well by History.” I read the book nearly nonstop, and then by chance happened to meet Zelchenko in person in Logan Square. I walked away very impressed with his knowledge of the city, and his decades-long commitment to improving it at no personal benefit (see the fact that his book is available on-line, for starters). Current 1st Ward Alderman Manny Flores says, “Peter is my friend. He’s a great guy, and he has impeccable integrity.” High praise, indeed.

Go to Zelchenko’s website (which he maintains himself, as he is a very tech-savvy individual, something we could use in an alderman), and you will see evidence of a man who possesses great intelligence and articulation (also somewhat unusual for an alderman). Zelchenko devised a computerized, email-based method to ease the pains in the 43rd Ward caused by street cleaning, and it was such a brilliant idea that his opponent, Alderman Vi Daley, promptly stole it and claimed it as her own. You can see Zelchenko’s ingenuity in action right here at his 43rd Ward Street Cleaning Early Warning System.

Additionally, Zelchenko was featured in both the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune for his success in calling attention to a massive (and disturbing) flaw in the Chicago Board of Election’s database that allowed a teen hacker of remedial talents access to voters’ social security numbers. I note that the Tribune’s take also did a fine job of applying some CYA (cover your ass) cream to Board of Elections staffers, who apparently weren’t very pleased at the negative press generated by the glitch.

Lastly, I know Lincoln Park. I went to grade school at St. James’ Lutheran at Fremont Street and Dickens Avenue, took early-language classes at Lincoln Park High school (I ended up going to St. Ignatius instead of Lincoln Park’s International Baccalaureate program, but it was close), and even taught at Lincoln Park High School from 1994 to 1995. Lincoln Park is a wonderful neighborhood, but almost too wonderful — people there don’t always understand that although their neighborhood is doing OK (it could be better in the services department and on a few other issues), the city as a whole is suffering due to rubber-stamp aldermen like Vi Daley.

Know anyone of voting age in Lincoln Park and/or the 43rd Ward? Tell them to get out there and make a difference.

Sic semper tyrannis!

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