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Isaac Carothers argues that there are good reasons he should be elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. First and foremost, he says, he's spent his whole career serving the public. And the federal prison time he served for corruption? He claims that just because he pleaded guilty to taking bribes doesn't mean he actually did.
"People plead guilty for many different reasons, and not always because they feel that they're guilty," he said over breakfast one morning recently. "I can tell you that there was never any intent on my part in terms of a bribe. That never was the case, but that's how the government framed it. There was no 'You do this for me and I'll do this for you.'"
Carothers was sitting in a quiet corner booth at MacArthur's, a great soul food restaurant in the Austin neighborhood, which he represented for more than a decade as 29th Ward alderman and Democratic committeeman. Throughout the 2000s Carothers had a powerful political organization that controlled dozens of local government jobs, and as chairman of the City Council's Police and Fire Committee he was known for growling at political foes and helping advance Mayor Richard M. Daley's agenda.
But in 2009 the feds indicted Carothers for allegedly receiving $40,000 worth of renovations on his home from a developer who needed a zoning change for a residential project in the 29th Ward. Carothers eventually pleaded guilty to federal bribery and tax evasion charges and was sentenced to 28 months in prison.
Since being released, Carothers has worked at the Safer Foundation, which helps ex-offenders find jobs. State law prohibits him from running for municipal office again, but with the incumbent First District county commissioner retiring, Carothers is aiming to get back into elected office. Among his four opponents in the March 18 Democratic primary is Richard Boykin, a former chief of staff for Congressman Danny Davis, a longtime Carothers rival.
Carothers says he's done a lot of thinking and has grown from his missteps. He certainly appears different. He's still thick-chested and bulldog-necked, but slimmer and mellower. He no longer looks quite as ready to plow everybody over for not stepping to the side fast enough.
"Sometimes trouble comes your way, but I think you have to be resilient enough to recognize you've made some mistakes in life, to learn from those mistakes, and you come back and you learn from them so you're better. And I feel I'm better. I feel I'm better."
Carothers says he always backed the Galewood Yards development and never needed to be bribed. He says the community was grateful for that project and the other investments he was able to secure during his time in office—a new hospital, a new police station, and street lights and infrastructure upgrades. But he admits that it wasn't "appropriate" to let developer Calvin Boender pay for the work on his house.
"When the contractors came I asked him, 'Let's work out the details in terms of the cost,' and he said, 'I'll get back to you.' Down the road it became evident that [Boender] made the decision that, 'Oh, I'm going to pay for that.' And that's the mistake that I made, to continue to let him do that. And I'm remorseful for it.
"No one would have ever had to bribe me to bring something that I was going to benefit from, that the whole community was going to benefit from," he says. "If I was in the business of trying to bribe people, get money for something, I think I would have been much more aggressive about it. This guy made six or seven million dollars, and not a dime of that came to me. He just paid for something."
Carothers insists this isn't revisionist history, though he's the first to admit that he needs to convince voters on the west side and adjacent suburbs that, despite what they've heard, he really hasn't sold them out. He says he doesn't have much money to spend on the race—he has yet to report raising a dime—and will depend on the remnants of his old organization to get the vote out. Other west-side politicians say he's calling in favors from people he helped along the way and will still be formidable in the city.
Though he comes from a connected political family—his father and grandfather were both Democratic committeemen—Carothers portrays himself as an outsider and populist. "I guess I'm the underdog and the grassroots guy now. I don't have the kinds of resources my opponent has. I know he's trying to achieve name recognition. I think I have a fair amount of that, whether good or bad, and it's up to me to make it good.
"There are a fair number of elected officials who'd like to see me be successful, but as usual when you have trouble, many elected officials don't want to be publicly for you. People perceive your presumed liabilities as an issue for them, like they might be tainted by that. That's unfortunate because if you're doing your work, you're doing your job for the people, you'll be fine. No one's going to lose an election because they supported Ike Carothers for county commissioner, believe me."
If elected, Carothers says he'll use his experience and relationships to make sure the west side is getting its fair share of public resources. He also says he backs board president Toni Preckwinkle's efforts to reduce the county jail population and press for drug policy reforms—though the two frequently butted heads when they both served on the City Council, and she recently declared that she doesn't want to see him elected.
"I think Toni Preckwinkle would have said that even if I never had trouble," Carothers said. "It's also interesting when people would tell you in a heartbeat that they're all for second chances but not for Ike Carothers. It lets you know where they really are."
Carothers is also betting that his story will resonate with some voters. The west side has one of the largest concentrations of ex-offenders in the country, and he says he's a man seeking redemption. "There's a verse in the Bible, in Luke, that says 'Condemn not and you will not be condemned.' It says 'Judge not and you will not be judged, forgive and you will be forgiven.' And I'm hoping that people will take that to heart."
As Carothers was talking, a fortysomething man headed for the door saw him and came over to offer a fist bump. "Hey, how you doing?"
Carothers obliged the bump. "Good to see you."
"You still go down to Frank's to get your hair cut?"
"Actually, I go to, uh, on Madison out there. Since Frank left."
"Yeah. Since they had that trouble."
The man wished him well. Carothers didn't mention the election.
"I got caught up in something I should not have gotten caught up in, but anybody who knows me, inside of politics, outside of politics, knows that I deeply care about this community and moving the community forward," he told me. "And I think I can be an example for people that you can make it, you can have a second chance and do well, because a lot of people don't think they can make it after they've had trouble."
He stood up and looked around. "Come on—let's go see if we can find my picture. I sure hope they haven't taken it down."
Nope—there it was, near the counter, amid an array of pictures of other politicians and celebrities: a framed black-and-white shot of Carothers standing next to Mayor Daley.
"Good," Carothers said.