While out knocking on doors recently in her campaign to be the new 16th Ward alderman, Toni Foulkes encountered an African-American woman who said Foulkes wouldn't be getting her vote because she isn't black.
Foulkes, who is in fact black, says her jaw dropped.
"The woman grabbed her own cheek and said, 'Have you seen the color of her skin?'" Foulkes recalls. "My staffer said, 'She's right here, ma'am—she is African-American.' I was floored."
Foulkes has been alderman of the 15th Ward since 2007. But during the remap three years ago allies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to draw a new majority-Hispanic ward to reflect the city's shifting demographics, and Foulkes, an occasional critic of the mayor's, saw much of her old territory moved out of the ward she represented. She decided to run for election in the neighboring 16th Ward, made up of parts of Englewood and Back of the Yards.
At that time the 16th Ward seat was held by JoAnn Thompson. But she died unexpectedly just before election day in February.
With the vote split between five candidates—including the deceased Thompson, who remained on the ballot—Foulkes finished with 43 percent, less than the majority needed to win outright. She moved into a runoff with Stephanie Coleman, who finished second with 35 percent. Coleman is an activist who's the daughter of former 16th Ward alderman Shirley Coleman, who lost to Thompson in a 2007 runoff.
Foulkes's run-in while door knocking wasn't the only time she's encountered confusion about her background this election cycle.
"It's not all the time, but we hear it here and there," Foulkes says. "People will tell our phone bankers, 'I voted for the black lady,' and our phone bankers say, 'Both the candidates are black.' It's kind of heartbreaking."
Foulkes, a member of the City Council's progressive caucus who grew up in West Englewood, has gone after Coleman for her lack of experience. In a recent interview on Chicago Tonight, Coleman had trouble providing any specifics on her plans for improvement within the ward. She also couldn't answer whether she thought tax increment finance (TIF) funds were being equitably spent between downtown and the city's neighborhoods.
United Working Families, a union-funded political organization backing Foulkes, has also accused Coleman of being a "slumlord" after a lawsuit surfaced indicating the city took steps to raze a vacant Englewood property with "dangerous and unsafe" conditions that Coleman and her father own.
Coleman, who did not respond to an interview request in time for this story, has previously said that her lack of experience makes her no different than Foulkes, who worked as a cake decorator at Jewel-Osco for 19 years before going on to become alderman. Of the lawsuit, Coleman said she and her father have plans to repair the building, according to reporting from DNAinfo. Earlier this week a judge gave them 120 days to get it done.
Foulkes, 51, says her years working in retail and as a volunteer housing activist gave her the experience she needed to become alderman.
And Foulkes plans to continue correcting voters on her ethnicity, even going as far as posting a photo of herself and her parents on a close friend's Instagram account.
"I tell people my family is from Louisiana," Foulkes says. "I'm not white and not Hispanic. I'm like, where do you get that from? I'm just Toni."