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Elections: Aldermania!

Burt Natarus and a rogue videotaper; the Anybody but Stone campaign; a Chinese restaurant caught in Colon-Colom crossfire

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During election season Chicago aldermen tend to be quicker to anger, especially when an issue has the potential to play big in their wards. During the February 7 City Council meeting various aldermen expressed outrage over, among other things, poorly run dog kennels, parking-meter rates in neighborhood shopping districts, and lax regulation of massage parlors. Then there was a resolution urging the city to do more to honor its founder, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a black Haitian-American.

Last year the council passed an ordinance declaring DuSable "Chicago's first real estate developer and builder" and requiring the city to "commemorate and promote public awareness" of his life and accomplishments. Concerned that little was happening, some black aldermen came up with a more specific resolution. It has exactly the same language as the original, except for two additional paragraphs that call on libraries, museums, and city agencies to promote and display materials celebrating DuSable's contributions.

After the resolution was introduced, the 42nd Ward's Burton Natarus reminded his colleagues that plans were already under way to honor DuSable with a park on a strip of land at the mouth of the Chicago River. "We are committed to building this park," he said.

The Fifth Ward's Leslie Hairston, who'd pushed for the new resolution, said angrily, "I do not doubt that you have been meeting with people about the park, but this needs to move forward. We meet and meet and meet--and nothing happens."

Natarus sits in the back row of the council chambers, and as Hairston spoke he turned around to snap at someone in the audience who was videotaping the meeting.

"Order in the council!" shouted Hairston, apparently thinking he was trying to talk over her. "I am trying to speak, and my colleague is standing with his back to me!" She glared at Natarus. "The disrespect you showed me just now is the same disrespect you've shown for this project."

"How can you say I've been disrespectful?" said Natarus, sounding hurt.

Freddrenna Lyle, alderman of the Sixth Ward, grabbed her mike. "This is not about the park," she said. "It's in addition to the park, and I want to make that clear to my colleague who is working on a park that may or may not be created in my lifetime."

"One of my sons did a project on DuSable for school, and we took him to the DuSable museum," said 20th Ward alderman Arenda Troutman. "But it would have been nice to take him to the park along the river--"

"Point of personal privilege!" Natarus shouted.

"Excuse me?" said Troutman.

"I am being bothered by a cameraman!" Natarus yelled. "He is harassing me! He is interfering with my duties!"

"You're a racist," said the cameraman, an African-American. He kept taping.

"I am not a racist!"

"The sergeant at arms will deal with this," said the council's president pro tempore, Danny Solis, banging the gavel.

"I am being bothered! I will not be called a racist!"

Ed Burke, alderman of the 14th, calmly suggested that the cameraman be removed for disorderly conduct. Several police officers promptly surrounded the man and escorted him to the door.

"How many black aldermen vote with Mayor Daley?" the man bellowed on his way out. "Raise your hands!"

No one raised a hand, and after he was gone discussion of the resolution resumed. The 28th Ward's Ed Smith said it was time to make sure DuSable got his due.

Then Natarus asked for the floor. "I'm not here to insult anybody," he said quietly. "Maybe on DuSable's birthday we should have a holiday at City Hall. Maybe we should have a celebration."

No one disagreed, and the resolution passed without any opposition.

Community groups in the 50th Ward have sponsored three candidate forums so far, inviting the incumbent, Bernard Stone, and his three challengers, Salman Aftab, Greg Brewer, and Naisy Dolar. Stone didn't show up at any of them, and the three hopefuls took turns blasting him for being inaccessible, making backroom development deals, and playing machine politics.

At the forum held last week in a full auditorium at a school in West Rogers Park, the three mostly refrained from knocking each other around, and they agreed on the issues. For one thing, they all disapproved of the planned new residential building at Devon and Rockwell. The lot had been owned by the city and used for public parking in an area woefully short of it, and they said Stone had helped the developer, who bought the lot for $2.

The moderator asked if, in the event that Stone were forced into a runoff, the three would support whoever wound up challenging him.

"I will support ABS--anybody but Stone," said Aftab, an IT specialist.

Brewer, an architect, said he'd received a letter earlier that day from a supporter of another challenger. "He said if it goes to a runoff he'd support me. But he also said he'd support the other candidates if they were in a runoff. And the plea was, 'Please, let's focus on defeating Stone. At a minimum, that's what we need to get out of this.'"

"We are organizing the community together because we are tired of business as usual," said Dolar, who hopes to become the first Asian-American member of the council. "I would definitely be supportive of anybody but Stone."

The next day I called Stone and asked why he'd skipped the three candidate forums.

"In boxing the challenger meets the champion in the ring and they fight it out," he said. "If there's another challenger, he meets the champion in the ring. If there's a third, he meets the champion in the ring. Do the three challengers meet the champion in the ring all at once and join up and beat the shit out of him?" He added that he'd be happy to debate all of the candidates--one at a time.

I told him they'd complained about the development on Devon. He noted that the project had been in the works for eight years and that there'd been several community meetings along the way, then added, "They don't know a damn thing about it."

Alan Yuen's father opened Friendship Chinese Restaurant in Logan Square 26 years ago, and Yuen took over the business in 2000. At the time Vilma Colom was alderman of the 35th Ward, and she and Yuen became friends. When she was up for reelection in 2003, Yuen agreed to put one of her campaign signs in the restaurant's window.

It was a bitter race. Colom's critics dismissed her as a do-nothing Daley lackey, and her challenger, activist Rey Colon, promised to be an independent alternative. Yuen says he didn't know Colon and didn't think much about the Colom sign until one night a couple of people showed up during the dinner rush and asked to see him. As he tells it, "They said, 'Either you take the Colom sign down or you will not have any business." He refused, and the people left.

Colon won the election. He says he'd eaten at the restaurant, and Yuen's politics had never been an issue. Over the next few years he became one of Yuen's regular customers.

As Colon's term proceeded, he became the target of neighborhood activists who complained about the political contributions he accepted from developers. Then Colom launched a comeback campaign. A few weeks ago she asked Yuen if she could have a fund-raising dinner at the restaurant, and he said sure. "I'm a businessman, and I don't even vote in this ward," he says. "If Rey Colon wants to hold a fund-raiser I'd have it."

Yuen says that the day before the event he received an unsigned letter. "It said, 'We do not want that bitch Colom in our ward. This is a warning to you.'" He let her have the dinner anyway.

On a community Listserv one of Colom's supporters condemned the letter for being "heavy-handed." In response a neighborhood activist named Brad Reeg wrote, "Heavy-handed? The previous alderman would have had city inspectors crawling all over the joint." He also wrote, "I recommended Friendship Restaurant in our recent thread about Chinese restaurants, but will certainly think twice before patronizing them again, and as a member of Logan Square Preservation, I expect that organization to do the same."

At first Yuen was upset by the apparent threat of a boycott, but he can't see that he's lost any business. "I think some people got a little overexcited," he says.

Reeg, a 25-year resident of the neighborhood, says that he's volunteered for Colon in the past but that he put the post up on his own to provoke debate. "As far as I'm concerned," he adds, "anyone who's supporting Vilma Colom is either a fool or a moral reprobate."

"Instead of supporting local businesses, they're choosing to boycott them," says Colom. "If that's the kind of people who support Rey Colon, it gives you an indication of the kind of alderman he is."

Yuen says Colon has since called him, and he doesn't blame the alderman for anything. Colon says he would never try to punish someone who supported an opponent--especially not someone connected with Friendship. "That's my favorite Chinese restaurant in Chicago," he says. "I don't want to do anything to jeopardize that relationship."

For more on Chicago politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mauricio Rubio.

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