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She's Gone

How Rey Colon's long-shot independent campaign toppled machine-backed Vilma Colom.

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On election night reporters breathlessly relayed the astonishing news coming out of Logan Square: in the age of Daley, when the mayor's aldermanic troops seemed unbeatable, Rey Colon, an independent, had managed to win. "If you're a reporter who just shows up for election night, yes, you might be amazed," says Kevin Lamm, a volunteer precinct coordinator for Colon's campaign. "But we weren't as surprised--we'd been working on this for eight years."

That so many observers were astonished by Colon's victory in the 35th Ward is an indicator of how difficult it is to unseat an incumbent backed by Mayor Daley. But Colon had one major advantage--the incumbent, Vilma Colom, was exceedingly unpopular. "That's putting it mildly," says Pemberton Shober, another Colon volunteer. "She is one of the most arrogant politicians I've ever met."

According to Shober, Colom had displayed an almost remarkable ability to alienate and aggravate constituents. "In a lot of ways," says Bruce Embrey, another precinct coordinator for Colon, "the roots of this campaign go back to the fight over Unity Playlot." In the mid-90s residents had been working with Park District officials on a plan to build a basketball court in the small park on Kimball near Diversey, and by 1995 it had been OK'd by both the Park District and Mayor Daley. But Colom, recently elected alderman, opposed the court, citing objections from "a silent majority of residents." In the face of her opposition, Park District officials flip-flopped, saying they couldn't build the court without the local alderman's backing.

"I live in that area, and my wife and I supported the basketball courts," says Embrey. "Our first frontal view of how Vilma behaved came on that issue."

Colon was also involved in the fight over the basketball court. Back then he was the Park District manager who'd worked with residents on the plan. "I can tell you right now that Vilma lost a lot by fighting those courts," he says. "Put it this way: she gave people a reason to oppose her."

"It's true that many of the people who supported the basketball court did not support Vilma when she ran in 1995," says Embrey. "But had she supported the plan to build the basketball court, we wouldn't have had a real strong reason to fight her."

Backed by many of the activists who'd supported the basketball court, Colon ran against Colom in 1999. But he stumbled from the start in that campaign. "Vilma just ran me out of the ward," he says. "I started too late. I ran out of money. I didn't know what I was doing. I was a rookie up against the pros. I couldn't get my word out. On election day they really kicked us bad. They had 10 to 15 people out in every precinct. You know the type--the big guys, the patronage guys. They had [33rd Ward alderman Richard] Mell's guys and Daley's guys. It's amazing we got 40 percent of the vote."

But that defeat was essential to this year's success. "The 1999 loss gave us a political map of the ward," says Lamm. "It showed us where we were strong and where Vilma was weak."

It turned out that Colon was strongest in the areas around the Unity Playlot and Logan Boulevard. "The standard plan coming out of the last election," says Lamm, "is that we would build from our base." But that alone wasn't going to work, because the ward map was about to change.

The city is required to draw new boundaries for its 50 wards every ten years, after the census, to guarantee that each ward has roughly the same number of residents, currently around 60,000. The 2001 "reapportionment" was overseen by Mayor Daley, who made sure the aldermen had a major say in designing their wards. And so the future of the 35th was in the hands of Colom.

"Obviously Vilma was going to draw the ward in such a way as to maximize her advantage," says Lamm. "That means she'll kick out precincts where we're strong. But it's a gamble. If she kicks something out, she has to pick something up to replace it."

Colom cut off the precincts around Bernard Street, pushing Embrey and his neighbors into the 26th Ward. To compensate, she agreed to move the ward's northern boundary up to Irving Park, picking up precincts that used to be in the 33rd Ward, which is represented by her mentor, Alderman Mell. She also had her ward moved further east along Logan Boulevard, from the old boundary at Francisco to Western.

"She had to have known that she wouldn't be that popular on the eastern parts of Logan Boulevard, because she had never been popular on the western part of the boulevard," says Lamm. "But she figured to do well in the new precincts from up north because that was Mell territory."

But last summer Colom gave Colon an unexpected break in the new northern precincts when she took a hard stand on the building of a Home Depot store on a vacant lot at Kimball and Addison. When Mell was still alderman, many local residents had opposed the Home Depot or any other big home-supply stores that wanted to move to the site, and he'd given them support publicly, saying the Home Depot was being forced on him by Mayor Daley's administration. Instead of echoing Mell's line and blaming everything on Daley, Colom told residents there was nothing she could do. The Home Depot was a "done deal," she told a large gathering of residents at one meeting.

"That was a huge break for us," says Colon. "That was their first impression of Vilma, and they didn't like it."

And suddenly Colon had an issue. He ran with it hard. Over the fall he and his allies proposed a referendum for the November election, asking residents whether their alderman should hold public hearings before approving any zoning change. "That referendum was a dry run for the aldermanic campaign," says Embrey. "We gathered about 3,500 signatures to put it on the ballot. We had people on election day passing out palm cards. And it passed with over 95 percent of the vote."

That set the stage for the aldermanic campaign--a classic ward battle with tit-for-tat electioneering on both sides. Colom sent letters to all the people who'd applied for absentee ballots in November's election, hoping that they would vote absentee for her. So Colon sent the same voters his own letter. Colom had her supporters blanket the ward with campaign signs. Some of Colon's people tore them down.

"There's an old adage that signs don't vote, so why spend money on signs?" says Lamm. "'Cause it's psychological. People driving through see the signs and think the person has support. We were very aggressive about sign wars. If we saw a Colom sign in a vacant lot we tore it down, absolutely."

The sign wars became a minor issue when one of Colom's supporters raised the matter at one of several forums in the ward. "He was upset because we were tearing down her signs in the vacant lots," says Lamm. "I thought, all those years you guys have been tearing down our signs and snickering about it, and now you're in a race where it's tight--and look who's sniffling."

By election day Colon had his own precinct operation of more than 200 workers. On February 25 they had two or three volunteers outside every polling station and one or two inside. "I had everyone come with cameras--you know, those disposable Instamatics," says Colon. "That's always been one of the favorite tricks of the machine guys--to intimidate people by taking their pictures. Well, we can take pictures too."

True to form, Mell had many of his operators out for Colom on election day. But few precinct workers from the Hispanic Democratic Organization, Daley's chief precinct army for that area, turned out for her.

"I don't have any problem with Daley--I never did," says Colon. "This fight was always with Vilma. I don't know why the mayor didn't come out strong for her. She had her Daley-Colom signs up everywhere, and he endorsed her. But he didn't send in the big boys on election day. I don't know why."

On election night Colon and his backers gathered at the Abbey Pub as the results came in. With each precinct report the crowd roared its approval. They won big--much bigger than expected, taking 26 of the ward's 35 precincts and 58 percent of the vote. They had strong returns from the northern Home Depot precincts as well as the new precincts along Logan Boulevard, where they won over 70 percent of the vote. But their strongest returns came in precinct 28, where Unity Playlot is located, which they won 209 to 65. "I suppose that's appropriate, because that's where this campaign started," says Colon.

Strategists tied to Mell blamed the cold weather for Colom's defeat. "I think that on a nice day she would have won it," says one northwest-side politico. "But the cold weather was such that the only people who were going to vote were those who were going to vote for somebody. In other words, if you were really excited about your candidate you were going to vote. The problem, I guess, is that not enough voters were excited about Vilma."

Other regulars in the area blame Daley for the defeat. "The Daley fucking machine lay down on this one," says one local politico with close ties to Mell. "They make the fucking Mafia look like kindergarten. I know how they think. They get you off guard, they slither through the grass like snakes, and then they bite when you're not looking--you don't even feel it. They wanted to dump Vilma--I don't know why. But they did."

Colon and his backers say these are just excuses. "They're blaming Daley and the weather," says Colon. "Hey, it was cold for us too, you know. Now they want to blame Daley. Maybe he didn't send in his goons for her, but you know what? You have to run your own campaign. The problem with too many people out here is that they start to depend on the Mells and the Daleys, and then they can't stand up for themselves. I don't worry about what those guys are saying--they're just looking for excuses 'cause it's an embarrassment. Nobody beats them on their own turf. Well, guess what? We did it. It took us eight years, but we got it done."

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

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