The wonderful thing about the race for alderman in the 35th Ward is that it's wide open and free.
The Logan Square-based ward is a newly formed creation of redistricting: it has no incumbent, no committeeman, and no entrenched political organization.
There are ten candidates, including a cop, a clerk, a schoolteacher, and a merchant; there's a candidate who thinks gun-control laws increase crime, a candidate who compares himself to Martin Luther King, and a candidate whose campaign manager thinks George Washington freed the slaves. And, oh yes, Marja Stoll, the candidate endorsed by the Tribune, the Sun-Times, IMPACT, and the IVI-IPO, might not win because, get this, she's of the "wrong" ethnic persuasion.
"Almost all ward races get crazy at times," says a political observer from a nearby neighborhood. "But the 35th, man, it's insane."
The 35th runs roughly from Bloomingdale on the south to Belmont on the north and from Francisco on the east to Central Park on the west. Four years ago this area was split between Alderman Richard Mell's 33rd Ward and Alderman Michael Wojcik's 35th Ward. But under redistricting, the 33rd was moved north. Wojcik might have remained to run for reelection, but he decided to follow many of his constituents, who had been moved to the 30th Ward.
"Part of the reason they created the ward was because of the lawsuit seeking more black and Hispanic wards," says Kevin Lamm, a community and political activist. "They wanted this one to be a Hispanic ward. It's now about 60 percent Hispanic."
And there lies the problem for Stoll. Although she speaks Spanish, she's not Hispanic. Her family immigrated from Indonesia to Holland and then Los Angeles, where she was raised. She moved to Chicago in the 1970s to attend the University of Illinois here.
Stoll and her husband operate Design/Americom, a Bucktown printing business; she's been active as a volunteer in community groups and several political campaigns, including Harold Washington's 1983 and 1987 mayoral candidacies.
"I decided I was at a time in my life where I wanted to make a greater contribution to my community," says Stoll. "We have so many profound problems: gangs, education, crime. It was always very frustrating every time we had an election. I felt the people running were not committed to the community. I thought, "It's easy to complain. Now it's time to do something."'
So she rounded up support from friends and neighbors and activists in the community. She printed up posters and fliers, and wrote long, detailed responses to questionnaires from newspapers, unions, and political organizations. "I am qualified to join the council because I am a business owner, a mother of two public school children, and a political activist since the age of 16," she wrote in response to the Tribune's questionnaire. "My goal would be to bring together grass roots organizations in various parts of the community and use the ward office as a center for services and communication."
But she didn't realize what she was up against until she met with Roberto Maldonado, the area's Cook County commissioner.
"It was a courtesy call--I wasn't so much seeking his endorsement as telling him that I was going to run," says Stoll. "He said to me, "Hispanics will have to stick together. I will treat you as a white.' It's funny, that's the first time that's happened. I'm Dutch Indonesian and I grew up in a mostly Mexican part of Los Angeles. If you saw me on the street you wouldn't know what color or race I am. What does that matter anyway? This should be about electing the most qualified candidate."
Instead, Maldonado is endorsing George Garcia, a county worker. And Stoll couldn't win the endorsement of state senator Miguel del Valle's volunteer political organization, even though many of its members passionately pleaded on her behalf.
"Most of us thought that Stoll was the best candidate," says one member. "But she's not Latino, and it would look bad to support her after we had worked so hard to have a majority Hispanic ward. It stinks, but that's politics."
Maldonado and del Valle are not the only outside politicians getting involved in the race. Mell has endorsed Vilma Colom, a schoolteacher who was the 1991 Republican candidate for city clerk.
"I became a Republican because I realized the Democrats had manipulated minorities by serving a few chiefs while pretending to serve the poor, which they do not," Colom said in a Tribune article about the 1991 campaign. "The Democrats have used their social programs to develop a poor client that is always ready to vote for them, and that cynicism forced me to become Republican."
The article went on to say that Colom is "secretary of the National Republican Hispanic Assembly, which meets regularly with GOP leaders and President Bush."
The 35th, however, is predominantly Democratic. Colom says she has switched parties.
"She's a Democrat and has always been a Democrat," says Colom's campaign manager, Larry Ligas. "She only ran as a Republican. She had to prove herself, like the real Mayor Daley. You know, the first Richard Daley, the father. He ran as a Republican the first time. Our first president of the United States ran as a Republican."
You mean George Washington?
"Yes. I researched this. He was good for the people, too. Wasn't he the one who stopped slavery?"
No, I think that was Lincoln.
"Lincoln, yeah, Lincoln. He was good for the people, too."
One of the few things most of the other candidates agree on is that they don't want to see Colom elected. "I'll never ever go with someone like Vilma Colom, because she is Richard Mell's puppet," says Iris Martinez, another candidate. "I don't want Mell to be the dominant figure in this ward."
Martinez, an administrative assistant to Ben Reyes, commissioner of the city's Department of General Services, began her political career as an aide to Congressman Luis Gutierrez. In November she was elected state Democratic committeewoman of the Fourth Congressional District. "I support Mayor Daley, but I won't be a puppet," says Martinez. "I plan to be a strong voice for my community, which has been ignored in the last few years."
Another leading candidate is Louis Lara, a sergeant in the police department who has set up several youth tutoring programs. "I want to work on cleaning up abandoned buildings," says Lara. "I'd like to see mandatory jail sentences for people arrested with weapons on the public way. I'd like to see the kids performing in school up to grade level. Then after I did these things, I'd get out. I'm for term limits--I don't think aldermen should stick around for more than two terms."
One of the more interesting candidates is Fred White, whose campaign slogan is "Be Bright--Vote Right--Vote Fred White!" In addition to staunchly opposing gun-control laws, White is something of an agronomist. Under his rule, precinct captains "would teach the children how to grow various vegetables during the summer and the two precincts which produce the most vegetables for the elderly and needy of the ward will be treated to Great America," he writes in his campaign brochure.
Also running are Marcelino Gerena, Ricardo Negron, Oscar Ortiz, and Antonio Beltran.
All ten candidates came together for a recent forum, at which, among other things, Garcia passionately denounced the spread of rodents in the ward ("they're running wild"), White said school should run from May to December ("do you want to heat those big buildings or educate your children?"), and Negron stole a page from Martin Luther King.
"I have a dream," Negron said. "I have a dream where I can see my daughter in front of my building riding her bicycle." He went on to proclaim his "belief in God as our maker," and promised to "listen to the people. A leader who does not listen leads himself."
If no candidate gets more than half the vote in Tuesday's election, there will be a runoff. No polls have been taken, but most observers figure the race will result in a runoff from the field of Martinez, Lara, Stoll, Garcia, and Colom.
Lara is popular with local block clubs. "For years when people called about gangs Lara would show up," says one political activist. "He'd drive the punks off the corner and then hang around to talk to the home owners. You could do a lot worse than have this guy as your alderman."
Colom, who has been denounced by Gutierrez and del Valle for her "Republican ideology," figures to benefit from the assistance of Mell and his precinct captains. Martinez already has shown she can win an election. As for Stoll, she has a base of support in the middle-income sections of Logan Square. An analysis of the November elections show that these are the precincts with the highest voter turnout.
"It would be ironic if the middle-class, mainly white voters of Logan Square decide this election, particularly when you consider how some politicians have made such a big deal out of Stoll not being Hispanic," says the observer from a neighboring ward. "I told you this ward was insane."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Bruce Powell.