(Part 2 of 2) January 21, 2011 – Chicago. Back to the Irish American Heritage Center and the 38th Ward Candidate Forum. Candidates included Mahmoud Bambouyani, Tom Caravette, Timothy Cullerton, Bart Goldberg, Carmen Hernandez, Sheryl Morabito, Ed Quartullo and John Videckis. Immediately after the 30 minute round of opening statements, the line-up was rotated and the first audience-supplied question was read by the moderator – (paraphrasing), ‘How have you been involved in the community outside of your regular job?’.
Bambouyani, Quartullo and Videckis each listed impressive credentials regarding their experience in various community business associations, Chamber of Commerce presidencies and pro-business councils. Caravette, Cullerton and Morabito, each cited their involvement in Chicago’s Park District programs. Goldberg touted the pro bono legal work he donates in his spare time. And Hernandez stole the show with his blunt but honest one-word answer, “Nothing”. Explaining with a sincere laugh, (paraphrasing again) “When you’re a Guardsman, a father of six and a full time student, there’s no such thing as spare time. If I were to try and volunteer for something, my wife would probably kill me”. With the audience erupting in agreeing laughter, round one was over.
The second question posed was, “How would you spend the $1.3 million each Alderman is allotted?”. Cullerton answered first and was joined by all the other candidates by announcing he would leave it up to community feedback and input. That stock answer varied slightly from Bambouyani consulting a committee of educated experts to Morabito choosing a ‘town hall’ style. Hernandez drew another sympathetic laugh when his response was, “Whoo, that’s a lot of money”. But some of the candidates had specific ideas that seemed to gel with the other candidates as well. Goldberg’s suggestion of a dog park drew a lot of support, while Hernandez suggested a fitness center at Portage Park and Videckis brought everyone back to reality by reminding the audience that the ward is in desperate need of infrastructure repairs. Morabito also injected some reality with her real world experience by explaining, “That’s the money that’s used to fix the streets, fill pot holes and install traffic signals. I would use it to continue doing those things”.
The third question was one of the more awaited topics – “How would you revitalize commerce and bring business to the ward?”. This question was probably the most defining of all the topics as each candidate gave a response that seemed to summarize much of their campaign. While your author was shocked and disappointed that Cullerton, Goldberg, Hernandez and Morabito all but threw up their hands and declared, “The economy is a national problem”, the small businessmen of the group – Bambouyani, Caravette, Quartullo and Videckis – each seemed determined to tackle the problem head-on right here on the local level.
To lure jobs to the ward, each candidate had some ideas – some better than others. Bambouyani suggested more cultural events to lure shoppers and businesses, as well as a well-received idea of working with high school students to get them exposure to the world of business and commerce early on. Caravette probably scored the most points with his anti-tax platform, “High property taxes on small businesses are killing them. They’re killing the residents and they’re killing the small businesses”. Caravette then went on to give actual examples of recent tax bills on a couple local businesses showing just how high an obstacle our higher-than-average-property taxes are to jobs and small business creation. He also showed he was serious about the issue by pointing out some existing incentive programs that most small businesses aren’t even aware they’re entitled to. Goldberg showed his independent side when he warned about giving taxpayer money to private corporations. Instead, he affirmed his support for the ‘taxi-tax’ that helps fund the Convention Bureau. Hernandez failed to make any suggestions other than passing the buck to the national level. While Morabito suggested business fairs and incentives. Quartullo took a shot for suggesting the elimination of the head-tax to fuel job creation, with Goldberg pointing out how small that tax actually is. But in Mr. Quartullo’s defense, the head tax was only one of a number of taxes on small business he would reduce or eliminate.
Stealing the show this round however, was Mr. Videckis and his no-nonsense approach to the reality of business and commerce. After comparing the minimum wage levels of storefront type jobs to the living wage of a factory job, (paraphrasing) he said, “One problem is, the factories have been zoned out of Chicago, industry has been zoned out”. He went on to ask the audience, “Where you gonna put ‘em?”. Explaining further, he reminded the crowd how Chicago has been transformed over the past decade and that you can’t squeeze an industrial park right in between two multi-unit condominiums. To lure the manufacturing jobs back, he also added his support to lowering taxes on small businesses and factories.
It was at this point that your humble author wished he could take the stage and offer his own opinion. As subscribers to this column are well-aware, I’m passionate about my democracy and the devastating anti-jobs policies currently in place. To sum it up, a suggestion would be to trace our steps backward – where did all the jobs go and why? Obviously, they went to China, Indonesia, Mexico, etc. The ‘why’ is the debatable part. If you take an honest look, the bleeding of jobs began under President Reagan and increased with each passing administration. In the name of ‘deregulation’, anti-monopoly laws and anti-trust laws that were protecting America’s jobs for a century were thrown out the window, thus allowing multi-national corporations to buy up tens of thousands of U.S. businesses, close them down, lay off their workers and consolidate the production into one of their existing factories overseas. As your author’s favorite example – industries and markets that were once occupied by 10,000 different companies, each with their own factories and offices speckled across America’s landscape, have now been replaced by 3 multi-national corporations who freely admit they have absolutely no allegiance or loyalty to America or the American people, “Our only loyalty is to our shareholders”. And to earn .03 cents more per share in profit, one American company after another has closed up shop and relocated overseas. And to add insult to injury, it often looks like the U.S. Federal government incentivizes these companies to do it.
After skipping the question of ‘how to beautify the ward’ in lieu of a bathroom and smoke break, your author returned just in time for the following topic – “How would you involve the residents in zoning and construction decisions?’. Morabito broke from the group slightly, siding with the individual home owner or business owner, (paraphrasing) ‘Residents shouldn’t decide for other residents. You don’t want residents on one end of the ward deciding what residents on the other side of the ward can and can’t build’. Quartullo, Videckis and Bambouyani said they would seek input from community groups and organizations. Cullerton, Goldberg and Hernandez all endorsed former Alderman Allen’s policies and suggested that nothing would change. Caravette took the opposing view citing his vast business experience with the issue, “There’s too much secrecy with zoning and construction. Much of it just isn’t on the up-and-up. We need transparency”. Seeming to prove Caravette’s point, Cullerton endorsed the existing policy of (paraphrasing), ‘We automatically down-zone every vacant property so that businesses and residents have to come to us to do anything’, meaning us the community.
If you’ve ever read this column before, you’re probably already stepping back waiting for your author to explode. That, in the opinion of many observers and most reformers, is one of the main problems. Not to suggest anything unethical is going on in the 38th Ward office or any other ward office, but that has been a main criticism from residents and businesses throughout the city. “If you want to get anything done” they complain, “you have to grease the wheels of the Alderman”. “And if you don’t know anyone or you’re not related to anyone, you’re screwed” they finish. Those who endorse the practice argue, “It’s used so that someone can’t just buy the vacant property and do whatever they want without input from the community”.
The next topic was one that all the candidates either prepared for, or have a firm position on – Police staffing and the policy of shifting officers from low-crime areas of the city to high-crime areas. Not surprisingly, all the candidates agreed to fight to keep police officers here and not redeploy them elsewhere. “We pay for those cops” one candidate exclaimed, “Why should we pay for police protection and then not get it?”.
Surprisingly, the candidates have very different takes on the issue. With the rotation working its way to the right side of the stage, Mr. Quartullo cited his involvement with the CAPS program and started the string of “Hire more cops” replies. Videckis took the reform-minded view by stating, “There’s plenty of taxes for police and fire”. Suggesting that cuts in spending could be made without taking policemen and firemen out of the community, he caught everyone’s attention with the sobering admission, “When you cut departments like that, people die”.
Mr. Bambouyani endorsed the hiring of more police but emphasized that with his recurring reminder of his dedication to being a good father and suggesting, “Policing starts at home with the parents”. Much of the audience appeared to be in agreement. Mr. Caravette was next and as was his style throughout the night, he was very knowledgeable and cited feedback he’d received from numerous members of Chicago’s law enforcement. “We’re what, one thousand police officers short from what the city is supposed to have right now?” he argued, “Maybe we could use some of the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) money to at least hire a few hundred cops immediately”. Cullerton kept in character by suggesting that laws and ordinances should be enacted to confiscate more of the money, cars, homes, jewelry and wealth from convicted criminals.
Mr. Goldberg also kept to his style, pointing out facts and fundamental flaws, or raining on everyone’s ideas, depending on how you looked at it. It was probably a little of both. “We’re already moving cops out of the area” he reminded everyone who spoke to the issue as if it weren’t happening yet. “The Mayor and City Council refuse to fund existing cops, much less additional ones” he finished. Mr. Hernandez was next and as was more typical as the night went on, he was big on positions and issues, but short on specifics. While agreeing to keep cops here, he did repeatedly make the suggestion of cutting the City from 50 to 25 wards and using the savings to fund additional police. Ms. Morabito was very specific when she said, “Every ward should have the same number of police”. She also agreed that tapping unspent TIF money could be an option.
The next topic drew the most heated debate – ‘Gangs and Crime’. Going first, Mr. Videckis got an almost unanimous approval from the audience for his simple reminder of the past. “Remember when we were kids?” he asked, “All we had to do was walk over to the park and there was always something to do. We used to do arts and crafts, sports, it was something constructive to occupy our time and keep us out of trouble”. “When I go to the parks now” he argued, “there’s nothing for these kids to do”. Mr. Quartullo also agreed that more after-school programs were needed.
Keeping consistent with his ‘family values’ approach, Mr. Bambouyani again suggested that the responsibility lie with the family. Citing personal experience, he was adamant in his view that parents should be more organized and disciplinary with their kids. Mr. Caravette challenged the suggestion of more park programs, again citing his personal experience and involvement with the parks and their many programs for kids. Instead, he suggested extending the school day. Again equipped and prepared with actual specifics, he cited the well-known fact that the vast majority of teen crime occurs between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00. Adding fuel to the suddenly heated debate, one of the other candidates actually ridiculed the idea of extending the school day too long.
Mr. Cullerton again kept with his trend of stronger, more controlling government by suggesting that more surveillance cameras be installed. He also agreed with a longer school day and more police patrols. Mr. Goldberg also kept with his argumentative style and reliance on facts and reality when he supported a longer school day, but pointed out that the city had already authorized a slightly longer school day. “The teachers union refused” he argued, “even after the city conceded to pay them extra for it”. Goldberg then repeated Bambouyani’s suggestion from a previous question of creating more internship programs at the high school level.
Continuing the sudden trend of shooting each other’s ideas down, Mr. Hernandez announced, “Not more programs. That’s not going to do any good. Parents need to bring up their kids right”. Continuing the topic of parental involvement, Ms. Morabito had one of her few sensitive moments when she assured the audience that she believed, from personal experience, that parents need to be educated more about the threats their kids face these days, including dangers such as gangs and drugs.
The closing remarks were the setting for the most blatant attack on any one candidate as well as the biggest laugh of the night. And both were credited to the same man. Mr. Videckis began the rotation by reaffirming his political persuasion, “I’m and activist, an independent and a fiscal conservative”. Drawing a rousing round of laughs from the audience, he exclaimed, “I was cheap before it was cool to be cheap”. He finished his remarks with the stinging declaration, “The Alderman’s office is NOT a birthright!”, obviously referring to Tim Cullerton and his family’s century-long hold on power.
Mr. Quartullo jumped on the Cullerton-bashing bandwagon by citing the ward’s need for “…new leadership with fresh ideas”, and an “end to family dynasties”. Ms. Morabito continued to beat the drum of her experience with City Hall and ward offices. She finished by admitting, “The 38th Ward needs a different direction”. Hernandez closed by emphasizing that he’s a regular person like the rest of us. He’s a proud city worker and union man. Mr. Goldberg used his closing remarks to continue sticking with facts and reality by criticizing the earlier suggestion of cutting the head tax to create jobs.
Mr. Cullerton didn’t deviate from his consistent message of keeping the status quo. It was at this point that Cullerton drew some self-inflicted laughs when he stumbled through his words (paraphrasing), ‘I will represent you the same as former Alderman Tom Cullerton…I mean former Alderman Tom Allen. Tom Cullerton was of course my father’. Saving his most stinging and energized comments of the night, Cullerton announced, “I’m proud of my family’s participation in Chicago politics. We’ve been here since almost the beginning of Chicago”.
Mr. Caravette used his closing remarks to reiterate his pledge to represent “all the citizens of the ward”. “The ward needs someone who genuinely cares about the people” he finished with obvious sincerity. Mr. Bambouyani made the final remarks by reemphasizing his commitment to his family, even pointing out his campaign team made up of his daughters who were as stunning as they were warm and kind like their father.
As the night came to a close, it was almost unanimous that the Candidate Forum was a complete success. Based on your author’s random sampling of audience opinions and reactions, it would appear that it’s going to be a lively and competitive race. While it’s still early and still anybody’s game, as the newly-appointed interim Alderman, Tim Cullerton is the person to beat. To this point, Tom Caravette appears to be in the best position of all the others to do it. Your author would argue that Bart Goldberg and Ed Quartullo could also make good run of it. The remaining four, each a very likable candidate, would probably have to tweak their campaign to gain the ground needed to make it to the front of the pack. Mahmoud Bambouyani was so nice, he was almost too nice to be an Alderman. John Videckis may be in a similar boat. While both men are business leaders in the community, Mr. Videckis may be a little too colorful. And while Carmen Hernandez is incredibly likable and would make a great candidate for U.S. Congress, his absolute loyalty to former Alderman Allen puts him in the same predicament as Sheryl Morabito, who was the most knowledgeable of the candidates on the day-to-day workings of City Hall – why vote for either of them when you could vote for Cullerton instead?
In closing, please don’t take anything as gospel. This was your author’s first introduction to the candidates, as it was for most of the spectators in attendance. Opening night jitters and the first public event for an entire group of first-time candidates should be taken with a grain of salt. What will be interesting will be seeing how each candidate will tweak their message or target specific issues after hearing feedback and arguments from the opposition. We won’t have to wait long. The next 38th Ward Candidate Forum is coming up soon. Be there or be square.
Visit 38th Ward Candidates Forum successfully informative (part 1) to read part 1 of this article.
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