Extreme Makeover | Essay | Chicago Reader

Extreme Makeover 

Former 35th Ward alderman Vilma Colom wants her old job back. But this time she's running as a reformer.

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Just three years ago independents, radicals, and libertarians up in Logan Square were howling with triumph. It wasn't so much that their candidate, former Park District supervisor and YMCA head Rey Colon, had been elected alderman of the 35th Ward. It was that his opponent, Vilma Colom, the scourge of many local activists, had been bounced by a margin so commanding that her enemies figured she'd crawl away in shame.

Guess what? She's back. "Yes, it's true, I'm running," Colom says. "I want to be alderman again. It's a passion for me. I want it back."

The election isn't until next February, but Colom and Colon are already gearing up, holding fund-raisers and putting together precinct operations. For Colom the campaign's a long shot, if only because so many voters remember the behavior that got her into trouble in the first place.

A onetime schoolteacher, she morphed from college radical to right-wing Republican, running for city clerk on the Republican ticket in 1991, to mainstream Democrat. In 1995 Colom was elected alderman with the backing of 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, her political mentor. Once in office she proved to be arrogant, imperious, condescending, and rude--and that's how friends describe her. Perhaps she figured that, with Mell and Mayor Daley behind her, she couldn't be defeated no matter what she did (and, true enough, she beat Colon the first time he ran against her, in 1999). Colom didn't bother to try to ingratiate herself with constituents. In her own words: she was an "antipolitician." She seemed to enjoy keeping people waiting, standing them up, or telling them exactly what they didn't want to hear.

By 2003 Colom had made so many enemies in the ward that Colon had scores of volunteers in almost every precinct. "She disenfranchised the community to such a point that I only lost 6 of 35 precincts on Election Day," says Colon.

The new Colom bears no resemblance to the old one. "I met with her recently and I couldn't believe it," says one former adversary who asked not to be identified. "I kept thinking, 'Is this Vilma?' She was nice, she was polite; she seemed to genuinely care about me. She listened to what I said. She admitted she had been wrong. How many politicians admit that they were wrong?"

"The election woke me up," Colom says. "I was humbled. I know I was wrong. I apologize for the way I acted. I know I brought on a lot of my problems by the way I acted. Sometimes I was just trying to tell people the truth. But it's the way you tell people. There were so many things that I would do differently. I learned the hard way."

Now Colom is packaging herself as a progressive-minded independent. She says she won't hesitate to defy party bosses. "I will support what the community wants regardless of what other people want," she says.

Even if Mayor Daley's opposed to something your constituents want?

"Yes," Colom says. "I'm with the community regardless of what any people want."

What about Alderman Mell?

"People saw me as Mell's puppet. I'm nobody's puppet. He never once told me what to do."

As alderman, Colom approved zoning changes that ushered in several controversial condominium complexes. But now she says she'll slow gentrification by limiting teardowns. She also promises to keep the city from using TIF money to subsidize upscale development, as the planning department did with the conversion of the old Florsheim shoe factory at Belmont and Pulaski. "I don't think subsidies should be used for developers who want to put up condos," she says, sounding very much like the radicals and progressives she once disdained.

As for Colon, Colom says, "I wanted to give him a chance. I called Rey about three months after I lost," she says. "I said, 'Rey, I'd like to meet with you to go to breakfast. I'll bring one person.'"

They met a few days later at Hilary's Urban Eatery on Division. At the time Colon was gearing up to run against Colom for the 35th Ward Democratic committeeman's slot. "I brought along [longtime Mell aide] Chuck Lamonto," says Colom. "I said, 'Rey, I lost fair and square--I want to work with you. Whatever you need help with I'll help you with,' I said. 'I'm even going to give you my committeeman spot--I won't run for reelection. I only want you to have a press conference to let people know we're working together.' He promised to call me back. He never called me back. And for the next year and a half he attacked me. He slammed me for everything in the community."

Colom stayed out of the committeeman's race, and in 2004 Colon won, running unopposed. He has a different take on the breakfast at Hilary's, and on the new Colom.

"She obviously hasn't changed, because she's still telling stories," he says. "When she called [to set up the meeting], she never said anything about helping me with the issues, and she didn't say anything about bringing Chuckie Lamonto--I was surprised when he showed up. She wanted to make a deal. The whole deal was that she was going to offer me committeeman in exchange for me supporting Chuckie if he ran [for alderman] when Mell retires. It was crazy--why would I want to get involved in 33rd Ward politics? Besides, I didn't need to make deals with her, since I'd just kicked her ass. I don't need her to give me anything."

The wild cards in the coming campaign are Logan Square activists like Bruce Embrey and Kevin Lamm. In 2003, working as precinct coordinators, they were key in helping Colon with the nuts and bolts of his run. This time neither is backing Colon, nor are many other progressives or independents. They say he's turned his back on principles of reform and community empowerment. He's hired his girlfriend, Martha Ramos, to be his chief of staff, and he's making zoning decisions that favor upscale development, like condo projects on the 2700 block of North Milwaukee and on the site of the old MegaMall at 2500 N. Milwaukee. "Rey's orientation is that of a Republican," says Embrey. "His perspective is to facilitate gentrification of the neighborhood."

Colon dismisses Embrey's complaints as sour grapes. "A lot of my old supporters think I should only listen to them," says Colon. "Apparently, they don't realize I have to represent everyone in the ward--not just the people who voted for me."

He says Ramos is well qualified for the job, and that it's premature to talk about the two projects on Milwaukee. "We're a long way from deciding any of these issues," says Colon. "There will be many meetings, and all the residents will get a chance to speak."

It's not clear how the early wheeling and dealing is going to shake out. It's unlikely that Embrey and his allies will support Colom, no matter how much she claims to have changed. Most likely at least two other candidates will run in the election, one backed by those members of Mell's organization who don't like Colom, the other an independent.

"In 2003 it was just me against Rey," Colom says. "With so many people in the race I don't think anyone will win the majority you need to avoid a runoff."

For once Colon agrees with her. "I think we're going to have a runoff," he predicts. "I think it's going to be Colom versus Colon once again."

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

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