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Stepping into the Vacuum 

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Early on a Saturday morning, Ted Thomas is in his storefront campaign office in West Englewood handing out city-service request sheets to volunteers. "We have no alderman in the 15th Ward," Thomas says several times as the volunteers look over the pink sheets, on which they can check off just about anything a resident might need, from rat abatement to removal of an abandoned car. Their alderman of eight years, Virgil Jones, was convicted in January of taking bribes. "We'll take these forms and we'll call them in to the city," says Thomas, who led a field of 12 candidates in the February 23 primary with 22 percent of the vote. "Be specific when you write down the address now, so the city will know exactly where the pothole is."

Without warning, Thomas jumps into something that sounds like a campaign speech. "We have an outstanding chance of winning this campaign with the fine work that you've all been doing. I wanna let you know that I really appreciate it. You know, I keep saying 'this campaign,' but to me it's no longer a campaign. It's a crusade, and we got to win this."

An electronics technician for the U.S. Postal Service, Thomas is a community activist with impressive credentials--he's president of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and state chair of the New Party, which was founded by labor and community activists to elect grassroots candidates to local offices. Much more is at stake in Thomas's crusade than who gets to fix Englewood's potholes. Thomas stands to be the City Council's newest independent, at a time when independent aldermen can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

"Ted is an extremely uncommon example of a grassroots, working-class person running for office," says Jon Green, the New Party's lead organizer in Chicago. The six-year-old party has elected candidates to city councils and school boards in other cities, most notably Little Rock, Minneapolis, and Saint Paul. It has supported other candidates for office in Chicago--aldermen Michael Chandler and Toni Preckwinkle and state rep Willie Delgado, for instance--but Thomas is the first candidate to come up through the party's ranks. "The New Party is building political power for people who are actually dropping out of the political system. I think that's evident if you look who's in the room at our campaign meetings. We have a very large number of people who really do come from low-income turf."

As ACORN's president, Thomas was a leader in last year's fight for the "living wage" ordinance, which requires companies with city contracts to pay workers on them at least $7.60 an hour. "The living-wage campaign gave me great insights into what politics was all about. I talked to just about every alderman in the city during that campaign, and in talking to them I learned a lot about Chicago politics," he says. "We asked [14th Ward alderman Ed] Burke and the people in his office to help us write the ordinance, and they did help us. Then we went to [33rd Ward alderman Richard] Mell. Mell was all for it. He said that he had a company and that he paid his people a living wage and yes, he was for a living wage. But he said, 'Let me tell you something. If the mayor comes out against it I'm gonna jump ship.' And he said, 'Guess what? Burke's gonna be right behind me.'" Thomas laughs. "And that's exactly what happened. We had rallies--we had Burke on video signing on for the living wage--but he still voted against it. There were a few other things that I learned, but that was the main one--Chicago politics."

Thomas's background in community organizing and ACORN's strong base in the ward--he estimates that it's home to some 500 ACORN members--makes for a different campaign. Volunteers--mostly members of ACORN, the New Party, and the Service Employees International Union Local 880, which ACORN helped establish--role-play what they'll say before they hit the streets to campaign. The issues they raise tend to go far beyond the typical platform of better city services and less crime and drugs. "The biggest issue for me is affordable housing," says volunteer Denise Hardiman, who's been putting in 40-hour weeks on the Thomas campaign. "And my other issue is jobs. We want good-paying jobs now--that's why I'm very big on the living-wage ordinance."

This is her first time working on a political campaign, and Hardiman calls it a "learning experience." She says, "It's a little scary out there and it's hard work, door knocking, but at the same time you get to know people and you're rebuilding the community."

Thomas says that if he's elected he'll create an advisory board to help him. "I think [most aldermen] act basically on their own, and that's one of the things where I want to make a difference. I want the people to get involved in making decisions about issues that concern them."

While Daley has gone after other independents with all the force of the machine, he's left the 15th Ward alone. Thomas's opponent is Carlos Hemphill Sr., a 37-year-old construction manager who got 15 percent of the vote on February 23. Hemphill says he offers the ward youth--he's 30 years younger than Thomas--and an "open-minded philosophy." The father of six children, he says his focus will be on strengthening the family. And though he says he hasn't sought the mayor's support, he talks like he already has it. "I just want to go on record to say that my community needs things, and I'm not going to fight against [Daley]. I'm willing to work with him to bring my community back on the road to recovery."

The 15th Ward is hardly a bastion of Daley supporters--Bobby Rush beat Daley here with 55 percent of the vote, and Virgil Jones disagreed with Daley on important legislative issues, including the living-wage and ethics ordinances. Hemphill doesn't care. "I feel that unless you're in my shoes you would not know, and unless you've been in the political arena you would not know. I really believe that that may be one reason why [West Englewood] is suffering, because our last couple of administrations have fought the mayor. I'm gonna do what it takes to work with him so that we can start being a viable entity in the city of Chicago."

Thomas says he knows Daley withholds resources from aldermen who don't toe the line, and "that's one of the reasons I want to have an advisory board. If there's any caving in to do, it won't be me caving in. This is something that my advisory board--as soon as it's put together--we're gonna have to discuss. We're gonna have to set some ground rules as to what I'm supposed to do in the event that the mayor makes it tough."

Hemphill himself might be the biggest reason Daley is staying out of the race. Within the last month the candidate twice has had to pull campaign literature. In one instance he printed an endorsement from the pastor of Thomas's church, allegedly without the pastor's permission. The other time he said in campaign literature and told a Tribune writer that he had a degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. "That was miscommunication, that's it. Miscommunication," says Hemphill.

The Defender endorsed Hemphill in the primary, but now it supports Thomas.

"I think the real reason the mayor's staying out of the race is that Hemphill has such a credibility problem," says Green. "Thomas is a strong candidate with a strong organization. If you look around the city the mayor just has other fish to fry, and he doesn't need to make enemies with a candidate who has a very broad base throughout the ward and won't be easy to overcome."

Despite Thomas's activist background, Green says he's not another Helen Shiller. "He's a really gentle, sincere guy more than he is a hell-raiser. It's not a Daley-bashing kind of campaign. Because of Ted's personality, which is pretty nonconfrontational, he's able to talk about representing low-income and working-class people without polarizing against the machine." A win by Thomas, says Green, "certainly would bring home the message that working-class people can take political power if they organize."

--Linda Lutton

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ted Thomas photo by Nathan Mandell.

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