I promised some Woodlawn residents that I would explain my developer-related concerns about 20th Ward aldermanic candidate Nicole Johnson before the election. So, here it is, as succinctly as I can make it (followed by some blah-blahing you are welcome to totally ignore):
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by preservationists to speak at a meeting of the Cook County Land Bank board in which they were choosing between a preservation proposal and a demolition proposal for the Washington Park Bank Building, an historic property at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue that the community has said over and over it wants preserved. There is a whole lot to be said about why Toni Preckwinkle’s hand-appointed board might want to destroy this building, but I want to concentrate on a really problematic piece of timing related to Nicole Johnson. The group that wants to demolish the building got the project. Let me reiterate: This is against the community’s wishes. I tweeted out that decision:
I’ve circled the time and date because they are central to my story. At the end of that day, Nicole Johnson hopped onto my tweet to accuse me of not having my facts straight, among other things:
Well, the approval of the demo was published by a reputable news source, so just in case you think I was making this up (which I guess is what she was implying):
(You can see by the URL it’s Curbed Chicago reporting.)
All of this is just a difference of opinion, and I am not going to post the other tweets Nicole fired at me (and has since deleted), because, while offensive, they do not get to the heart of the matter. This does:
On the day the development team headed by DL3 and Greenlining Realty got awarded the contract to tear down the Washington Park Bank Building, the founder of Greenlining gave Nicole Johnson $1,000. And on that same day, she jumped on a tweet having nothing to do with her to defend the decision and accuse a Woodlawn resident (me) of spreading misinformation.
Let me be very clear about my range of concerns: I don’t want an alderman who takes money from developers while their projects are being considered for the ward. That’s my personal view. Jeanette Taylor, Nicole’s opponent, has not taken developer money, so I believe she will not. Her integrity has earned her the support of major unions, both daily newspapers, and every candidate in the 20th ward race who was not accused of wrongdoing by an investigative newspaper. That’s about my standards. But this is about a bigger issue, one that I think should be a concern for any voter.
Nicole may or may not have been influenced. She may have had no clue that she received money. (As a candidate, you can be notified electronically of every donation, so that is a choice, whether you are informed or not.) But my point is that she did not have the presence of mind to avoid this sort of appearance of impropriety. If it was quid-pro-quo, that’s exactly what aldermen in 20 keep going to jail for, but my point is that it doesn’t absolve her from responsibility if she is taking money and defending developers on the same day without a clue that it is happening. That’s amateur hour stuff, and my assessment is that she will be eaten alive if she doesn’t know enough to avoid a simple misstep like this.
If you are interested, I have more thoughts about this below, but that is the thrust of my concern: Unprepared for the real world of Chicago politics, Nicole Johnson is going to stumble her way – and therefore, our way – into a deeply compromised position. We can’t afford to end up in that situation, and to end up with yet another alderman in jail, and “I didn’t know” is not going to be reassuring for a neighborhood which just can’t seem to elect an alderman who knows how to play by the rules.
Now, a little bit of ranting:
I am a Woodlawn resident who does not live in the 20th Ward, but it is literally a half block away from me. The person who gets elected to that position will directly impact many projects I am involved in and others I care deeply about, so although I don’t have a vote, I think all Woodlawn residents deserve to be heard when it comes to who is going to run the political office that dominates local politics in our ward, even though only some of us can cast a ballot. I am concerned about Nicole Johnson’s policy of casually letting all developers donate to her campaign, and especially about this particular example of why that is not a good policy, which I think shows a limitation in her judgement.
I am trained as a reporter and worked in community journalism on the South Side for years, so I have spent some time observing politics for a living. I was a reporter at the Hyde Park Herald and Lakefront Outlook. Later, I was the editor of both of those publications. I worked with We The People Media, which published the estimable Residents’ Journal, and I co-founded a videography program for teens which taught important research and journalism skills to CPS high school students, most of whom lived in Woodlawn. I believe in the power of journalism to improve communities. I think the skills we are taught can really help shed light on what is happening in our neighborhoods, especially when it comes to money and politics.
As a trained journalist, I always watch for clarity of purpose as a critical quality of a candidate who I think will be a successful politician. I give a lot of credit to people who see and can clearly articulate what they ought to do, and then who do it. That’s rare in a profession like politics, where everyone has a “what had happened was” explanation for everything.
Let me get right to the point of my concern. Nicole has been taking money from anyone who offers it to her, as far as I can tell, and she seems to not have any idea of why that is a problem, as this example with Greenlining shows. This is not unusual for a first-time candidate. In fact, one of the things that struck me about the candidates this election cycle who most impressed me was that they all refused developer money. Jeanette Taylor, who is in the runoff with Nicole, refused to take that money. It’s a big difference between the two candidates.
When another candidate for 20 in the general election, Anthony Driver – who gained a reputation for being very honest during the campaign- complained that Nicole accepted money from a business that was trying to put another liquor store in the community, she was indignant and refused to return it, finally giving it to a group she favors in Woodlawn. (Just FYI – these donations have to be returned to the donor, because the point is you don’t want them being a part of your wealth/influence. But anyway …) I believe she honestly didn’t understand what the problem was, and that is my main point of concern.
Nicole Johnson impressed me when she first appeared on the campaign trail a year ago last fall, and there are tweets from me saying she was an up-and-coming person to watch. I still believe that, but it is very clear, based on my observations, that she is not getting the right advice and lacks the insight to see where the traps and pitfalls are. She’s not ready, and she is going to get herself – and therefore, our neighborhood – in trouble.
It is just smart to not take money from some folks (the mob comes to mind), and so you avoid those folks if you want a reputation as a good government candidate. There are two things you just have to be aware of in Chicago politics or you will get dirty, whether you mean to or not. The first is that the appearance of being compromised is the first step toward being compromised. The second is that Chicago is a real estate town, and developers will do whatever they can to get you in their pocket.
If you can’t see far enough ahead to avoid looking bad, you are very likely to be tricked into a position where you have actually done wrong without knowing it. It happens all the time to folks who don’t care about looking righteous. And it will happen to anyone without the presence of mind to be cautious of developers and their money.