Cheers and jeers at the 29th Ward NAACP campaign forum
Zerlina Smith got the most applause and incumbent Deborah Graham got the most boos at the January 25th Sunday forum held at the Greater St. John Bible Church on the far West Side. Facing 7 challengers and a largely hostile audience, Graham looked increasingly uncomfortable as the meeting went on.
Zerlina Smith, showing no signs of the bad head cold which has dogged her for days, appeared both passionate and confident as she answered each question from the moderator in a clear ringing voice.
Smith has run a door to door grassroots campaign and despite having limited campaign funding, has achieved widespread name recognition. This is also based on her public record of militant community activism and her willingness to directly engage with residents of the 29th Ward.
She was a PTA leader at Oscar DePriest Elementary School which brought dads into the school as parent supporters. She is a well known advocate for early childhood education through her work on the Head Start Policy Committee of Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
She has been endorsed by the Green Party of Chicago, Action Now, the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, United Working Families, Illinois Citizen Action and Grassroots Illinois Action.
Incumbent Deborah Graham was first appointed as alderwoman by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2010 after former alderman Ike Carothers was sent to jail for bribery. She maintains a low profile and many of her constituents do not know who she is.
She has voted with Mayor Rahm Emanuel 100% of the time and it was her public declaration that she supported a second term for Rahm that triggered a chorus of boos at the forum.
Other challengers to Graham include Chris Taliaferro, Lawrence Andolino, La Coulton J. Walls, Bob Galhotra, Oddis “O.J.” Johnson, and Stephen Robinson.
There was sharp criticism of Ald. Graham from some of the candidates, but Zerlina Smith is trying to run a positive campaign and avoided direct criticism of Graham’s performance.
Zerlina introduced herself by saying,
“I am Zerlina Smith. If you don’t know me, google me. I am a fighter and I live in the poorest part of the Austin community. When we walk out our doors, it’s not a vision that anyone I know wants to see. This is why I am running.
I am an activist first. I am not a politician. I have no experience in any of this. But one thing I do have experience in is standing up and fighting for what we deserve. If you sit here and you think that one person can do anything, it will be impossible to bring about real change in the 29th ward.
Change comes from all of us! Collectively!”
Among Zerlina Smith’s top issues are education justice and economic development. Zerlina is among the community leaders who oppose school closings, privatization of education through charter schools, standardized test abuse and the racist way school resources have been allocated in Chicago. She has also been out on the picketline with Fight for $15 to raise the minimum wage and help low paid workers get union rights on the job.
When asked what she would do in her first hundred days in office Zerlina said:
“In my first one hundred days I want to make sure we get an elected representative school board. Make sure we get people representing our schools who live in our community because they know what our schools need.
Secondly bring some real wraparound services into our community. We have a school that was closed. It’s Emmett at Central and Madison. Think about a building, one that is deteriorating, that you have to see when you ride down the street.”
We can utilize use that building to bring some union-based skilled trades into our community. We can work with our ex-offenders to create jobs that can support a household instead the minimum wage jobs that will continue to come to our community if we continue to elect the same people who represent us now.”
Zerlina is very clear that economic development should include a variety of business types, especially ones that favor local ownership so that money stays in the community. She views raising the minimum wage and defending pensions as important business investments because they give people more money to spend in the ward.
At the forum she had this to say:
“I will not sit here and tell a story about bringing just any jobs into our community. Because we already know that we are living in poverty in the majority of the 29th Ward. We do not need just ANY jobs.
We need jobs to come to our community so we can afford to take care of our families. We don’t need any more fast food restaurants that get rich off the poor.
We need some co-ops that we the community actually own and have some stake in. We need to make sure that we as people start taking back our control of our community. No one can sit here and just tell you their dream and their vision. We need your help to get these dreams and visions together.”
Zerlina makes a link between economic development and public safety, because nothing stops a bullet better than a job and it’s better to prevent crimes than to solve crimes.
After telling the audience that it was time for Police Superintendent McCarthy to be replaced she continued:
“His time is up along with the Mayor and everybody else playing games with our safety. When you think about the youth on the streets being killed at the hands of the police officers from other communities who do not know or or have any idea about how deal with the issues in our neighborhoods.
We have kids standing on the corner, most of whom don’t even live in our community. But when police attack them or plant drugs on them, shoot them, kill them or beat them—- and I have seen this…even while standing on my porch—- we have a problem.
We need more community policing. Not the same old tactics with the same old people. We need take back control of our neighborhoods and build some communities. Communities should be able to choose their police commander. I work with Black Youth Project100. They are a youth group. Google them. They have an entire agenda to keep our kids safe. It is something powerful.”
Zerlina concluded her remarks at the forum by saying:
“I am running because as I said, the vision of what I see when I walk out my door is not the vision I think anyone should see who wants raise their kids here. But when you think about someone representing you, don’t think about all of us running to the front of the line to get your vote.
We need to look for people who have been out there fighting from the start. Don’t pop up with your dreams now. Where were you when we needed you?
I’m running and you are going to see the gym shoes running from your house..to your house… and your house. That’s me. Zerlina Smith.”