In addition to a hotly-contested mayoral race, Chicago voters in an unprecedented 19 wards will vote in aldermanic runoff races Tuesday.
According to Chicago’s 20th Ward aldermanic challenger Kevin Bailey, incumbent councilman Willie Cochran may never have been forced into a runoff April 7 with him if he or his staff would have been more attentive to their voicemails.
After moving to the 20th Ward, Bailey and his mother – who works on her son’s campaign along with other volunteers – both say that they called up Cochran’s ward office to offer their help with various concerns for their ward.
Bailey, a 27-year-old civil engineer with a background managing railway work, says he wanted to work with youth within the community but never heard back from Cochran or his staff. Ditto for his mom, who says she also never heard back when she called for assistance on some issues within their ward.
“I was new here, and had some ideas for helping out in the ward so I called the Alderman, but I never heard back,” Bailey tells Ward Room one morning at his campaign headquarters on South Ashland, a week before 20th Ward voters would decide between he and Cochran for their next City Council representative.
“Eventually, I just decided to try and do things on my own,” he continued.
Bailey claims that his mind didn’t immediately go to challenging Cochran for his seat, however.
“I wanted to see who else might be interested in running,” he said. “I met with a number of people who were considering running, and some of whom did end up running, but I didn’t really like what I heard from them in terms of the reasons they wanted to get office.”
Cochran is a two-term alderman who also faced stiff competition four years ago. The former police officer claims success in getting more TIF money for his ward, and raising money from private companies to go towards funding of things such as youth centers, but he has also been rated as one of the more business-friendly members of the city council.
Bailey, who came in second with about 21 percent of the vote in the Feb. ward race and forced a runoff, says that Cochran is inaccessible to residents, is beholden to business interests and has not done nearly enough to secure smart TIF spending in his blighted ward.
“I think TIF is good, if it is used for its intended purpose of encouraging development that increases employment in areas that otherwise wouldn’t get it,” Bailey says. “But it isn’t being used that way. Our ward represents a fraction of a percent of all city employment. The TIF money that is being spent here is being given entirely to one or a few organizations. For example, one organization is being $30 million to create a community center.”
“Do you know how many different people and groups there are in the ward, trying to help people?” Bailey asked, before continuing. “I know one individual who is offering music classes for kids for, I believe, $12 an hour. The going rate for quality music lessons is much more than that, but he’s discounting to help out.”
Bailey said he’d rather spread out millions of dollars to a number of efforts, to people like that, than give it all to one group.
“Do you know how much even a tiny bit of that TIF money could help someone like that music teacher increase their programming and reach more kids?” Bailey added.
Bailey is also critical of a “land grab” by Norfolk Southern Railway and the city to buy up over 100 parcels of lands in the Englewood neighborhood at what his campaign and some community groups have said are steeply discounted prices.
“People have been displaced from their homes, and been given a fraction of what their homes and land are worth,” Bailey claims.
Though he is relatively new to the 20th Ward, Bailey says that the key to his bare-bones, grassroots campaign’s success so far has been his eagerness to make and keep personal contact with residents.
Bailey’s says his fluency in conversational Spanish has also been useful for his outreach efforts. Though many 20th Ward neighborhoods are majority black, it also includes parts of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, which has a large Mexican-American population.
Bailey says he first felt traction among young voters, like himself, though he’s since been able to make inroads among the elderly, as well.
“If you try and talk to young people about coming out and voting, you get brushed off by a lot of them,” he says. “But when you start talking to them about police brutality, and things going on in Ferguson, then they want to talk. They’ve realized that things like that won’t improve unless we get involved and change our leaders and how cities and police departments operate.”
To that end, Bailey’s platforms include police department reform proposals like civilian elected police oversight committees. Getting his fellow young people interested and connected to his campaign was one thing, but gaining the support and trust of voters closer to his opponent’s age took more time.
As seems to be the center of most of his ideas, Bailey said thoughtful conversation helped.
“When I first started meeting with some of the older folks in the ward, they were nice but told me, ‘You’re just a baby, you’re only 27, what could you do?’” he recounts. “[But] when I reminded them of how Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished so much even at the ages of 25 and 26 they said, ‘Really? He was? Hmm…’ It isn’t to say that I’m like Dr. King, but the point is change doesn’t happen when people wait until they are older to try and do something. There is no time to wait; we’ve got to start acting now.”
A week ago, Bailey’s campaign seemed to have gained enough ground to at least make the runoff compelling to watch.
Near the end of our conversation with him, the challenger says he’s just received a message from an ally of the campaign with new poll numbers that showed him just eight points behind Cochran, with a good amount of undecided voters left, as well.
That seemed like good news but Bailey says the news “just makes me want work harder.”
Of course, winning elected office is one thing, but being an effective leader who can avoid being coopted and manage to actually get things done is a whole other – and a much more difficult beast.
Bailey says he knows that, and has thought a lot about how he’d manage to work gradually yet effectively towards all the things he’s said he will during his campaign.
Though he isn’t naïve about his chances of changing the whole system right away, Bailey says he believes maintaining the same type of connection and constant communication with residents that he has during his campaign, as a sitting alderman, is what he hopes will buy him understanding, patience and continued loyalty from constituents.
The former railway systems manager says that he would use the same leadership approach he always has, even when he was in a much different line of work.
“There were times where I had to oversee 500 people when I worked on the railway,” Bailey explained. “I’d show up as one of the youngest guys, and sometimes one of the only black people, in a very mixed and diverse group of people. If I would have showed up and talked down to people or just introduced myself by giving orders, no one would have listened.”
“I would just get in line like all the workers, pick up the tubes with everyone, and do the work,” Bailey said. “I’d learn how things were getting done, how they were being managed and what the problems were. Then, later, when I’d work to get certain things reformed and changed, sometimes I was able to. But even when I wasn’t, I’d make sure I communicated with the guys there all along the way. I’d tell them honestly, ‘I tried to get this, you saw me try. You saw me working here with you. I wasn’t able to get it done, this time.’
“When people see you out there with them,” Bailey continued. “And when you keep them in the loop on decisions being made about their lives and future, they understand, and they are patient.”
Bailey’s opponent Cochran could not be reached for comment by the time this piece ran Wednesday evening.