Michele Smith has found herself in a familiar position heading into an April 7 aldermanic runoff election. For the third time in eight years, she will be in a tight race to earn the Northside 43 ward’s city council seat.
The incumbent takes on Caroline Vickrey in next month’s runoff election, after the challenger placed second to Smith in last month’s initial election, with about 36 percent of the vote to the council woman’s 42 percent.
In 2007, Smith lost a close runoff election to then Ald. Vi Daley. In 2011, she returned and won the 43 ward seat in a runoff against Tim Egan, with just over 51 percent of the vote.
Smith was challenged by Vickrey and several others, after she looked vulnerable due to the perception that she didn’t engage the community enough with regards to development in Lincoln Park, specifically around the land which formerly was occupied by Children’s Memorial Hospital.
That issue, as well as allegations of improperly profiting from her city post were front and center at the first runoff election debate between Smith and Vickrey on Monday.
Smith, like her ally Mayor Rahm Emanuel, acknowledged that her personality may need some improvement saying, “I could listen better,” and, “I could be more friends with the people in this neighborhood, which is what I’ve proposed to do.”
However, she staunchly defended herself with regards to her very lucrative side job, of sorts, paid for by campaign contributors of hers.
Smith is paid $72,000 a year to help a foundation run by campaign contributors of hers to help identify artists for $33,000 grants. Vickrey, who harped on the issue all throughout the initial election, picked up the drum beat Monday night.
“This foundation was founded by one of your biggest campaign contributors. It makes it look as if it’s a way to circumvent campaign finance laws,” she accused. “And it also brings up questions about the tax-deductible state of that foundation. There are lots of ethical issues that it raises and people are concerned.”
Smith didn’t concede that there was anything wrong with her arrangement. In the past, she’s pointed out how she isn’t a paid lobbyist as many of her colleagues in the city council, and claimed to have been completely transparent with the matter.
“I’ve been fully transparent about this, I’ve fully disclosed everything within my ethical obligations as your alderman, and it’s all online,” Smith said. “There’s absolutely no evidence and it’s not at all true, anything that you just said quite frankly.”
Vickrey also claimed that Ald. Smith’s second salaried job has made it impossible for the incumbent to keep her word that she is a “full-time” council member. For her part, Smith insisted that she does the art foundation work in her spare time, and works over 60 hours a week in her elected city duties.
Smith went on the offensive with corruption allegations of her own against Vickrey, saying that she improperly pays less than she should on property taxes.
“I’m afraid that Caroline is very willing to increase our property taxes and indicated pretty blithely that she’s going to increase them. But I’m afraid that Ms. Vickrey is not necessarily paying her own fair share of property taxes,” Smith said. “Her own home is a 100-year-old renovated single family home that she has valued through persistent property tax appeals as an old three-flat.”
Lincoln Park-based DePaul University’s student paper DePaulia confirmed that, according to tax records, the challenger’s home was converted to a single-family home eight years ago, but is still classified as a multi-unit residence.
The multi-unit classification is assessed at a lower level than that for a single-family home. They also reported that Vickrey filed tax appeals in 2012, when her home was assessed at $1.8 million.
Now, her home’s current assessment is $1.03 million, which likely resulted in thousands less paid in property taxes.
Vickrey responded to the charge saying simply, “if there’s something that we’re doing illegal, it will be corrected.”
Turnout was low in the 43 ward in last month’s election. Just under 10,000 votes were cast out of the ward’s over 30,000 registered voters.
So, there is reason to believe that every vote will count next month, especially if turnout is anywhere near as low. That seems to be why the candidates seem to think that every and any issue could end up making a difference in the minds of voters.
Smith and Vickrey will debate again Thursday evening at 7 p.m., at 1763 North Park Avenue.