Politics on the West Side of Chicago has never been for the faint of heart. Now, in the race for the Illinois 10th House District, parts of it have gotten downright ugly.
And at the center of it is a sitting alderman, Jason Ervin (28th), who is throwing fuel on the fire from behind his position as an elected city official.
The 10th district sits on the city’s West Side and in parts of Wicker Park, and is currently represented in the state legislature by Democrat Derrick Smith. Smith has a long and tangled history with the seat, to say the least. In 2012, after being indicted for accepting a $7,000 bribe, he was removed from his seat only to win it back that year. He’s currently running for re-election and is supported by a number of important backers, including the AFL-CIO and, most notably, House Speaker Mike Madigan.
More than enough has been written about Smith and -- outside of Madigan and the like -- it's questionable whether he has a whole lot of other real support for the seat.
Instead, it’s Ervin who’s taking up all the oxygen in the race, backing one candidate, Pamela Reaves-Harris, and spreading accusations about another, Eddie Winters.
If the name Winters sounds familiar, it may be because he’s run for the 10th District seat twice before, in 2008 and 2010. A longtime Chicago police officer, he was also tapped to occupy the seat briefly in 2013 when Smith was the recipient of a surprising move to throw him put of the House as a result of his troubles.
There have long been rumors surrounding Winters, particularly those suggesting domestic violence and unpaid child support. For many years, Winters and his backers have denied them and shrugged them off, putting them down to the rough-and-tumble way politics is often practiced on the West Side.
In this election cycle, however, things have taken a decidedly harsher tone. Two politicians—former 28th ward alderman, Ed Smith and current 28th ward alderman Jason Ervin—have mounted a sustained, focused attack on Winters, apparently in an effort to drive him from the race.
Published news stories have reported that Smith, who was 28th Ward alderman for 27 years, has publicly referred to Winters as a “wife-beater” who “failed to pay child support and leaves his kids starving” while speaking in support of Reaves-Harris’ candidacy. In denying the charges, Winters sued Smith for libel in January.
However, in recent days Ervin has gone out of his way to publicize documents purporting to show Winters engaged in domestic violence with the mother of one of his children and being abusive, threatening and controlling with his ex-wife, Danielle. The move to disseminate the information, including emailing copies of court records to multiple media outlets, came after a City Hall press conference Friday where Ervin called for both Smith and Winters to drop out of the race.
On the surface, the documents are compelling, detailing physical altercations and specific charges of abuse, including charges as part of a restraining order filed against Winters but not accepted by the court.
For his part, Winters again denies the charges, saying that things happened in the course of his divorce and child custody cases that were regretful but never rose to the level of violence, police involvement or legal activity.
As well, Winter’s ex-wife, Danielle, who filed the charges, told Ward Room she fully supports Winter’s run, even to the point of actively working on his campaign.
From Ervin’s perspective, however, Winter’s past troubles, no matter how serious or not, are reason enough to disqualify him from representing those voters he also represents as Alderman.
“Sgt. Winters and Rep. Smith are in the same boat, as Alderman and a constituent of the 10th District, this district needs an elected official with integrity,” Ervin said in a statement. “The people of the 28th Ward and the 10th District deserve better in Springfield than another state representative scared by allegations and scandal, which only serves to hurt the constituents.”
Yet, Ervin’s past raises its own questions of ethics and integrity, even as he has actively tried to previously influence 10th district races through unproven allegations.
In 2012, at a time when Democratic ward committeemen were interviewing candidates to replace Smith, Ervin then leveled charges of unpaid child support and being the subject of a restraining order against Winters, without offering proof. At the time, Ervin was publicly backing a woman who was his then-girlfriend--and now his wife--for the seat.
Ervin has also been the subject of previous lawsuits, including a number related to his time serving in official capacities as chief financial officer and village manager of Maywood. In 2013, information released as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed credit card accounts managed by Ervin racked up more than $100,000 in expenses, including trips, sports tickets and luxury resorts.
The most recent attempt to influence the race, however, places Ervin directly in an ethical gray area regarding city employees engaging in political activity. Chicago’s ethics rules prohibit city officials and employees using city time and city resources for political purposes. By focusing on a race that he is not directly involved in, Ervin appears to be in violation of the spirit, if not the letter of the rules.
As part of his efforts, Ervin held a press conference on City property and during city time that appeared to walk a fine line between City business and attempting to influence a state House race. The email addresses used to disseminate the information on Winters was labeled “Office of Alderman Jason C. Ervin” and is the same address listed as one used for constituent service requests. The distribution of information concerning allegations against Winters was facilitated by the alderman’s communications person, who is listed in city records as a full time employee. And the alderman and staff spoke directly about this matter with reporters during city time and using city contact information.
For her part, Pamela Reaves-Harris has publicly acknowledged Ervin as helping her directly campaign for the 10th District seat, up to and including knocking on doors with her and attending her campaign kick-off speech, among other efforts.
And while Ervin has been careful in his press releases and communications with reporters to state he is not engaging in disseminating information against any candidate to help another, it’s no secret on the West Side of Chicago exactly who he backs.
In 2009, Ervin was suspended from his job as Maywood village manager for conducting political work during a workday after a TV news station found him checking campaign petitions at the Cook County clerk's office in downtown Chicago during afternoon hours.
Apparently, some things haven’t changed now that he’s an alderman in Chicago.