In conversation, Rogers Park community activist Don Gordon likes to quote passages from speeches by Teddy Roosevelt and Bobby Kennedy about the power of civic engagement and government transparency. He also refers often to Dick Simpson, a former alderman of the 44th Ward known as a reformer during the administrations of Michael Bilandic and the first Mayor Daley.
And Gordon says he’s ready to put those ideas action as a candidate for alderman in the 49th Ward on the city’s Far North Side.
Gordon, 64, ran against the current 49th Ward alderman, Joe Moore, in the 2007 election. To the surprise of many, he took Moore to a run-off before losing by less than 300 votes, causing Moore to spend upwards of $1 million to defend the seat.
Now, Gordon wants to try again. Only this time, he says he’s going to run a campaign with absolutely no money, no party affiliation and no negative attacks.
It’s what he calls his “No Pay, No Party and No Poop” strategy.
The 49th Ward encompasses the Rogers Park neighborhood and a slice of the Edgewater neighborhood along the city’s far north shore, and has long been a bastion of both engaged activists and tumultuous politics. Also home to many of the city’s newest immigrants with occasional pockets of poverty and neglect, the ward has for years had its own brand of progressive politics championed by Moore and his predecessor, former alderman David Orr.
The story on Moore is that he got a wake-up call in 2007 after being seen by some in the community as being out of touch. News reports had often linked Moore with issues such as a ban on foie gras and a living wage ordinance, and Gordon and others were able to turn Moore’s citywide and national profile into a liability. Nevertheless, today Moore is seen as one of the more retail-oriented of alderman, and a defender of open government with initiatives such as participatory budgeting and inclusive approaches to zoning and land use decisions in the ward.
Ald. Moore declined to comment for this story.
For Gordon, things have changed in the ward since 2007 but not nearly enough. Part of the problem, as he sees it, is that alderman like Moore base decisions more on what it takes to get elected and less on what’s best for the residents they serve. The answer, he says, is a new kind of alderman—one more in touch with the community and able to lead instead of simply execute.
“Like a beat cop, I want to be a beat alderman, who gets out, walks the ward, talks to people and has regular meetings to hear what people are thinking,” he says. “Our problem as voters is we don't demand better, and we don't expect more out of the people we elect. We elect them, and then we go away until 4 years later. We all need to be more engaged throughout the entire process.”
There’s little doubt that Gordon, a longtime community activist, author and adjunct lecturer in political science at Northwestern University, has deep roots in the 49th Ward and understands many of the issues facing the neighborhood. On topics such as the causes and possible approaches to crime, the need to address traffic and crowding issues in a dense ward and protecting the lakefront and city parks, he’s able to speak deeply and knowledgably on both the history of the ward and what he thinks needs to be done.
And centered around his goal of practicing a new brand of politics, Gordon proposes a series of programs to engage citizens in representative government, such as a regular aldermanic performance scorecard and the creation of a network of neighborhood block clubs and precinct groups.
But the heart of his approach to the 2015 election is also likely to be his biggest challenge. Gordon says he’s serious about running a campaign without any money, believing that by employing an all-volunteer staff, walking the ward and engaging voters face to face, he won't need mailers, TV spots or even a campaign budget of any kind.
“I’ll run without any money, party affiliation or personal attacks,” he said. “I think we need to take money out of our politics, and that too many of our elected officials owe their allegiance first to their party first and the people second.”
While he sees it as a challenge to his sometimes combative personality, he also promises there won’t be any “poop”, either.
“There will simply be no personal attacks in this campaign,” he says. “I don't care how often the incumbent or any other candidates come after me, I simply won't do it.”
Unfortunately, the question for Gordon isn't what his opponent might do. It’s whether or not he can engage enough voters and media attention in a notoriously apathetic age to get behind the lofty premise of a campaign run on ideas alone.
In Chicago politics, candidates often promise to avoid taking campaign contributions or being beholden to anyone other than the voters. While such ideas are noble, the reality is they all-too-rarely succeed. As well, unseatimg incumbents can be a dicey proposition, at best.
Don Gordon is betting his campaign will be different. But in Rogers Park or Chicago, that can be a tough hill to climb—even if you’ve been there before.