44th Ward Candidate Thomas Banks on Social Media to Win, Transform Ward

Thomas expects to turn his campaign into a grand experiment in democracy.

Tuesday, both Tom Tunney and Mark Thomas made their intentions to run for alderman in the 44th Ward official. And at least one of them expects to turn his campaign into a grand experiment in democracy.

Thomas unveiled what he calls “hyper-local democracy” at a moderately-attended kick off announcement in the city’s north side Lakeview neighborhood. Thomas, a long-time area businessman seen by some as one of the ward’s more colorful and controversial characters, officially launched his bid to unseat 11-year incumbent alderman Tunney.

As the owner of a number of iconic neighborhood businesses, he has been a fixture in the community since he opened The Alley in 1986 as a clothing and accessory store popular with punk rockers and heavy-metal fans. Throughout the past decades, he has been part of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce and the Central Lakeview Merchants Association, among other neighborhood groups. During this time, he has gained a reputation both as tireless advocate and a sometimes bombastic critic of those he doesn't get along with.

As part of what he sees as the need to return politics to the people, Thomas, 59, is basing large parts of his campaign and his strategy as an alderman on deploying social media to determine the will of voters in the ward. At last night’s event he launched wethepeople44.org, a site he claims will not only allow him to take the temperature of ward residents and business owners on important issues, but also drive his decision-making once in office.

The strategy depends on registered voters debating issues and coming to consensus on the site, which Thomas expects will enable him to represent the will of the ward on topics such as development, crime and education.

“I’m going to represent my community, and I’m going to represent the people who choose to vote on my site,” Thomas said. “And I’m hoping that as people begin to realize how much impact this is having on their life, that it is going to re-engage them in this hyper-local democracy.”

Thomas insists his decision to run has little to do with how Tunney has served as alderman, despite their being a history of occasional bad blood between the two. Perhaps in response to Thomas’ decision to run, Tunney yesterday ended speculation in some quarters that the might not run in 2015, saying “I am fully committed to seeking re-election in 2015 and am confident I will have the support of the Lakeview community”.

Long on ideas and short on specifics, Thomas sees his web site as both a return to the spirit and intent of the framers of the Constitution and a means by which governing a the aldermanic level can be placed in the hands of voters. While he says some of the details are yet to be worked out, Thomas draws a direct line between how people on the site will vote on issues affecting the ward and how he will vote in City Council.

And while he says he will run a campaign for the entire ward, he admits that he isn't all that well known outside of the commercial district around Belmont Ave. and Clark St. He expects advertising and word of mouth can help change that, along with his stated pledge not to take large donations from developers and conduct a fundraising strategy around small donations.

But first, he says, the site has to be built up to match his vision.

“I’m two election cycles away from [2015],” he says. “Why am I coming out so early? Because I need six months to get people engaged in that web site so the web site becomes real.”

And what about the fact that, with more than 20 years of history in the ward as a controversial character, he is beloved by some and dismissed or despised by others?

“I think I can fix my ward,” he says. “[Many] people know me, and they love me. And about the people who don't like me—I think I’ve repaired a lot of that damage. But I also think there are more angry Tom people than there are angry Mark people.”

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