Eight years ago, Alderman Rey Colón of the Northwest Side's 35th Ward won that seat in a surprising coup. Running as an outside reformer, he took down incumbent alderman Vilma Colom, a well-connected machine pol backed by the likes of powerful alderman and Blago pop-in-law Dick Mell and Cook County Democratic Party chair Joe Berrios. And he won handily, too, a 58-42 margin bolstered by strong grass-roots support in a politically active neighborhood.
Now, two challengers are trying to mobilize the grassroots to throw out another incumbent: Colón himself.
Though it reaches into parts of Avondale and Humboldt Park, the 35th Ward is centered on Logan Square. And in Colón's time as alderman, that neighborhood has undergone a considerable renaissance, fast becoming one of the city's most desirable places to live. Swanky restaurants like Longman & Eagle and Revolution Brewing have opened in the ward in just the last year.
In an interview, the alderman said his work in the ward has helped make it more prosperous and more livable. He created two historic districts, to preserve and renovate the neighborhood's architectural gems. He turned a bleak highway underpass into a popular skate park and put in playing surfaces for kids in parks and schools around the area. He's working with Chicago Rarities to put a rare-fruit orchard in a prominent unbuildable vacant lot. And he's trying to bring the prosperity further north on Milwaukee Avenue by putting in a combination arts space/loft project called Hairpin Lofts at Diversey Avenue, funded by TIF dollars.
"I could go on all day about any of these projects," Colón said.
But one of his opponents in this February's citywide elections, Miguel Sotomayor, said that the community was growing dissatisfied with Colón. "It's service and response," Sotomayor said. "They feel he hasn't serviced the ward well enough, he hasn't been attentive to the ward well enough."
Sotomayor is a longtime resident of the ward, and has worked since 1987 for the Illinois Tollway. He also served as chairman of a Local School Council in the neighborhood, which served as his entré into politics. "This neighborhood being very active, very politically astute, people who I met through the LSC -- not being happy with the current leadership -- people asked me to run."
Sotomayor first ran for alderman in the adjacent 30th Ward in 2003, the same year Colón was fighting Colom in the 35th. His home was redistricted from 30 to 35 in 2000; had he won, he would have had to move four blocks west to stay in the ward he was to represent.
He ran in his new ward, the 35th, in 2007, when Colom also ran to try to reclaim her old seat. His 20 percent vote share was enough to push Vilma and Rey into a run-off, which Colón ultimately won. Now, he's at it again, this time pointing to allegations of ethical mis-steps levied against the sitting alderman this summer.
"If I had one question for Alderman Colón, it would be, why?" he said, pointing to two Xeroxed Chicago Tribune articles. One alleged insider dealings in a zoning change surrounding the house where Colón currently lives ("It happened the same way that all other zoning changes happened in the ward," Colón said); the other, more damning given the city's recent history, involved unreported campaign donations and money unaccounted for.
Colón responded to those latter allegations firmly. "[The Tribune was] doing their investigative reporting," he said. "But what people have failed to point out is that the Tribune didn't find the problem. The [State Board of Elections] didn't find it. I found them, and I moved forward on fixing them." He chalks the mistaken filings up to confusion on his staff, and mentioned his former treasurer Bruce Anderson -- a one-time ally who is now associated with Sotomayor since a falling-out -- as part of the confusion.
Meanwhile, the other challenger in the race, Nancy Schiavone, has a much more wonkish bone to pick with the alderman. "What really pushed me into this was, back in April, I heard offhand that he was trying to use his aldermanic discretion to impose a SSA real estate tax" on some businesses in the neighborhood, including Schiavone's own law firm on Fullerton.
Schiavone claims she was given the run-around trying to find out details of the "special services area" tax, essentially a supplemental property tax used to raise money for collective neighborhood projects. She doesn't oppose the tax per se, but would like to see more transparency from the aldermanic office.
When asked about what practical changes she might seek for the ward, Schiavone mentioned TIF reform, saving the city's swamped pension system and putting trash collection "on a grid system."
And on the most obvious difference between herself and her opponents -- the fact that she's a white woman running against two Latinos in a largely Latino ward -- she said, "This is how I look at it: I have lived here for 24 years. I believe that the voters in the 35th ward really want the best candidate. I don't know what people will do in the voting booth, historically people vote with their identity. But I haven't felt that as an issue in the campaign."
The three candidates mark a complex convergence of political forces that mirrors the neighborhood's own dynamics: a sitting alderman who was swept in as an outside reformer two cycles ago; another who looks to snatch the mantle of reform from him; and a white candidate who could seize a significant portion of the growing white population in the district.
While the safe money's probably on the incumbent, it's anyone's game in the 35th. If anyone knows that, it's Rey Colón.