03/31/2011 09:24 am ET Updated May 30, 2011

46th Ward Aldermanic Runoff: Molly Phelan, James Cappleman Spar Over Ward Spending

As elections go, the race for the 46th Ward aldermanic seat this February couldn’t have been much closer. Molly Phelan pulled in 2,727 votes; James Cappleman received 2,732, exactly five more.

Not that it ultimately mattered — both candidates were headed to a runoff on April 5. But the tightness of the race, and the tenacity of its contenders, has led this contest in Uptown to be one of the most hotly and bitterly disputed in the city.

In interviews about the race, both Phelan and Cappleman focused over and over again on two central themes: public safety and business development.

The one issue that got the two candidates most animated, though, was one that might seem uncontentious: the use of the $1.3 million in “menu funds” that each alderman is given for infrastructure improvements in his ward.

Cappleman, a social worker and former teacher, repeated his plan to use the funds to improve streetscaping in the 46th, while also spending on more streetlights and repaired streets and sidewalks for added safety. “I’m committed to using sound urban planning principles,” he said. “A good urban planner knows that good streetscaping is going to discourage crime.”

Phelan, though, has repeatedly derided that plan, saying in the Chicago Sun-Times that her opponent was more interested in “decorator flower pots” than in improving public safety. She continued attacking Cappleman’s plans for beautification in a phone interview with Huffington Post Chicago.

“Green space doesn’t stop the bullets; green space doesn’t stop our children from joining gangs,” Phelan said. “Sunnyside Mall is green space. It’s also one of the worst areas for crime in our ward.”

An attorney who also worked as a beat facilitator for CAPS, the city’s community policing initiative, Phelan has tried to use the issue to paint her opponent as soft on crime, an issue of major concern to the voters in the ward. That’s a characterization that Cappleman bristled at.

“She said she was a CAPS beat facilitator. Ask her what specifically she’s done, name some success stories. I can name you, time after time, accomplishments that I’ve done that involve me working with police commanders, with our community leaders in the neighborhoods, with social services,” he said. He spoke of his work with of the Uptown Chicago Commission, where he chaired the public safety committee before being elected board president.

In fact, Cappleman argues, Phelan doesn’t have any better ideas of what to do with the menu funds. “She said she wanted to hire police with menu funds. That’s not possible,” he said.

Phelan had indeed proposed hiring police with those funds earlier in the race, but they are explicitly only for infrastructure improvements. She acknowledged her error, but suggested that the funds could still be used for public safety concerns like police surveillance cameras, better street lighting, and other “security enhancements.”

Both candidates boasted of their recent meetings with Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel, though neither has received his endorsement. They’ve split several other major nods: Cappleman from the Sun-Times and the Teachers Union, Phelan from the Tribune and the Fraternal Order of Police.

With voters and endorsements evenly split, and several major interests staying on the sidelines, the tooth-and-nail fight of this race isn’t likely to let up before Election Day. And the very depressed turnout that’s predicted for the runoffs means that the difference might not be much bigger than five votes this time around, either. Now, though, they’re playing for keeps.