AUBURN GRESHAM — On a snowy Saturday afternoon, two familiar political opponents sparred in front of a modest crowd inside of a park district gymnasium in hopes of becoming the next 21st Ward alderman.
Businessman Marvin McNeil and former radio personality Joseph Ziegler met at the Brainerd Park Field House, 1246 W. 92nd Street, to field questions about education, economic development and public safety from community residents.
This is the second go-round for both McNeil and Ziegler, who previously ran for the seat in 2015.
Absent were incumbent Ald. Howard Brookins and candidate Patricia Foster, who is also running for the seat again after tying for fourth place with Ziegler in the 2015 election. Foster has a reputation for being elusive.
The two-hour forum was moderated by legal analyst Exavier Pope.
“Is your community better than it was in 2003?” McNeil asked the crowd of 50 onlookers, noting that was the year Brookins took over the ward.
Both candidates have markedly different approaches to communication, with McNeil promising a weekly printed news bulletin and Ziegler proposing a “Ward 21” texting feature, along with other social media apps, that would allow constituents to reach him 24/7.
“Maybe that’s why Brookins isn’t here,” joked Ziegler, a 41-year resident of the ward.
The biggest question of the day was about money. Specifically, where the $1.3 million a year allocated for infrastructure improvements in the ward goes. McNeil admitted that the money isn’t enough for repairs, promising to “turn that upside down,” but didn’t elaborate. Ziegler vowed to get answers from his friends down at City Hall.
“I’ll get an answer for you at a later date,” promised Ziegler, a former executive director of the Community Action Network.
Both support the idea of engaging residents of all age groups, with Ziegler suggesting age-based focus groups starting with eighth-graders and McNeil promising more events for folks under 30.
Both candidates also plan to expand the annual community picnic, with McNeil promising more police and local business partnerships, and Ziegler noting he’d donated money to help with food and secured sponsorships from businesses in the ward.
On the issue of Euclid Park, which was redistricted from the 21st ward to the 34th in the last map redraw, Martin vowed to fight for its return. Ziegler scoffed at the idea.
“We’re not getting it back,” said Ziegler, who explained that the decision was based on the shift in population. “We have to accommodate fellow alderman so we can work together.”
Both support the idea of tapping into the community for entrepreneurs willing to invest in the area, with Martin pushing for more residents to take advantage of the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund and telling the crowd he is working with the owner of Lincoln Park’s “Batter and Berries” to get a similar restaurant in the ward.
Perhaps the most provocative question came towards the end of the forum, where an audience member asked if the 21st ward was a “dumping ground for the ratchet and ghetto,” and if either candidate had a plan to combat it. Martin blamed the lack of ” home training” of CHA residents. Ziegler said he wants to work to develop a sense of pride of homeownership, saying that he’d work with existing CHA programs to help with that.
The municipal election is Feb. 26. If no candidate in a aldermanic race receives a majority of votes, they’ll head to a runoff election April 2.