WEST LOOP — An East Garfield Park Realtor is aiming to oust Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. from the 27th Ward seat he’s held for more than two decades.
Candidate Cynthia Bednarz said it’s time for new leadership in the diverse ward that stretches from East Garfield Park to the West Loop and Old Town. An alderman who votes with the mayor 100 percent of the time isn’t putting his constituents first, Bednarz charged.
Burnett, running for his seventh term, was one of 11 aldermen who voted with Mayor Rahm Emanuel 100 percent of the time from April 2017 to November 2018, according to former Ald. Dick Simpson’s most recent “rubber stamp” report. Between 2011 and 2017, Burnett voted with the mayor 97 to 100 percent of the time.
“We need someone who is not interested in simply answering to whatever the mayor wants, and we currently don’t have that in the 27th Ward,” Bednarz said.
But Burnett, a close ally to both Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley, said his good relationship with the mayor has brought more resources — and more development — to his ward.
The 55-year-old Burnett said he wants to have a good, “productive” working relationship with the next mayor, too — whoever that is. Having the ear of the mayor means more resources for the ward, he said.
“People didn’t elect me to protest. They didn’t elect me to fight,” Burnett said. “They elected me to get resources for my ward.”
But Bednarz, 48, said that while Burnett has been cozying up to the mayor, he has failed to put residents’ needs first.
“All of our requests and visions for our communities have fallen on deaf ears,” Bednarz said.
Burnett defended his record, pointing to his community-driven development process, where he hosts public meetings so neighbors can weigh in on a developer’s plans and other community changes. Burnett has sided with the majority of residents when it comes to signing off on new developments, infrastructure or school expansions and programs, he argued.
“I give my power, my influence to the community,” he said.
Damen Green Line plan too pricey, challenger says
Bednarz said that while development is booming in the wealthy West Loop and Old Town neighborhoods in the 27th Ward, Burnett hasn’t done enough to improve the west end of the ward, including East Garfield Park, where she has lived for 20 years.
Instead of committing $60 million in tax-increment financing funds for a new Damen “L” stop near the United Center, those dollars should be spent improving Garfield Park on the West Side — providing small businesses with loans, creating job training programs and improving neighborhood schools, Bednarz said.
“We currently have Level 3 schools in East Garfield Park that need help. We have homelessness in East Garfield Park. We have mental health centers that were closed. We have very few businesses operating west of Western and he is building a [$60 million] “L” station…[nearly] double the amount used for the “L” stop at Morgan,” said Bednarz, a CPS parent. “That’s reckless spending.”
The Damen stop will cost an estimated $60 million to build and the project is being funded by the Kinzie Industrial Corridor TIF, CDOT spokesman Michael Claffey said in February. The West Loop’s Morgan stop, which opened in 2012, cost $38 million to build, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Burnett, who lives on the Near West Side, said he has used TIF dollars to fund improvements at CPS neighborhood schools west of Western, including an addition at Jacob Beidler Elementary School, 3151 W. Walnut St., updates at Willa Cather Elementary School, 2908 W. Washington Blvd., and Morton School of Excellence, 431 N. Troy St.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about …. She probably don’t know anything about the schools,” he said.
And that Damen “L” stop in the works will not only spark economic development on the West Side, providing a key transportation link to Malcolm X College students and Medical District hospital staff, it will also right a historic wrong, Burnett said. He believes a station was not previously built between California and Ashland on the Green Line because the city did not want to construct new stops near public housing sites — in this case, near the now-torn-down Henry Horner Homes.
While he acknowledged that development has not been as prevalent on the west side of the ward as it has it the West Loop, he pointed to the new $30 million food incubator The Hatchery in East Garfield Park as a recent win. TIF dollars funded infrastructure improvements around The Hatchery, too.
Bednarz said The Hatchery project got the green light without widespread community support.
Bednarz argued the lack of adequate representation doesn’t end at Garfield Park. In booming Old Town and West Loop, residents have complained to her that Burnett has signed off on large developments despite resident’s concerns.
“I believe in infrastructure, I believe there should be business and prosperity to the West Loop but it should be done in a mindful way that involves the community,” Bednarz said.
Burnett disputed that he favored developers over the needs of residents.
“I make them meet with the community groups before they meet with me,” he said. “Everything we have done with developers is open and transparent, we’ve made decisions with community organizations in each neighborhood. I don’t do it in a vacuum.”
Burnett said he has always sided with how the majority of residents felt about development.
“I can’t say that every development satisfies everyone, but it does satisfy the majority,” the veteran alderman said.
Where they stand on other issues
Aldermanic prerogative: In a candidate interview, Burnett told the Sun-Times he would do “nothing” to rein in aldermanic prerogative. Bednarz told the paper it “must be curtailed” to “protect against corruption and misguided decisions.”
Affordable housing: Bednarz, who would push for a property tax freeze, said she would tap into TIF and Neighborhood Opportunity Bonus funds to build new affordable housing in the ward. If he’s re-elected, Burnett, an advocate for affordable housing, said he will work to bring more affordable housing to the old Cabrini-Green site and in East Garfield Park, as West Loop developers commit to building their off-site housing in the west end of his ward.
Charter schools: Bednarz called for a moratorium on new charter schools. While Burnett said charter schools aren’t perfect and need more oversight, he said the schools give “poor families a choice.”
School board: Burnett said he opposes an elected school board, Bednarz supports the move, according to Chicago Tribune questionnaires.
Last month, the Chicago Board Elections decided Bednarz’s name would appear on the 27th Ward ballot, overruling petition challenges that questioned the validity of her submitted signatures.
Burnett has since appealed the decision in court, but Bednarz is confident that a judge will uphold the Board of Elections decision.
Burnett said in December that objections are par for the course.
“Generally, any time we have challengers we petition them, and for the most part we knock them off,” Burnett said.
Burnett was overwhelmingly re-elected as 27th Ward alderman in 2015, sealing his sixth term.
He was first elected to the seat in 1995.
The diverse 27th Ward includes parts of the West Loop, Greektown, East Garfield Park, the Near North Side, Old Town, West Humboldt Park, West Town, the Medical District and Goose Island neighborhoods.
The election is Feb. 26.
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