CHICAGO — Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) — facing an unexpected runoff against accountant Deborah Foster-Bonner on April 2 — has his fingers crossed that history won’t repeat itself.
Eight years ago, 6th Ward Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, who was first appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1998, won 44.5 percent of the vote in the first round of voting.
In his first race for office, Sawyer, the son of a former mayor taking on the establishment’s preferred candidate, finished with 25 percent.
Despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support, union and business backing, Lyle lost to Sawyer by 104 votes in the runoff.
After all of the votes cast Feb. 26 were counted, Sawyer ended up three votes shy of the 50-percent-plus-one threshold to win re-election. Foster-Bonner won 31 percent of the vote.
Richard Wooten, a pastor, three-time candidate, and former police officer, won approximately 19 percent. Now Sawyer has to overcome similar numbers to what his predecessor faced in 2011.
While his close margin suggested to many that Sawyer would survive, others fret that a “change” election might threaten several incumbents.
Much like Lyle, Sawyer has robust union and business support, and has outraised Foster-Bonner. He about $146,000 on hand, compared to Foster-Bonner’s $31,000.
Sawyer acknowledged that he was “nervous” about being forced into a runoff — especially given the 6th Ward’s history.
“You’re always nervous when you’re in a runoff,” Sawyer said. “You want to make sure your record is clear. I’d like to think my record is a good one, it’s not a perfect one… but I’ve been on forefront on many an issue, whether it comes from the Fight for 15, an elected representative school board, access for children’s healthcare… police accountability, these things I’ve been out front about. I’m hoping my neighbors see that.”
Fight for $15 pushed state and local officials to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law to do just that last month.
Comm. Stanley Moore (D-2nd), whose Cook County Board district includes the 6th Ward, said he was surprised to see Sawyer in a runoff.
“I think he’s gonna be OK,” Moore said. “Rod has been there a while and sometimes when you’re there for awhile, you get a little comfortable… He’s done a lot of great things in the ward, he’s just gotta remind people.”
Sawyer conceded “we weren’t as visible as we could have been” and now he says he’s going all out in the last few weeks — phone banking, door knocking and launching a full mail program.
Members of the Service Employees International Union knocked doors with Sawyer March 16 and March 17. He is also holding a fundraiser at Old Crow Smokehouse on March 20.
Sawyer’s first electoral victory was likely helped by being the son of the former Ald. Mayor Eugene Sawyer, who served on the City Council from 1971-87 before serving as mayor briefly after the death of Mayor Harold Washington.
Sawyer said he knows little about Foster-Bonner.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about her, I don’t have any background about what she’s done. God bless her,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer said he will focus his message during the runoff on the more than $100 million spent on capital improvements in the ward, including the new Whitney Young Library, the new Fleet and Facilities Management facility, “millions in funding for new and existing businesses” through the city’s Retail Thrive Zones and Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, improved school ratings, “a massive paving project” on 79th and Marquette avenues, and a new Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership job training center at 79th Street and Champlain Avenue.
But Foster-Bonner said she is running because little has improved in the ward since 2011, and criticized Sawyer for allowing the 2FM facility to be built across from a senior center, and for not bringing a promised call center to the ward.
Foster-Bonner said she was also running because Target closed its Chatham store, there is no grocery store in the 6th Ward and Sawyer does a poor job communicating with residents.
Foster-Bonner has lived in Chatham since 1958. Her son, Malcolm Bonner, is running her campaign.
In February, Chatham largely voted against Sawyer, as did the northern Englewood portion of the ward, according to a South Side Weekly precinct analysis. Sawyer performed best in his native Park Manor, where 44 percent of the ward’s voters live.
While declining to reveal details, Sawyer said he’s “excited about prospects” about the now-vacant space that was once home to Target.
“This is a joint thing I’m working on with Ald. Carrie Austin (34th),” Sawyer said. “We want to ensure Chatham and Morgan Park (sites) are redeveloped. We’re close to making some announcements on that. I’m kind of giddy, I want to talk about it but I can’t yet.”
A grocery store to replace Target in Chatham is at the top of his wish list, Sawyer said.
“We had grocery stores surrounding us,” Sawyer said, including Jewel on 87th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway, and an Aldi on 73rd and State street. “Getting a grocery store is a massive effort, it takes a lot of involvement… I can say that grocery is front and center for the Chatham site. That’s as far as I can say without getting in trouble, but grocery and health are the two focal points for the Chatham site.”
After becoming the president of her block club in 1995, Foster-Bonner started a nonprofit, Reunite Chatham, and protested an effort to bring a liquor license to a local grocery store in an area that traditionally banned alcohol
Foster-Bonner said she was also active at her son’s school, Mark Sheridan Math & Science Academy, and launched another nonprofit to help pay for assistants for kindergarten, first and second grade teachers at the school.
Foster-Bonner said she was also part of an effort to equip buildings with security cameras and share that information with police. Approximately 150 properties are now participating, she said.
She supported Wooten’s campaign in 2015 but the two “had a difference of opinion,” and parted ways, she said, declining to elaborate.
“I don’t talk negative, that doesn’t serve a purpose to me,” Foster-Bonner said, but added that during the 2015 campaign she “learned the things I needed to know, a lot of it is reaching out to people, having a message to give them.”
Foster-Bonner said she wants to bring a grocery co-op to the ward, modeled after one in Rogers Park.
“Every big box store we’ve had in this area has gone,” Foster-Bonner said. “What are we left with? We’ve got the guys standing on the corner, why are they standing on the corner?”
Foster-Bonner said she would institute participatory budgeting with aldermanic menu money, and launch senior and community zoning groups.
As an accountant, Foster-Bonner said running for office was “never anything in my picture, I wasn’t looking for that, but you know, it reminded me of something my grandmother said which is ‘Why do you keep waiting for somebody else to do something that you know you should do?’”
Both the Tribune and Sun-Times backed Foster-Bonner.
The Tribune Editorial Board said she can deliver “more diligent representation… She is focused on unifying the ward and improving economic development.” The Sun-Times’ editorial board went against Sawyer in part because of his reaction to revelations that Ald. Danny Solis (25th) had been wearing a wire for federal investigators. “Sawyer knocked Solis for not keeping his ‘mouth shut.’ His loyalties are misplaced.”
Sawyer said the Sun-Times “can do what they want, that’s their paper. They didn’t take my body of work in consideration,” describing his statements on Solis “an off the cuff remark” made before he understood the scope of Solis’ involvement. “I’m not going to apologize for what I said. The core of what I said was true.”
According to an analysis of divided City Council votes from the University of Illinois Chicago Political Science professor and former 44th Ward Ald. Dick Simpson, Sawyer voted with Emanuel 100 percent of the time from from April 2017 to November 2018.
Sawyer said he and Emanuel “we’re not bosom buddies,” and described Simpson’s report as “extremely flawed” and “myopic” adding that Simpson “should know better” as a former alderman.
“I understand the Daleys were a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of approach,” Sawyer said. “On the second term of the Emanuel administration, we had a very collaborative relationship, so they’d bring me ordinances and ask what I thought about them. I’ll read them, I’m a lawyer, I’d redline them, and say if you do this that and another, I’ll support it. They’d take back and make changes. Why wouldn’t I support something I helped develop in the first place?”
Emanuel, who promised to help his aldermanic allies even after he decided not to run for a third term, gave Sawyer $20,000 in October to help with his re-elections effort. But Sawyer quickly turned around and gave the cash 10 non-profit groups, telling reporters at a news conference that he understood “the optics” of accepting the cash after progressive activists vowed to unseat Emanuel’s allies — including the 18-member Black Caucus.