LINCOLN PARK — In the 43rd Ward, an area that includes parts of Lincoln Park, Old Town and Gold Coast, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) finds herself in a heated runoff election for the third time in a row.
Derek Lindblom, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former staffer to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has proven to be a formidable opponent. And with more than 33 percent of the vote going to neither Smith or Lindbloom in the Feb. 26 election, the race is wide open.
Neither candidate has played nice, and just like in 2015 the race has gone decidedly negative. Smith’s campaign created a website attacking Lindblom for his previous work at Bain & Company. The website hopes to create a link between Lindblom and Mitt Romney’s business dealings at Bain Capital.
But Lindblom said there’s no link of note because he worked at Bain & Company, a separate consulting firm.
“Mitt Romney and I happened to work at the same global consulting firm,” Lindblom said. “Romney happened to stop working there in 1984 when I was three years old.”
On the other hand, Lindblom has called attention to the $288,000 Smith made as a consultant for The Helen Cobuen Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation For The Arts, an arts foundation, during her first two terms. The problem, Lindblom said, is that Smith had campaigned on the promise she would be a full-time alderman.
Citing feedback from her constituents, Smith returned the money, and said she bit off more than she could chew.
“I burned myself out over it and my constituents didn’t like it,” she said. “So I quit four years ago and returned my compensation. … I was working full-time then and I work full-time now.”
But documents from the arts foundation’s tax forms tell a slightly different story. The arts foundation — operated by one of Smith’s largest donors — was legally required to give the money back because Smith is a government employee and the consulting payment was considered self-dealing.
In an amended tax form, a foundation representative wrote that in early 2015, the foundation and Smith became aware that payments to Smith, “even for her personal services to the foundation entirely outside the scope of her governmental work, were considered an act of self-dealing since she was an alderman for the City of Chicago which made her a government official.”
Property taxes & pensions
Both Smith and Lindblom have promised to vote against any property tax increase if elected.
Lindblom contends Smith broke a promise to voters when she campaigned in 2015 not to raise property taxes unless all other options had been exhausted. Smith voted for the 2016 tax increase, the largest in the city’s modern history.
“Folks are eager for a change when it comes to [Ald. Smith] telling them she’s going to vote against property tax increases, and then voting for the biggest property tax increase in the history of the city,” he said.
But Smith said her hands were tied, mainly due to pension law — pension law Lindblom was aware of as he served as chief of staff to Emanuel’s Economic Council.
“The state law said if [pensions are] not funded by fiscal year 2016, you must raise property taxes,” she said.
Even though she didn’t want to raise property taxes, Smith said she believes the law should be followed and does not believe in symbolic votes.
Smith said Lindblom’s pension reform plan was struck down in the Illinois Supreme Court after some of the labor unions decided to sue after negotiations. Smith attributes the lack of an iron-clad contract to Lindblom.
But Lindblom criticized Smith for not doing enough during her eight years in office to help solve the city’s pension crisis. He said he had the courage to tackle the tough issue when it wasn’t popular.
“We’re looking at this and we’re seeing someone who didn’t do anything and the only thing they did do was enthusiastically endorse my legislation,” he said.
In fact, Smith penned an op-ed that ran in Crain’s, asking then-Gov. Pat Quinn to sign the legislation Lindblom helped draft.
Although Lincoln Yards sits just outside the 43rd Ward, the mega development has been a major issue during the campaign. Smith has been fighting for more transparency with progressive Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd).
She has called it a terrible deal for the city and a rush job that is anything but responsible urban planning. Smith has also advocated for a larger public park in the design plans.
Smith has criticized Lindblom for previously not taking a more active position for or against the development, saying that he “sat on the sidelines.”
Lindblom said at the most recent candidate debate that he is against the project, mainly because of the lack of transparency and the congestion.
Both candidates have sizable warchests and powerful backers funding their campaigns. Smith has raised more than $328,000 in 2019, and both her and Lindblom have more than $500,000 cash on hand.
Neither candidate has refused developer dollars.
When it comes to trimming the fat and cutting spending, both candidates believe that increasing police training will help decrease the number of settlement payouts for police misconduct.
Lindblom wants to consolidate city, county and state government in order to make things less bloated. He wants to look at eliminating unnecessary special government agencies. He also said holding municipal elections in November along with the general elections could save the city millions of dollars.
“There’s a number of areas where we’ve done things a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” he said.
Smith pointed to her commitment to fight absenteeism at City Hall. She said her work in creating a task force has helped to cut in half absenteeism at Streets & Sanitation, Water Management and CDOT.
“When you are trying to save money, it isn’t one thing,” she said. “You have to chip away at systems and make them better every day.”
In the 43rd Ward, Lindblom is mounting a campaign based on change.
“I’m running against someone who’s had eight years to take on tough challenges and hasn’t,” he said. “We need someone who’s going to run at the hard problems instead of away from them. And that’s who I am and that’s why I’m running.”
Smith’s message to voters is one of finishing the job.
“The depth of experience and commitment that our office has shown the last seven years is one of the reasons why I hope to be elected to another term,” she said. “The fact is, I have been one of the leaders for reform in the city and now is our chance to actually bring to fruition all that hard work for which we have been striving all these years.”
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