Big issues await 20th ward hopefuls

Candidates hope to address the ward’s education system, retail development, unemployment, and high crime rates.

By Crystal Tsoi

The 20th ward boasts an alarming 30,000 vacant lots, but these lots aren’t its only problem. Among the issues that have stirred up debate among the four candidates vying for the alderman position in the run-up to the February 22 election are a struggling education system, retail development, unemployment, and high crime rates.

The candidates in the upcoming election include George Davis, Andre Smith, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, and incumbent Willie B. Cochran. The Maroon was unable to reach Andre Smith.

Willie B. Cochran highlighted accomplishments that his administration has achieved in office at Saturday’s State of the Ward Address given at the New Beginnings Church at East 66th Street and South King Drive.

Cochran was upbeat about the improvements made in the ward. “We’ve developed and made the community healthy again. The social fabric of our community is made up of the populations, organizations, the resources that we have in this community, the businesses, and the investment that goes into this community, and more than anything, how you as a public ask us to respond,” he said.

Saturday’s address focused on the state of the education system in the 20th ward. Cochran highlighted the $3 million that has been invested in the public schools and 3,000 books donated to children as a result of TIF funds. He also mentioned his efforts with the company Kaboom to put a playground in Washington Park and his future plans to put 20 more playgrounds in the 20th ward.

“When I took office in May of 2007, the 20th ward was suffering from years of poor administration. We have provided that access and we support that access by ensuring that service,” said Cochran.

But those challenging Cochran disagree, citing crime and a lack of business development as major problems yet to be addressed.

According to both Rhymefest and Davis, a lack of transparency with the current aldermanic administration is problematic. Davis said, “No one can tell you now what the current alderman’s plan to address crime is.”

Rhymefest, who won a Grammy in 2005 for co-writing “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West, has brought publicity to the race. Rhymefest’s high profile has drawn big names like Lupe Fiasco and George Clinton to hold fundraisers for the campaign.

In an interview in November with the Maroon, Rhymefest said that his decision to run stemmed from his discontent with the current alderman and the state of the 20th ward. “There are a lot of services that people aren’t receiving. My priority is to connect the legislature of the aldermanic office and the community back together. There’s no reason that [citizens] don’t know the resources before them,” he said.

Rhymefest hopes to “connect the village to the ivory tower and the ivory tower to the village,” outlining his efforts to connect resources at the University of Chicago to students in the 20th ward.

He also cited economic development as a major concern. He said he hopes “to market [his] community in a way that lets people know that businesses do exist there [and] that these businesses have services that we need, that we can use.”

Businessman George Davis also pointed to crime, education, and economic health as “critical issues for the 20th ward.”

Davis said his administrative experience makes him a candidate who will get things done. “What I’ve been seeing is that a lot of people I talk to that are regular voters, particularly in the Woodlawn neighborhood, they see a big distinction between someone like myself and someone like Rhymefest. They are a little wary of putting someone in the office that doesn’t have any administrative experience,” he said.

Davis said cleaning up the ward would be a first priority, and then he’d look at how to reduce crime rates. “Let’s make sure that trash isn’t on our street and then let’s really figure out what we are going to do to attack crime and lower our crime rates…by three percent every year while I am in office,” said Davis.

Davis said the issue of economic development is a multifaceted one that needs to be addressed from multiple perspectives. Using his background in business, Davis hopes to “form a public-private partnership with some green technology firms.”

In Andre Smith’s response to the Chicago Tribune’s editorial questionnaire, he mentions “crime and joblessness” as his main concerns. Smith hopes to work with public schools and the city council to “address conceal and carry laws” and “work with the communnity [sic] to find new employment oppurtunities [sic] and I will work with the public schools to improve education.”