By Mick Dumke

February 17, 2011

In the eyes of Lisa Thomas, the needs of the 15th Ward are so extensive it is difficult to list them all.

“Things have been going downhill,” said Ms. Thomas, a mother of four and a 12-year resident of the South Side ward. “We need new homes and better schools. We need rebuilding.”

With unemployment stubbornly high and City Hall grappling with annual budget deficits, economic development has been the leading issue in ward races across Chicago. Candidates have debated the best ways to lure businesses, fill empty storefronts, improve infrastructure, halt an epidemic of foreclosures and create jobs.

Perhaps no other community has as many pressing challenges — and so little political clout to use in addressing them — as the 15th Ward.

The ward is shaped like a toppled capital L and includes large chunks of the historically working-class neighborhoods of West Englewood and Chicago Lawn. Its irregular borders and a history of lackluster aldermen, low voter participation and disinvestment have left it without the political power that could have turned things around.

Alderman Toni Foulkes, a former cake decorator elected to a first term with heavy union support, says she has made progress and needs more time. Her seven opponents — six on the ballot and one mounting a write-in campaign — say the ward has continued to slide and cannot afford another four years of weak representation.

Over the last decade, the ward lost 6 percent of its population, including nearly half of its white residents, and household income fell in most of the ward’s census tracts, according to census estimates. The ward is now about 65 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic and 4 percent white, though almost all of the Hispanics and whites live in the western Chicago Lawn part of the ward.

More than 2,500 properties there have gone into foreclosure since 2007, one of the highest totals in the city, according to researchers at the nonprofit Woodstock Institute. Some blocks have several boarded-up homes on each side of the street.

While crime has fallen citywide, it has been resilient in the two police districts that include the 15th Ward, where burglaries are up 20 percent and homicides 31 percent since 2006.

The city’s chief economic development initiative, the Tax Increment Financing program, has barely touched the area. The ward ranked 49th out of 50 in TIF spending from 2004 to 2008, trailed only by the Northwest Side’s 41st Ward, whose longtime alderman refused to participate in the program.

Knowing it is not the poorest or most blighted part of Chicago provides little solace to longtime residents.

“It’s gotten way worse,” said Edgar Gonzalez, a laid-off truck driver who on a recent afternoon was mopping the floor of the One Stop Shop, a small food store on 63rd Street where he now works. “People on my block are leaving.”

Alderman Foulkes, 46, said she knew all too well that the ward had serious problems. She still lives in the home near 65th and Paulina where she grew up in the 1970s. She recalled that when she was younger, 63rd Street had an ice cream parlor, record stores, restaurants and a grocery store within walking distance.

“It was a great place to grow up,” she said. “In the summer we would sit on the porch until late at night.”

In the time since, she said, capital flight, joblessness and high crime have devastated the area. “I’ve watched it happen over 39 years,” she said. “I know you can’t fix it all in 4.”

The ward does not have a history of strong representation. From 1991 to 1999, its alderman was Virgil Jones, a former police officer nicknamed Lock ’em Up Jones, whose political career ended in a conviction for taking bribes. He was followed by Theodore Thomas, whose reticence in the City Council earned him the nickname Silent Ted.

Four years ago, after Mr. Thomas announced his retirement, 11 candidates vied for the seat. When none received the 50 percent required to win, the top two, Ms. Foulkes and Felicia Simmons-Stovall, a lawyer for the State of Illinois, advanced to a runoff. In a ward with little established political power, it was no coincidence that both had outside support. Unions contributed more than $500,000 to Ms. Foulkes; Ms. Simmons-Stovall had the backing of the Illinois secretary of state, Jesse White, and his protégé, Alderman Walter Burnett of the 27th Ward.

Ms. Foulkes won with 60 percent of the 4,641 votes cast, the lowest total of any of the 12 runoff elections that year.

Ms. Foulkes has been a quiet, moderate presence in the City Council, voting for most of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s initiatives, including annual budgets and the parking meter lease deal, but joining with progressive colleagues to push for more affordable housing.

In an interview in her office, Ms. Foulkes said she had made steady progress in cleaning up the ward and upgrading infrastructure. She jumped out of her chair and pointed at a map on the wall marked in different colors that she said showed where improvements had been made with city, state and federal money.

“I’ve been digging up money from everywhere I can find,” she said. “I put in new street lighting here, and sidewalks here, and fixed a railroad viaduct here, and here the street was down to cobblestones before we repaved it.”

But the alderman’s seven opponents have seized on residents’ frustrations over economic stagnation and crime.

At a recent candidates’ forum that Ms. Foulkes did not attend, challengers took turns criticizing her as not being aggressive enough in confronting the area’s problems. Michael Finney, an activist mounting a write-in campaign, noted that the ward did not have a major grocery store. Sammy Pack Jr., an Iraq war veteran, deplored the prevalence of liquor stores and fast-food restaurants, saying the alderman should be fighting to bring businesses like Jamba Juice to the ward. And Ms. Simmons-Stovall said, if elected, she would find a way to harness the area’s buying power, perhaps after soliciting help from Michelle Obama.

“Why shouldn’t we have a Borders or a Crate & Barrel in this community?” she said.

Campaign contributions can be tough to come by in the 15th Ward, and Ms. Simmons-Stovall has yet to report any fund-raising for this election. Neither have three of the other challengers.

This year Secretary of State White and Alderman Burnett are staying out of the race. Ms. Simmons-Stovall said that she had been reluctant to run again but that she felt she had to because Ms. Foulkes had not done enough, starting with leveraging help from City Hall. “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed,” she said.

Ms. Foulkes continues to enjoy the support of progressive labor unions. “She’s been a good vote and a good voice on the City Council,” said Tom Balanoff, president of the Illinois state council of the Service Employees International Union. “The problem nowadays is that in a lot of wards there are lots of issues and there’s not enough money to deal with all of them.”

All of her challengers accused Ms. Foulkes of being distracted by citywide issues. Mr. Pack said Ms. Foulkes should be working harder to lower crime to make the area attractive to businesses, while Syron Smith, a block club activist, said she should be organizing residents.

Ms. Foulkes dismissed the criticism.

“My opponents know I’m doing a good job,” she said. “They just need a job themselves.”

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