Facing range of stark problems, 24th Ward draws active campaign

Aldermanic hopefuls each say they can make ward better

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By NICK MORONI

The campaigns of contenders for alderman of the 24th Ward mirror one another in tone: the common note being the need for change and reinvestment in West Garfield and North Lawndale.

Ald. Sharon Dixon (24th) is seeking reelection, and community activists Valerie Leonard, Donielle Lawson, and Wilbert Cook are already in the race. The contenders are running to represent an area marred with blight, unemployment, and one of the highest crime rates in the city.

Frank Watkins, chief of staff for Dixon, and her 2011 reelection bid, praised the current alderman's "dedication" and her initiative to bring "investment into the community." To this point it has been unclear if Dixon was going to run for reelection after losing the 7th district congressional Democratic primary to longtime US Rep. Danny Davis.

She is not looking back, though.

"She was meeting with private, industry people today [last Friday]. She brought a top assistant to Mayor Daley out," said Watkins, describing a pitch Dixon had allegedly made to the Mayor's office to spark investment in the ward.

Watkins also cited the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy affordable apartments in North Lawndale, as an initiative that Dixon strived to see realized. The $17 million project, under construction at 1550 S. Hamlin, was funded in part by the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a federal program through which Chicago received $168 million.

That effort, though, is inadequate to Valerie Leonard.

Leonard, a financial consultant who was profiled by the Austin Weekly News in August, has used town hall meetings, traditional news outlets, and the blogosphere to criticize the "lack of leadership in the 24th Ward.

"[The city] has made only five investments in North Lawndale, even though it's a community of highest need. The city got $98 million more, and North Lawndale was not included. There are still no investments in West Garfield. The city will be getting $168 million more for this program [Neighborhood Stabilization Program]. Will they give North Lawndale and West Garfield our fair share?" Leonard posted on the Everyblock website.

Donielle Lawson, a teacher at Cook County Jail alternative high school, told a reporter for the website Examiner.com, that "residents are ready for something new and radical. I just might be the one for the job."

Lawson has launched a "complete accessibility" campaign, whereby she instructed residents to call, text, and e-mail any concerns regarding the ward. She has extended her reach through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Wilbert Cook, on the other hand, was completely inaccessible. Austin Weekly News tried unsuccessfully for three days to reach the candidate, whose campaign platform is unknown.

Cook heads A Hand Up, 4223 W. 21st, a non-profit that works to reintegrate ex-offenders into the job market.

He has no website, and the telephone number provided on a campaign flyer connects callers to A Hand Up, where no one answered the phone.

The ward's problems are many.

As recently as 2005, 42 percent of households in North Lanwdale had incomes of $15,000 or less, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program reported. One of the ward's police districts has the fourth highest violent crime rate citywide, according to police records. And, according to a study by the non-profit organization, Justice Policy Center, North Lawndale is one of six communities, out of the 77 citywide, that account for 34 percent of ex-offenders returning to Chicago.

"Anyone else that is running that can tell you that they can create jobs, solve the housing problem, crime, they've been smoking something," Watkins said. "This is one of the most difficult wards in the city."

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