When West Side activists filed to run for the new police district councils, most of them didn’t expect that someone would try to kick them off the ballot.

The candidates, who, in the main, had never run for any kind of elected office before, didn’t see the race as political. After all, the police district councils are supposed to serve as liaisons between the community and the police. Wasn’t it supposed to welcome average people who would otherwise never get involved in politics?

Karen Winters

“Someone had said to expect it, and I was like – not in this race,” reflected activist Karen Winters, who is running for the 15th District police council. “I didn’t think anyone was going to spend the money.”

But that is precisely what happened throughout the city, including in three out of the four police districts that serve the West Side. While all the candidates in the 15th and 25th districts, which collectively encompass all of Austin, stayed on the ballot, two of the candidates running in the 11th District, which includes most of Garfield Park and half of North Lawndale, were knocked off the ballot, which will allow the remaining three candidates to win by default.

Austin Weekly News reached out to all police district candidates who were challenged to get their experiences with the process. Belmont-Cragin resident Jacob Arena was the only 25th District candidate who was challenged. That challenge came from former 29th Ward candidate Thomas Simmons who subsequently withdrew it but didn’t respond to a request for comment by deadline. Neither did resident Martin Coffer, who ran for 11th District, and resident Darius Newsom, who is running for the 15th District. The Austin Weekly News was unable to reach 15th District candidate Elena X. Thompson — the e-mail bounced and the person who responded to this reporter’s call said it was the wrong number.

The police district councils are part of a broader effort to improve police accountability. Each of the 22 police districts will get a three-member district council. Aside from serving as liaisons, the councils will nominate members to a city-wide Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, which will select candidates for police superintendent and police oversight officials and have a role in developing police department policies.

Every registered voter who lives in the police district has a right to challenge any candidate’s nominating petitions. Each candidate goes before a hearing officer who reviews the case, usually over the course of multiple meetings, and issues a recommendation. The three-member Board of Election Commissioners of Chicago decides whether to agree with the recommendation or overrule it. That decision can be appealed to the Circuit Court of Cook County.

There were several districts, including the 10th, which includes half of North Lawndale, where no candidate was challenged. Overall, 29 district council candidates faced objections, and 11 of them were kicked off the ballot.

Tamiko Holt

Two of those candidates ran for the 11th District council, with East Garfield Park resident Jacqueline M. Weatherspoon objecting to both of them. While Coffer was thrown off the ballot because he didn’t attend the hearings, Tamiko Holt, head of Okimat Construction company, decided to defend her candidacy by trying to collect affidavits from all of the voters whose signatures were disputed.  But the process was difficult given the winter weather, and Holt said that, generally, she struggled to navigate the objection process without an attorney.

“[Candidates like me] don’t have attorneys, but you have those challengers — where do they get money from to pay for their attorneys?” she mused. “I don’t advise anybody to go up there without an attorney, especially if you don’t know about that space. It wasn’t supposed to be political, and it was.”

In the end, the board ruled that Holt didn’t have enough valid signatures to qualify. She told Austin Weekly News that her main takeaway was to wonder why anyone would want to kick any district council candidates off the ballot in the first place.

“We’re laypeople, we’re community people,” she said. “We just want to serve our community, and just want to help relieve some of the tension that’s going on between the police officers, the police department and our community.”

Carmelita Earls

In the 15th District, most of the objections came from a fellow candidate — retired Chicago Fire Department chief Carmelita Earls. She objected to Newsom’s, Thompson’s and Winters’ candidacies, as well as the candidacy of former 29th Ward candidate Oddis “O.J.” Johnson. If all of Earls’ objections succeeded, the field of candidates would’ve narrowed to three, allowing her to win by default.

In an interview with Austin Weekly News, she denied that she objected for her own benefit. Rather, Earls said that, if the candidates didn’t follow the rules, it didn’t bode well for their ability to carry out their duties as council members.

“I love democracy, I love some competition, but if this is the work product they put out in their names, what’s the work product they’re going to put out in the Austin community?” she said.

All of Earls’ challenges were dismissed because she didn’t follow a proper format for writing objections – and, in Thompson’s case, because she was never properly served. She withdrew her objection to Winters before it could go before the election commission.

She originally objected to Winters’ petitions because the statement of candidacy was missing a notary seal, and because the Statement of Economic Interest didn’t list which office she was running for. Winters blamed the errors on “overzealousness trying to get the documents in.”

The two women offered different versions of what happened. Winters said it was because a friend of hers connected them, and they got a chance to talk things out. Earls said she was impressed with Winters during the Dec. 17, 2022 15th police district candidate debate.

“[I thought] it would be a gross miscarriage not to allow the Austin community to have her as a choice,” she said.

Both said they harbor no ill will toward each other, and even compared notes on their campaign experiences.  

Oddis Johnson

Johnson was objected to by two separate parties – Earls and former 29th Ward Ald. Isaac Carothers. Earls objected because his oath of office wasn’t notarized, while Carothers objected on the grounds that the petition didn’t properly identify the district where he was running.

Johnson said that, as someone who ran for office before, he knew that he had to get three times the minimum number of required signatures. However, he said that he tried to get the signatures to run for 29th Ward alderman before deciding to throw his support behind community organizer CB Johnson. Ottis Johnson decided to run for district council instead – but this meant he didn’t have enough time to collect as many signatures as he would’ve liked.

Johnson said that, while the election board ruled in his favor, he was frustrated with how much time it took and because he felt that the current process, where anyone living in the district, including one of his opponents, could challenge the petitions, was unfair.

“The process itself — I think they need to correct it, because, at this point – I was challenged by one of the people who was running for the office,” he said. “I think it’s too blatant, because they challenged me on everything. They challenged me on my signature, they challenged me on my notary, they challenged me on how the petition was drafted.”

Instead, Johnson said, he would like the election board itself to review all petitions for any irregularities – something that would require a change in state law.

“I really don’t believe the Board of Elections is doing their job, because they don’t review the papers [the candidates] turn in,” he said.

Earls said she was “really disappointed” that the election board dismissed her objections without considering their merits.

“The sad part about it, the board didn’t care,” she said. “They allowed them to be on the ballot anyway. I think every candidate who was knocked off who was similarity situated, should sue.”

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...