Retired fire department district chief Carmelita Earls, who originally didn’t win enough votes to get one of the three spots in the 15th Police District Council race, is getting on the council after all thanks to mail-in ballots.

The votes cast on Election Day showed activist Arewa Karen Winters with the highest number of votes. Deondre Rutues, the community engagement specialist for New York University’s Policing Project, came in second and resident Darius Newsome placed third, earning 2,161 votes, or 14.37% of the vote. 

But even then, Earls came in a close fourth, earning 2,140 votes, or 14.23% of the vote – and the difference shrank as mail-in ballots came in until, by March 10, they were tied. On March 15, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners officially confirmed that, after the last of the mail-in ballots were counted, Earls climbed to third place, beating Newsome by one vote.

Earls was the only candidate in the race to be endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 police officers union. She also filed challenges to the nominating petitions of four other candidates’ in the race. If those challenges had been successful it would have allowed her to win by default. Earls withdrew her challenge against Winters, and the Board of Elections rejected her other challenges. 

Police district councils will work as liaisons between the community and police, offering input on local priorities and policies. They will also be responsible for nominating candidates for the city-wide Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, which is responsible for choosing candidates for police superintendent, head of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability and members of the Chicago Police Board, as well as request their dismissal and propose changes to police policy.  

Winters and Rutues said, after how long it took for the winner of the third seat to be settled, it will be at least another week before they make any decisions about council priorities, and what role each council member would play. 

After the candidates filed nominating petitions last December, Earls filed challenges against Winters, Newsome and candidates Oddis “OJ” Johnson and Elena X. Thompson. If the challenges succeeded, it would have left only her, Rutues and candidate Constance Melton on the ballot, allowing them to win by default. Earls previously denied that she was trying to guarantee her victory, saying there were issues with all of their nominating petitions, and that errors in petitions suggested that candidates who couldn’t follow procedure wouldn’t be a good fit for the council. 

Earls subsequently withdrew her challenge against Winters, because, as she told Austin Weekly News, she was impressed with Winters’ performance during a Dec. 17 candidate debate. The remaining objections were dismissed because Earls failed to follow the proper format. 

The FOP endorsed 19 candidates throughout the city. On the West Side, aside from Earls, they endorsed teacher Edgar “Edek” Esparza and attorney Pericles “Perry” Abbasi, who ran for seats in the 25th District, which includes Galewood and other parts of Austin not in the 15th District. Before mail-in ballots were counted, only seven of FOP endorsees won, and none of the winners were on the West Side. Earls’ win brings it up to eight.

Earls did not respond to a request for comment by deadline. Newsome said that, “given our narrow margins, according to the official election results, my campaign is exploring our options.” He declined to elaborate any further.

Winters previously said she harbored no ill will toward Earls. More than anything, she said she was glad the election was finally settled.

“I was looking forward to working with Darius, but it is what is,” she said. “It’s time for us to look forward to doing the work. I’m excited about doing the work overall.”

Rutues previously said he was leery of FOP endorsing candidates. But in an interview after the results, he said that he had no issues with Earls being on the council. 

“I was never against anybody in the race, even with my comments about FOP endorsements,” he said. “In a different time, I wouldn’t have been against accepting [the endorsement].”

Rutues said he wouldn’t accept it now because of “where we are in policing” and the political positions of FOP president John Catanzara, who was re-elected on March 3, winning 56.98% of the vote.

He also said Earls has a history of “standing up for what’s right.” Rutues cited how, in 2021, the city required first-responders to get vaccinated and suspended those who refused or didn’t report their status. According to the Chicago Tribune, Earls asked to be demoted after she had to suspend firefighters under her command for not reporting their status. She told the newspaper that, while she had no problem reporting her own status, she believed that the policy was unfair.

“That couldn’t have been an easy process to stand up for the rights of the people,” Rutues said.  “And that’s what this thing is about for us [district council members] –standing up against the power structure and standing up for the rights of people when they can’t do it for themselves.”

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...