Accusations of ethics violations and misconduct could thwart Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin’s bid for U.S. Rep. Danny Davis’ (D-7) congressional seat before she even got started, political analysts said.
Campaigning would be like running “with an anvil around her foot,” said Chicago political consultant Delmarie Cobb.
“You’re starting out with an issue, a negative issue,” she explained.
But “there are certain standards that you have to live up to when you become an elected official,” she said. “I always tell my clients that it’s not whether you did something right or wrong, it’s the perception of the right and wrong.”
And Rep. Davis, 82, is a tough act to beat.
“If you’re running to say that you’re better than an incumbent, and the incumbent hasn’t necessarily had any scandals, the only issue you’re running on is age, you got to prove that you’re going to be a better congressman than the one who is in the office,” Cobb said.
Simply issuing denials won’t cut it, she added. If Conyears-Ervin stands any chance of succeeding, she needs to address the issues directly.
Other analysts agreed.
“This kind of scandal makes it difficult [to run for a national office] because unless she can clear her name entirely, that means in any political campaign, she’ll spend most of her time talking about those allegations,” said Dick Simpson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former Growing Community Media columnist.
He added that such allegations would make it hard for any candidate to raise money, which is critical to run a successful campaign.
The problem stems from a 2020 four-page letter the city recently released. In it, Tiffany Harper, Conyears-Ervin’s former chief of staff, and Ashley Evans, another city treasurer employee, said that they were fired in retaliation after they questioned what they described as the abuse of power. The story was first reported by the Chicago Tribune this week.
The letter said that among other things, Conyears-Ervin used her employees to organize her daughter’s party and to be her bodyguards. They also accused her of hiring politically connected individuals for positions they weren’t qualified for, pressuring a bank to give a loan to a third party on a building that houses her husband’s, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), ward office, and using city resources to support churches connected to her and Ervin.
According to the letter, Conyears-Ervin hired a former Chicago police officer to act as assistant to the city treasurer – a job that required financial training that the ex-officer allegedly didn’t have – and had him act as her security guard. The letter said that Conyears-Ervin hired Gina Zuccaro, who objected to nominating petitions for several candidates who ran against Ervin in 2019, as an administrative assistant.
The letter also alleged that the treasurer pressured BMO Harris Bank, one of the banks where the city stores its deposits and which has a branch in the West Garfield Park portion of the 28th Ward, to give a mortgage to the building where Ervin’s aldermanic office was located at the time.
The city ended up settling with Harper and Evans for $100,000. Former mayor Lori Lightfoot tried to block the release of the letter in court, but the Johnson administration decided not to continue to fight, releasing it late last week.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Board of Ethics investigated the complaints, but dropped it after the settlement was reached. The board added the discussion of the letter to the agenda for its upcoming Sept. 11 meeting. While the meeting is open to the public, the agenda indicates that this, along with all of the other cases on the agenda, will be discussed in executive session. Board executive director Steve Berlin told the Tribune that the item was added to the agenda because it was “in the news” and gave no indication as to what action the board might take.
The allegations come as Conyears-Ervin is considering running for Davis’ seat in the 2024 Democratic primary. She formed an exploratory committee in April. According to the most recent available campaign filing, Conyears-Ervin raised $283,436 as of June 30.
Cobb said that the fact that the allegations ended in a settlement gives the former employees credibility.
“The fact that you had some of the former employees who claim that there was abuse in her office, and there was a settlement lends some credence that this took place,” she said.
“It certainly will affect the campaign,” she added, “because the fact that the settlement was made, and there was effort by the previous administration, Lori Lightfoot, to keep the terms of the settlement under wraps.”
When reached for comment, Conyears-Ervin’s campaign reshared her earlier statement denying the allegations.
“I have never, nor will I ever abuse or misuse taxpayer dollars and breach the public trust,” she stated. “I treat my responsibility to the citizens and taxpayers with the utmost respect. I am proud of the way our team helped small businesses survive during the pandemic and how we have invested in underserved, struggling neighborhoods during these past four years.”
West suburban support in question
Simpson noted that while Conyears-Ervin and her husband have a significant political machine and base of support on the West Side, the 7th District extends far beyond that.
“[Voters] out at UIC and Oak Park are particularly sensitive to the issues of corruption — and those are places where she’d like to get voters,” he said.
Austin activist Kina Collins, who is running for the third time, pounced on the allegations, arguing that Conyears-Ervin is unsuited for the role.
“Politicians who think and act like the rules don’t apply to them should not hold public office,” she said. “As a lifelong resident and candidate for the 7th congressional district, we deserve a representative who will honor the basic tenets of democracy: integrity, transparency, and accountability. These allegations are damning, unless the City Treasurer addresses them sufficiently and a thorough exculpatory investigation is conducted, I do not believe she is fit to serve in any capacity let alone in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
While Collins trailed Davis when she first faced him in 2020, she gave him the toughest challenge in decades in 2022, earning 45.6% of the vote. She has already earned endorsements from four Oak Park village trustees and some of the aldermen representing the area around the UIC campus.
Davis spokesperson Tumia Romero said that the U.S. Representative had no comment on the matter.
Cobb and Simpson both said that the charges wouldn’t necessarily hurt Conyears-Ervin if she decides to stay city treasurer. She won reelection in 2023, and she won’t face voters again until 2027.
“There’s plenty of time for the situation to change and for her to do things that will cause people not to focus on those allegations,” said Simpson.
“The fact that she got into office recently gives her time to rehabilitate her reputation,” said Cobb.