Political Newcomer Defeats Mayor’s Lieutenant
Written by Lizz Giordano
Produced by Jasmine Sanborn

Susan Sadlowski Garza rushed in late to her own victory party. A loud groan had already rippled through the crowd after Mayor Rahm Emanuel claimed victory for a second time, soundly defeating Garza’s supporter Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner.

Garza remained missing from her party, anxiously waiting to learn the count from four ballot boxes. Mechanical errors with the paper ballot counting machines on election night prevented a final vote tally in the 10th Ward aldermanic race.

“We’ve become this forgotten stepchild of the city,” Garza said of the 10th ward during her campaign. “No one has asked us what we want, what we need, what we want to see here. We are the forgotten entity of the city.”

Garza, a school counselor and political newcomer, forced incumbent Alderman John A. Pope into a runoff. But defeating Pope was no easy task. Pope held his seat for 16 years with little challenge, had Emanuel’s backing and a re-election war chest double that of Garza’s.

The crowd of Garza supporters continued to grow at the Crow Bar, a popular neighborhood tavern and banquet hall on 106th Street of Chicago’s Southeast Side. Supporters nervously updated one another with the latest vote count. Whispering to one and another trying not jinx the outcome.

In the crowd was 10th ward resident Anna Swiatek. “People in the community have been waiting for 16 years to have a voice,” she said.

Residents were tired of waiting. Garza promised to revitalize the ward by creating a small-business task force and pushing for a complete ban on petroleum coke, or pet coke, along the Calumet River. The community complained that recent city ordinances passed to regulate this dusty byproduct of oil refining did not go far enough. These same residents criticized Pope’s environmental record in the ward.

For the past eight months, Garza’s volunteer army swept across the ward to deliver her message. Now long after the polls closed, a handful of staffers from the Garza campaign were refusing to take their eyes off the uncounted ballot boxes.

“I told them I did not want to let it out of my sight. I took down the seal number. And then I followed the guy downtown,” said Garza campaign aide Carl Camacho. “This is how elections are stolen.”

The possibility of change lay in the remaining uncounted voices of the 10th ward in those malfunctioning ballot boxes. Garza and her campaign would soon learn that an error in the 11th precinct memory pack had prevented the paper ballots from being processed. Late on election night, poll workers delivered these boxes to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners’ warehouse to be scanned and counted the next day.

With two precincts left to report and a slim seven votes in the lead, Garza finally made an appearance. She was running out of energy. With hunched shoulders and tired eyes, she warmly greeted the crowd.

 “Regardless of the outcome of this election, we have won already,” Garza said in a raspy voice. “We have started something in the 10th ward that people will never forget, we cannot walk out here and let it go.”

The crowd engulfed her, passing her from hug to hug. What energy Garza lacked, the crowd provided in abundance. No victory would be declared tonight.

Pope’s campaign staff remained confident.

“Tomorrow, tonight, at some point, the final votes are going to come in,” said Pope campaign representative Jake Breymaier that evening. “Alderman John Pope will end up victorious.”

Garza did not sleep well that night.

The rubber stamp city council

BBetween 2011 and 2014 in city council chambers, Pope voted with the mayor 100 percent of the time, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago study. He was one of eight aldermen completely faithful to the mayor’s wishes and part of a city council where three quarters of aldermen voted with the mayor 90 percent of the time or more.

“Under Mayor Emanuel [the City Council] has remained more of a rubber stamp than either under Mayors Richard J. or Richard M. Daley,” the study states.

Loyalty has its rewards. For the 2015 election, Chicago Forward, a super PAC started by a longtime associate of Emanuel, Becky Carroll, spent $65,553 supporting Pope during his campaign for re-election. This accounted for 1 in every 10 dollars that was spent for his campaign.

Pope was not alone. Six of the eight most devoted aldermen received money from this super PAC during the last election. Four candidates received more than $40,000 from Chicago Forward.

In 2014 and 2015, Pope raised more than $690,000 in campaign donations. In the same period, Garza’s raised $278,000.

This is in a ward where the median income in some neighborhoods is $29,000, or $18,000 below the city’s median income.

“It’s beginning to cost a quarter of a million dollars to run for alderman,” said former alderman Dick Simpson, now a political science professor at the UIC. “That’s more than you can raise from individuals who simply like your stance in the average ward.” 
 Residents also criticized Pope for accepting sizeable campaign donations – either for this election or in the past - from industries that pollute in the 10th ward, such as KCBX Terminals, Agri-Fine Corporation and Beemsterboer Slag Corporation.

Donations to John Pope | Create infographics
Donations to Susan Garza | Create infographics

Counting the remaining ballots

The day after the election, ballots from the 11th and 28th precincts were rescanned. Garza’s lead grew to 54 votes.

Garza claimed victory during a press conference later that night.

“If you are going to defeat an entrenched candidate with the Mayor’s support, you need a very strong volunteer army to get the message to the voters,” Simpson said. “The reason Garza won is she was able to unify the opposition against Pope.”

All eyes then shifted to the absentee and provisional ballots that had yet to be counted. Absentee ballots would be counted if they were postmarked by the day before the election and arrived within two weeks following the election.

But campaigns had three days left to file for an election recount, even though the elections board wouldn’t announce official results for 15 more days.

The Pope campaign released a strongly worded statement after Garza announced her win.

"In yet another stunning display of hypocrisy, the Garza campaign is prematurely declaring victory, while themselves acknowledging that all the votes have not yet been counted," Breymaier said in a written statement issued ahead of the challengers' news conference.

Garza slept well that night.

Legacy of pollution

"Decades ago when you viewed the South Side from downtown what did you see?” asked Peggy Salazar of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. “Smokestacks, flaring things. You didn’t realize a community existed there.”

The ward was an epicenter of the region’s steel industry. Today, jobs that once brought a middle class lifestyles to the community have vanished, leaving a community scarred by heavy industry to clean up. 

“We have always put up with some of the negative effects of the steel industry because everyone was employed by the steel mills around there,” Tom Shepard of the Southeast Environmental Task Force said. “We have had pollution, coal, dirty air and everything around here for many years.”

Now that heavy industry no longer supports the community, a successful grassroots movement emerged urging the neighborhood to make environmental improvements rather than let heavy industry continue to dominate.

“We are just done, we want to live a life of dignity,” said community activist Olga Bautista. “Be able to hold our heads up high. We don’t want to be embarrassed of our neighborhood.”

Weeks before the election, residents won a hard-fought battle against KCBX Terminals, the company responsible for massive petroleum coke piles along the Calumet River in the ward, after the city council passed storage regulations. But activists say legislation doesn’t go far enough because pet coke will remain in the ward.

The residents, tired of the lack of jobs and abundance of polluting industry, began to stand up and fight. Pope supported the recent pet coke reforms but heard these cries too late.

Unifying the Opposition

“The aldermanic is kinda the World Series of the Super Bowl of campaigns and elections on the Southeast Side,” said lifelong 10th ward resident and recent aldermanic candidate Rich Martinez. “It’s pretty much that or bust.”’

Despite having two failed bids for alderman under his belt, Martinez ran again to put an end to what he called “16 years of tyranny” in the ward and offer the community a stronger voice in the city council -- perhaps the only voice the community holds in Chicago politics.

Martinez was one of six challengers in the February primary election, capturing 12.5 percent of the vote. This was enough to help force Pope into a run-off with Garza.

“We were able to organize a community in such a way to have a strong voice in opposition,” said Martinez. 

Martinez made a pact with some of the other candidates to support whoever faced Pope in a run-off. He didn’t reach his first goal, but he delivered on his second.

“My second goal was to see John Pope no longer serve and sit in that office,” Martinez said. “I didn’t need them to be my votes, only votes against John Pope.”

This pact took Martinez on a path he had never encountered during his 30 years of election experience. Martinez spent the run-off election day poll-watching for the Garza campaign. He witnessed one of the precincts experiencing errors at the end of the night. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, he followed the election judge who transported the memory cartridge to the receiving center at nearby Bright Elementary School. 

“I’m always concerned about things disappearing,” Martinez said. “You hear all the horror stories.”

Martinez was confident that if Garza was elected “there would no longer be a rubber stamp representing the 10th ward.”

The First Alderwoman of the 10th Ward

Garza credits her father Edward Sadlowski, labor icon and former director of United Steel Workers of America Local 65, for teaching her to stand up and say something when she witnesses an injustice. 

Garza is life-long 10th ward resident and a proud Chicago Teacher’s Union member and leader. She started her 22-year Chicago Public Schools career as a lunch lady. When her children were young, Garza went back to school, eventually completing a master’s degree. She then returned to her alma mater, Jane Addams Elementary School, to work as a counselor. Garza is married to ironworker Raul Garza and has four children.

"Nobody said it would be easy, but, in hearing the voices of people who have been ignored for so long, we together were able to upset the status quo and chart a new path for the forgotten 10th Ward," Garza said after claiming victory.

Pope did not go quietly. He fought for every last vote. In the days following the election, he filed a request in Cook County Circuit Court for a recount.

Illinois election law requires campaigns to file a suit within five days following the election, before the elections board has announced official vote tallies. 

After the elections board proclaimed the results of the election, Pope’s campaign asked for an election discovery, a recount of votes that can be used in a lawsuit in court without changing the official vote tally. 

Both campaigns would eventually drop their suits requesting a recount. And Pope conceded.

“After examining the vote tallies from the April 7th election, I have decided to drop my claim for a recount,” Pope said in a written statement May 12.  “It has been an honor and privilege to serve as the 10th Ward Alderman since 1999.” 

Former Alderman Pope declined a request for an interview.

On May 18, Garza, dressed in red, proudly walked across the stage at the Chicago Theater ready to take the oath of office. She is one of 13 new faces in the city council and the first female alderman to represent the 10th ward. Giving the invocation before the oath of offices was administered, Monsignor Kenneth Velo advised the city council to “hunger for justice and peace.”

After taking the oath of office, Garza celebrated by throwing her fist in the air - ready to get to work.