By Andrew Davis
Having been alderman of the 48th Ward since 1991, Mary Ann Smith has been involved in everything from environmental issues to educational initiatives. However, she recently faced something scarier than any ordinance: three opponents in the upcoming election.
Now, Smith heads into the Feb. 27 election unopposed, thanks to her challenging the petitions of her opponents and, subsequently, exposing mistakes they made while filing for candidacy. (One challenger, Chris Lawrence, recently filed an appeal. However, the outcome is unknown.)
Smith recently talked with Windy City Times about the controversial challenges, her vision for the ward and the thorny situations involving Senn High School.
Windy City Times: What accomplishment during this current term are you proudest of?
Mary Ann Smith: I would have to say that a premier developer has signed a contract with the Uptown Theatre (whose name I can't reveal right now) is pretty important. This is very significant not just because it's an important structure historically and architecturally but, also, because people have been giving up because property values have gone up. People needed to be reassured that this [area] is viable. It's also symbolic because so much of what we do is community restoration—revitalizing the community and also historic buildings.
The second huge thing—which is a non-local thing—is my work on the climate change issue. I started about 15 years ago with an association of 400 cities on six continents; those of us who had been active on environmental issues were very concerned about greenhouse gas reduction. In China, the issue is methane; in Denver, it's particulates; in southern California, you have valleys with huge smog problems; and in Chicago, issues are connected to energy and automobiles. We actually are seeing significant results in Chicago and other cities. It's critical for cities to unite and begin to act despite the fact that people like George Bush have blown off the issue.
Because of these efforts, we have things like alternative wastewater management, rooftop greening, alternative energy uses and the ripping-up of heat-holding infrastructures. I'm happy that Chicago is recognized as being in the forefront. Interestingly enough, Andersonville is often cited as one of the nation's most liveable communities. Did you know that?
WCT: I recently saw Andersonville mentioned on a gay Web site as a great place to live.
MAS: There are several magazines that deal with sustainable development, but the whole LGBT community has been integral in the revitalization of Andersonville. Some of the first people to step up to the plate when Andersonville came back strong were gays and lesbians, sort of hand-in-hand with the Swedes.
This may not seem like the heart and soul of aldermanic business, but it's pretty important. Of course, public safety is the most important issue, no matter where you live. By working hard to make this community safe, it is much safer for everyone—and that's a premier issue for everyone up here. Our crime stats are now the best in the city.
WCT: Let's talk about the campaign itself. What is your status right now—unopposed?
MAS: I cut my teeth on independent politics in 1968; I learned what I needed to know from the IVI [Independent Voters of Illinois]. One of the things we learned is that you always, always, always have a lawyer examine your petition and that you always, always, always seize any opportunity to challenge your opponent's petition. We looked at the petitions—which I was surprised to see were a mess—and, right now, both of the gentlemen have been knocked off the ballot and the woman is likely to be knocked off. At the moment, it looks like I'm the only one on the ballot.
WCT: Is the filing system too complicated?
MAS: No. If you look at the materials the board puts out, there are brochures that tell you what you have to file and where you have to file them. It takes a few minutes to file these documents and it takes a few minutes to stick them all together. I would maintain that the system has become much, much easier than it was in the old days, when things would change at the last minute. It's a much more transparent system today; the whole process is much more open.
WCT: Let's talk about Senn High School. There was the decision to have [Rickover Naval Academy] open there in 2005...
MAS: It was in 2005; I was recovering from chemotherapy. I had a meeting with the Edgewater Community Council Education Committee in my living room because I wasn't very mobile. [Chicago Public Schools CEO] Arne Duncan actually came to talk to us about the possibility of bringing this naval academy to the neighborhood and to Senn, because the building can accommodate around 3,000 people, but recently it's only had about 1,400 students. In terms of capacity, the school was easily able to absorb a program like the naval academy.
WCT: Do you understand why people opposed having the naval academy there?
MAS: There are several reasons, which I certainly understand. However, after discussing the program and consulting the community—and the most active people at the time were the committee—and getting the consent of the community, then I consented. Judy Hernandez, the principal of Senn, by the way, sat in my living room and welcomed the naval academy. While she said later that she did not consent, she actually had—and in the presence of several others.
It was a very open discussion, because who cares? If the neighborhood didn't want it, no problem. However, once it had been discussed and put into motion, that was it. As we got into deeper discussions about curriculum, it became obvious that it was a terrific opportunity for some students. The naval academy now has the best attendance rate in the city of Chicago. I've gotten calls from people who said they initially opposed the academy but now they see how happy the students are.
WCT: Now there's another controversy regarding Senn, this time with Mike North and the school's softball field. [The local school council said that it made a procedural mistake naming the field after North after the radio personality used a derogatory term to describe a Korean player for the Chicago Cubs. North has since apologized, but the council wants Smith to make the final decision.]
MAS: I was approached by his family to talk about reconnecting with the neighborhood. [At one point, North attended Senn.] Because he has a track record of supporting high school sports, I passed the suggestion on to the principal of Senn, who had no objection. The local school council also had no objection.
You may have heard that the principal and the council president went to the radio station to talk with him about this, and I guess they really fell in love with him. (To a great extent, an alderman is matchmaking. For example, a business may need space and you say, 'Oh, call so-and-so.') In this case, it was just like making a match; here's a resource and here's a need. So, I withdrew from the whole discussion.
Then, all the information emerged about what [North] had said. I was like, 'Oh, my God.' Then I wondered, 'How can he be on a major radio station all these years and be a problem?' If you were on a radio station and said stuff like that, you wouldn't last very long.
I had to talk to the principal and the [council]. If the school chooses to back off, I will support them.
WCT: So you haven't made a decision yet.
MAS: So what the local school council decided to do was to toss it back to me, which is fine because an alderman should be a problem-solver. North has offered himself up as a role model for what not to do. You know how you try to make lemonade out of lemons? What can be salvaged here? I don't have an answer for you yet, but obviously that field's not going to be named for him.
WCT: You've supported domestic-partner benefits for LGBT couples. What other LGBT-related things have you supported or initiated?
MAS: We've developed housing for those who have AIDS. We try to make sure we have the resources that the community needs; we do what we can to help. If an organization is looking for space, we help them. We have Gerber/Hart, TPAN, Brown Elephant and businesses like Crew, Star Gaze and Women & Children First. We try to work with people to facilitate success.
We were one of the first communities to welcome Chicago House. I believe the second facility was developed here. There's also an independent living facility on Argyle Street.
Our mission is to work with the people in our community and to provide the best quality of life for everyone in the neighborhood.
WCT: Do you have any specific plans regarding the LGBT community?
MAS: The LGBT community is really the most adept at advocating for itself and setting its own agenda, so I'm following the lead of the community leaders.
No one has approached me recently with an idea for a project, or the need for anything. My office is involved with monitoring the budget, and I'm on board for anything of that nature.
WCT: What's your position regarding same-sex marriage?
MAS: You know something? I advocate marriage for gay couples. I don't see why a gay couple should settle for anything less. As a human being, a mother and a neighbor, I wouldn't presume to tell someone who he should love. Those kinds of commitments are so central to living a happy life; society and community should be very supportive [of same-sex marriage].
WCT: Are there any misconceptions about you that you want to clear up?
MAS: I don't know! As a public figure, it's very difficult. There's a difference between loving the work and loving public life. I think that people understand that it's the work I love. The job doesn't relate to power as much as it relates to responsibility—and there's never enough time in the day to get things done.
See www.MASmith48.org .