With only a handful of days to go before voters in Chicago's 46th Ward head back to the polls April 5 to select their candidate of choice in the aldermanic runoff battle between social worker James Cappleman and attorney Molly Phelan, messaging in the race has taken a turn for the negative.
Some community members have stepped forward and accused Phelan of employing homophobic undertones against her opponent, who is openly gay, in several campaign flyers distributed throughout the ward last week. At least one of the flyers criticized Cappleman's plan to address crime in the ward as consisting of "anger management classes and flowers," in addition to "planters, public art, decorative pedestrian lightposts and streetscaping." Phelan has repeated similar statements in several debates and in interviews with other media outlets in recent weeks.
Further problematic was a "push poll" call recently received by Daniel Layman, a writer who lives in the ward. Layman said the caller identified himself as associated with the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police ( FOP ) polling on behalf of the Phelan campaign. The caller reportedly asked, "Knowing that [ Cappleman's ] only crime agenda is to plant flowers and hang out on Halsted Street, would you vote for him or [ Phelan ] ?"
Layman described both the campaign flyers and the phone call as offensive and has asked the Phelan campaign to disavow the messages.
"It's the subliminal stuff that's more insulting to me," Layman said. "If you want to want to lead a ward with a significant gay population, you'd best stay away from saying things like referring to candidates as weak and portraying them as not interested in anything but decorative objects and planting flowers."
A long-time gay activist in the city agreed and described the messages as "veiled homophobia" and comparable to Republican-led attacks on U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's "San Francisco values" in 2008. The activist, who wished to remain anonymous, also pointed out Phelan used the somewhat contentious term "sexual preference" when referring to the city's LGBT community in the recent Truman College debate.
Cappleman's campaign said they hoped Phelan would publicly apologize for both the literature's tone and for the FOP call, whether or not they directly endorsed it.
"It's unnerving to us, as a candidate who is openly gay and to me as well as an open lesbian. I think Molly is trying to play a two-sided coin here," said Lauren Peters, Cappleman's campaign manager. "I think this is blatant homophobia playing up on peoples' fears that maybe a gay man isn't going to be tough on the crime issue in the 46th Ward while, at the same time, she is trying to appeal to the gay community."
In response to the complaints, Phelan's campaign indicated they were only aware of one FOP call made on their candidate's behalf, an automated message from president Mark Donahue. Chicago FOP vice president Bill Dougherty noted that their organization had not endorsed any "push polls" and would frown upon any homophobic language being used in such calls.
Phelan's communications and policy director Owen Brugh described the claims of homophobia by the Cappleman campaign as "a desperate attack against Molly." Brugh identified Phelan's agenda on LGBT issues, including support for marriage equality and sustained funding for the state's AIDS Drug Assistance Program, as "more aggressive than anything we've seen from the Cappleman campaign."
Phelan refused to apologize for either the call or campaign flyers and stated "the only one [ in this race ] who owes voters an explanation and an apology is Mr. Cappleman." Phelan's camp said a group called Women for Stronger Neighborhoods is acting as a "political front group" for the Cappleman campaign, allegedly raising funds for the campaign under the guise of supporting after-school programs at a recent bake sale at the Kinetic Playground.
Peters described Women for Stronger Neighborhoods as a small group of women who individually support Cappleman but whose main purpose is funding more after-school programs in the ward. Peters claimed the group mistakingly registered as a personal action committee with the state Board of Elections and has not contributed any funding to the Cappleman campaign. She criticized Phelan for challenging the group.
"They have not given a single dime to James but now they have to use the money they've raised to pay for an elections attorney," Peters said. "They are trying to come up with something to hit James and she is blowing this way out of proportion."
In a new flyer reportedly being distributed in the ward Friday, the Cappleman camp described Phelan as being "backed by right wing special interests who are trying to buy this election and stop reform," including Tea Party interests.
Charlotte Newfeld, a long-time LGBT ally, activist and herself a one-time candidate for 46th Ward alderman, criticized the recent literature coming from both candidates but said Cappleman's assertion of homophobia is "a bit of a stretch."
" [ Phelan's is ] a rotten piece and a terrible slam but I don't think the intention was anything homophobic," Newfeld said. "But it is in poor taste to think that increasing the greenery and attractiveness of a street is bad or is not going to do anything to prevent crime."
If elected, Cappleman would become the City Council's second openly gay representative, joining 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney. The runoff election is Tuesday, April 5.