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At 40th District Candidate Forum, Hopefuls Tout Independence, Blast Machine

By Patty Wetli | February 11, 2014 7:42am
 Jaime Andrade, Melanie Ferrand and Aaron Goldstein are among the candidates vying to become 40th District state representative.
Jaime Andrade, Melanie Ferrand and Aaron Goldstein are among the candidates vying to become 40th District state representative.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

IRVING PARK — From an "out Latina-Jewish lesbian" to Rod Blagojevich's former attorney, the slate of candidates vying to become the democratic nominee for state representative on the Northwest Side have one thing in common: they aren't your typical "machine" politicians.

At least that was their message at a public forum Monday night.

"Independence" was the key word of the night, with the majority of the six hopefuls calling for change and distancing themselves from the Chicago machine.

"I will be an independent voice," said attorney Aaron Goldstein, a former Cook County public defender now in private practice and among the attorneys who defended former Gov. Blagojevich.

"This is our district. Not Madigan's district, not [Rahm] Emanuel's district," he said. "This has been my life, to stand for others.

Melanie Ferrand, facing a ballot challenge from supporters of candidate Nancy Schiavone, declared herself the "only true progressive" in the race, with "non-existent" ties to the machine.

"That's why my candidacy is under attack," said Ferrand, a Chicago Public School teacher attempting to become the first "out Latina-Jewish lesbian to serve in the General Assembly."

The lack of an incumbent has attracted an unusually large slate of candidates in the 40th District primary, set for March 18.

Deb Mell vacated the seat she'd held since 2009 when she was named 33rd Ward alderman in July, succeeding her father, Dick Mell. Jaime Andrade, a long-time aide to the elder Mell, was appointed 40th District rep in August and is now looking to win the job outright.

Monday's forum, co-hosted by eight civic associations, was designed to familiarize voters with their options.

"We are not endorsing or supporting any of the candidates," said Anna Zolkowski Sobor, president of the Old Irving Park Association, who served as moderator.

She noted that of the district's 45,000 registered voters — out of a total population of 106,000 — only 4,000 turned out for the 2012 primary election.

In the event of a similarly poor showing at the polls come election day, "Your vote is really going to count," she said.

Questioned on a variety of issues, the candidates' positions were in agreement more often than not — supporting increased funding for education, deriding the power wielded by Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan — but differences did emerge.

Schiavone, an attorney and 35th Ward Democratic Committeeman, was the lone candidate to address Tax Increment Financing, calling for a moratorium on TIFs.

"We need to audit all TIFs," she said. "There is not transparency in those programs."

Wendy Jo Harmston, former executive director of the North River Commission, broke ranks in expressing support for the "concept of reducing taxes" when quizzed on Madigan's proposal to cut corporate income taxes in half.

The topic of pension reform, recently passed by the General Assembly, proved the most divisive.

Dark horse candidate Mark Pasieka, an electrical engineer, declared, "You don't break contracts. You can't take away someone's future like that."

Ferrand, who traveled to Springfield to witness the vote, said her response to the reform was disappointment "and at some level shock."

An equitable solution, she said, could only be achieved by having pension holders at the table as state representatives.

Yet Andrade supported the bill, a vote he defended by saying, "Something had to be done. Something had to be done to stop the spiral."

Harmston acknowledged pensions were a "volatile issue" but that tough decisions had to be made.

"I would have voted for something," she said, though perhaps not the exact reform that passed the General Assembly.

On a lighter note, Zolkowski Sobor asked the candidates to share a surprising fact about themselves, which produced some of the most interesting tidbits of the night.

Ferrand, it turns out, was the first person to check out a book from the Harold Washington library the day it opened. Schiavone revealed that she's a graduate of Second City's training center.

"But I'm not particularly funny," she said.

At the end of the evening, attendees said they were leaving better informed than when they arrived.

"It was really helpful to hear all those issues," said Kara Wagner Sherer, a resident of Old Irving Park.

She had previously spoken with Ferrand, and her husband had met Andrade, but the other candidates had been a mystery to her.

"Now I really have some concrete information," said Wagner Sherer.

Barbara Cohn, who lives in Old Irving Park but grew up in Bridgeport, a machine stronghold, said she welcomed the candidates' fresh perspectives.

In terms of whom she was favoring, Cohn would only say, "I'm being very open minded."