JEFFERSON PARK — Ald. John Arena (45th) kicked off his re-election campaign Sunday, saying he had delivered on the promises he made four years ago to make government more accessible and to spur economic development.
"We have brought jobs and businesses to the area," Arena said Sunday after thanking a room full of volunteers before sending them out to knock on doors in Jefferson Park, Portage Park, Old Irving Park, Gladstone Park and Forest Glen. "This is a great place to raise a family. But our work is not done."
Arena faces three challengers in the Feb. 24 election, all of whom contend the alderman has led the ward in the wrong direction.
The election will include a rematch between Arena and Chicago Police Lt. John Garrido, who lost to Arena in 2011 by 30 votes in a bitter campaign that prompted Garrido to file a still-pending defamation suit against the alderman.
Michelle Baert, who publishes a website and Facebook page filled with listings for family-friendly activities as the 45th Ward Mom, is also running for alderman, as is Michael S. Diaz, who works as an attorney for the state of Illinois in the department that regulates banks.
Arena was elected after Ald. Pat Levar retired after 24 years in office, bringing an end to a political era on the Far Northwest Side.
"The ward office is a model of openness and accessibility," Arena said. "It is a welcoming place now."
Arena, who is one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's most frequent critics, said he was proud of his work at City Hall to ensure that the council is a "check and balance" on Emanuel.
Arena has fought the mayor on a variety of issues, including his plan to borrow $17 million at a higher-than-normal interest rate to expand the city's pre-kindergarten programs to 2,600 children in low-income communities and called for the school board to be elected, not appointed by the mayor.
Arena said he supports "good policy" — regardless of whether it puts him on the same side as the mayor, noting that he supported the mayor's proposal this week to raise the minimum wage to $13.
While Baert has charged that Arena's role as one of the mayor's most visible opponents has led to a reduction in the amount of city services residents get, Arena said that was a "patently false" campaign narrative disproven by several major infrastructure projects underway in the 45th Ward, including the ongoing work to replace the sewer along Lawrence Avenue.
Diaz said in a statement Sunday that Arena has divided the community.
"Time and time again, he's chosen partisanship over partnership when it comes to creating jobs, improving our schools and fixing our city's finances," Diaz said, adding that he would lay out his vision in the coming months.
Baert, who did not respond Sunday to a request for comment, has said she would focus on the "basics" of city government — combating crime, filling empty storefronts and easing the overcrowding in schools.
Garrido said Arena is "disconnected" from the community and its needs.
But Arena said the nearly two dozen new businesses that have recently opened in the Six Corners Shopping District are proof that his economic development efforts are paying off.
Arena has worked to transform Six Corners into an arts and culture mecca that would draw people from all over the city and restore the vitality the district lost in the late 1980s with the rise of suburban shopping malls.
In addition, Arena has often touted his support for projects that give people an opportunity to live near mass transit hubs and business districts, such as the one that surrounds the Jefferson Park Transit Center, that has been plagued with empty storefronts.
But Garrido said Arena has concentrated too much on Six Corners, and let other areas of the ward languish.
"Density is not the answer to our economic development problems," Garrido said. "People move here to get away from density."
If re-elected, Arena said he would work to develop a "real plan" to cover the $550 million pension payment that the state Legislature has ordered the city to make to the city police and fire pension systems by 2016.
"We must run our city sustainably and equitably," Arena said.
Arena said a tax on suburban commuters, as well as a tax on financial service transactions and higher taxes on wealthy residents, should be part of the discussion about a solution as well as a property tax increase.
"We have to look across the board," Arena said.
In aldermanic races where no candidate earns 50 percent of the votes cast, a runoff between the top two candidates will take place April 7.
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