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33rd Ward Challengers Position Themselves as Alternatives to Mell Machine

By Patty Wetli | January 28, 2015 12:11pm
 33rd Ward candidates Tim Meegan, Deb Mell and Annisa Wanat squared off at a public forum Tuesday night.
33rd Ward candidates Tim Meegan, Deb Mell and Annisa Wanat squared off at a public forum Tuesday night.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

IRVING PARK —Dick Mell retired as alderman of the 33rd Ward in 2013, but his presence was still very much felt Tuesday night as candidates challenging his daughter Deb Mell for the ward's City Council seat called for an end to machine politics.

A candidate forum held at Bateman Elementary and sponsored by a coalition of community organizations was packed to the rafters as Tim Meegan, Deb Mell and Annisa Wanat laid out their visions for the ward.

"The former Ald. Mell, he pulled no punches in defense of patronage and nepotism. I stand against it," said Meegan, a teacher at Roosevelt High School. "It needs to end, it needs to stop."

Wanat, a non-profit management consultant, compared the elder Mell to a "warlord" and drew a link between "legacy" candidates — Deb Mell was appointed alderman by Mayor Emanuel — and the City Council's reputation as a "rubber stamp" for the mayor.

The City Council has vacated its legislative oversight responsibility and "that is a serious problem," said Wanat. "I can and will ask questions" if elected.

But Deb Mell countered, "I'm not my father. We're different people. We conduct business differently."

She pointed to her rejection in 2014 of a proposal to build a Walgreens at the corner of Lawrence and Kimball avenues.

Her father had previously approved the project — "He thought all development was good development" — without engaging the community, she said.

"I stopped it," said Mell, who held a public meeting with Walgreens last January. "Our ward is too important to just throw things in there."

Asked by moderator Dan Ponce of WGN-TV whether they supported Emanuel's re-election bid, Meegan said she backed Jesus "Chuy" Garcia while Wanat endorsed Ald. Bob Fioretti.

Mell initially answered, "I'm focusing on my own race," which was met with groans from the crowd. She later added, "I do like a lot of things the current mayor's doing."

As the incumbent, Mell highlighted her record since taking office.

"I knew I wanted to take on three big things," she said, citing increased communication, public safety and economic diversity as her top priorities.

The introduction of a weekly newsletter, updated website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and public meetings have all hit her first target, she said.

In terms of public safety: "We're going after businesses fostering illegal activity and we've closed down a few of those," Mell said.

On the economic front, she named restaurants like Parachute, Honey Butter Fried Chicken and the forthcoming Windy City Playhouse theater as signs that the 33rd Ward is on its way to becoming a "destination place where people can live, work and play."

Meegan's platform includes the creation of affordable housing to maintain the neighborhood's diversity, as well as a $15 minimum wage, which he called "critical."

"The way you deter people from crime is you invest in them," he said. "A $15 minimum wage, that's what's going to deter crime."

Mell interjected that she'd voted for a $13 minimum wage, which Wanat called misleading.

"Let's not say $13," said Wanat, when that threshhold won't be reached until 2019. "We need to raise it more."

If elected, Meegan said he would join City Council's progressive caucus and would push for an end to Tax Increment Financing districts.

"TIF needs to be abolished," he said. "It's so corrupt, it can't be reformed."

Funds sipohoned off by TIF could be redirected to the city's neighborhood public schools, which Meegan said are being "starved."

Roosevelt has lost $1.8 million in recent rounds of budget cuts, translating into 22 fewer staff and the elimination of classes like Latin-American history — in a school with a population of 75 percent Latino students, he noted.

Wanat, who speaks Spanish, Serbian, Bulgarian and German, vowed to bring all of the ward's constituents to the table both in terms of soliciting short-term feedback and developing long-terms plans.

"There's been little outreach to non-English speakers in the ward," she said.

Wanat also emphasized her experience in public administration and her financial expertise.

To address the city's budget woes, Wanat said, "Everything needs to be on the table," including looking at a luxury tax on high-end goods, a congestion tax (not, she emphasized, a commuter tax), casinos and pension reform.

"The unions have to give, the city has to give," she said. "We're all going to have to give."

Chicago's municipal elections are scheduled for Feb. 24. If none of the three candidates in the 33rd Ward receives 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held April 7.

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