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Chicago City Council members running for reelection endure referendums on their time in office, but in the Northwest Side’s 45th Ward Ald. Jim Gardiner’s critiques from challengers go far beyond the usual complaints about crime, business development and potholes.
As Gardiner seeks reelection following a scandal-plagued first term, he finds himself deluged with questions from five challengers about his fitness and temperament.
His time in public office has been marked by allegations he used his power as alderman to target political opponents, including a reported federal investigation into whether he sought to withhold ward services from some residents who opposed his agenda.
In 2021, he took the highly unusual step of apologizing on the council floor after leaked texts showed him using profane and offensive language to describe a gay colleague, a female city staffer and a female political consultant. And just earlier this month a sworn deposition was made public in a federal lawsuit against Gardiner that detailed how a former aide last autumn said the alderman obsessed over Facebook criticism and pledged to rid the ward of his detractors, who he referred to as “rats.”
Gardiner did not respond to requests for an interview. In an emailed response to questions, he said he’s facing “a coordinated effort to harass, embarrass, intimidate me and my supporters, and mislead the voters in the 45th Ward.”
“Let me be clear, I have not targeted any person for being critical of my representation of them in office and, I believe that everyone has a right to freely choose their elected official. I have never withheld services from any constituent,” he said in the emailed statement.
The Tribune reported in 2021 that federal law enforcement authorities spoke to a variety of individuals about whether Gardiner retaliated against constituents for political purposes and that the authorities even approached Gardiner himself. Gardiner said in his emailed response that he has not been interviewed by federal investigators.
But that hasn’t stopped some of the criticism, and opponents say their campaigns are driven largely by Gardiner’s “divisiveness” and the ways they say he has splintered the unity in the sprawling ward.
“In all honesty, he’s only in this predicament because of himself, where there are five people running against him,” said Marija Tomic, one of the candidates. “It’s not my fault. It’s not the other candidates’ fault.”
Controversies have dogged Gardiner for much of his term as alderman, and they continue during the current campaign.
Tomic said Gardiner in November attempted to intimidate a volunteer for her campaign who was out collecting signatures in the Norwood Park neighborhood to help get Tomic on the ballot. He also harassed a resident who signed the ballot petition, Tomic said.
“The fact that he’s done it in the past and he continues to do it, I don’t think he’s really learned his lesson,” she said. “I think this is a behavior that he has inside of him, and it’s unfortunate that he’s still an elected official.”
James Suh, a ward resident and owner of an area car detailing business, said he got into this campaign, his first, after filing a lawsuit against Gardiner in 2021 alleging the alderman conspired to leak Suh’s old arrest records on social media. Suh campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Williams said Suh was arrested when he was 17 after his brother called the police during an argument and that the charges were dropped. Suh said the threat by Gardiner was in retaliation for organizing a rally against Gardiner’s move to stall a housing development at the Six Corners intersection in the ward.
The city Ethics Board found probable cause that Gardiner had sought to have Suh’s records leaked, and referred the issue to the city Inspector General’s Office for further investigation. Suh said Gardiner’s decision to target him for the rally shows how badly the alderman misunderstands his constituents.
“Everyone’s motives were simply to the benefit of our community, and we just want to see things in a better place,” Suh said. “When I held that rally, it was specifically for revitalizing the area, for seeing progress and investment in our neighborhood. It wasn’t to attack Gardiner by any means. So I think overall, all the sentiment he has going against him is very much of his own doing.”
Gardiner said in his emailed response that many of the accusations he’s facing amount to “a smear campaign” from “a small contingent of politically connected people, some with political ambitions of their own.”
The ward has some of the lowest crime numbers in the city. But challenger Megan Mathias said in addition to the contentious mood Gardiner’s fostered, he also needs to answer for an increase in crime and his failure to engage with residents who want to weigh in on how to deal with that problem and others.
“Of course public safety is front of mind (for voters),” Mathias said. “The community is very hungry to have a community voice … They don’t get input on anything.”
Susanna Ernst, a longtime Northwest Side architectural preservationist and neighborhood activist, said the “two camps” antagonism under Gardiner also has hurt neighborhood business growth and other opportunities for improvement.
“Just with regard to the climate here in the 45th Ward right now, there seems to be a lot of division, a lot of ‘us versus them,’ and I think it’s time to build a more cohesive, friendly environment where all the community groups can work together throughout our broader ward,” Ernst said. “I think there are definitely ways in which we can work together that are very respectful, and that anyone who wants to advance community initiatives has the ability to do that.”
Ana Santoyo got into the race to push for more affordable housing and the police reform she said the ward desperately needs. A member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Santoyo said working-class Northwest Siders need a representative to stick up for them in the City Council.
“I personally believe individuals and families in this area shouldn’t have to rely on someone like the current alderperson to be their voice in City Hall,” Santoyo said. “Right now we’re still in a pandemic. Workers know their material conditions. We know we need things like better jobs in our ward, better-paying jobs, better housing and more affordable housing, and safe schools.”
Like most Chicago wards, the 45th takes in parts of several neighborhoods. Compared to most others, it has seen a particularly wide recent political pendulum swing. Gardiner, a Chicago Fire Department EMT, rode to victory in 2019 over Ald. John Arena, who had for two terms been one of the more progressive voices on the City Council.
Arena’s downfall came in no small part because of his support for an affordable housing project not far from the CTA Blue Line in the bungalow belt Jefferson Park neighborhood. Years of debate over that development, which was approved before Arena left office, exposed what supporters said was racist opposition to building units for lower-income minority families in one of Chicago’s whitest areas.
Anti-Arena sentiment coalesced around Gardiner in the ward, which is home to lots of police officers and firefighters. He won handily in a four-candidate race.
This year’s election takes place in a 45th Ward in which the contours may be even more to Gardiner’s liking. Last year, he and fellow Northwest Side aldermen joined with the council’s Black Caucus and others to muscle through a new map of Chicago’s 50 wards tied to the 2020 U.S. census, over the objections of several Latino aldermen.
The new 45th excises parts of the Old Irving Park and Independence Park neighborhoods at the southern end of the ward that had been Arena strongholds. Instead, the boundaries hook north to take in the Far Northwest Side Wildwood and Edgebrook neighborhoods that have leaned more conservative in recent elections.
Mathias, an attorney who had already announced her intention to run against Gardiner, saw her Old Irving Park home mapped just outside the new ward. Mathias stayed in the race despite possibly falling victim to an old Chicago political maneuver meant to deter opponents, and said she will move back into the ward if she wins.
“People know I’m out there putting in the work,” she said. “It wasn’t surprising (to get mapped out of the ward). It was disappointing, but not surprising.”
In his emailed response, Gardiner said if he’s reelected he plans to build “upon the strength of our ward’s improved economic infrastructure,” work with the Police Department on improving public safety, and try to find alternate sources of revenue in order to slow the rise of residents’ property taxes.
Tomic said she doubts any changes to the borders of the 45th will improve Gardiner’s chances.
“I don’t think there’s much he can do for the ward when he’s not liked by anyone,” she said.