Putting his money where his mouth is

By Samuel Charles

In 1893, what is now Chicago’s 20th Ward was the landscape for the famous Chicago World’s Fair, which gave a look at the flourishing city and all its grandeur, but it has since become one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods in Chicago. Now, a Columbia alumnus is attempting to change the ward, making it safer for residents, helping the youth and creating more opportunities for those who call it home.

Che “Rhymefest” Smith announced on Oct. 21 he would run for alderman in the 20th Ward in the upcoming Feb. 22 election. The announcement was made at a press conference held at Exclusively Yours Auto Spa, 5820 S. State St. Smith is challenging incumbent alderman, Willie B. Cochran, for the seat on Chicago’s City Council.

Cochran has been in office since 2007, but Smith said he believes it is time for the South Side community to go in a new direction.

Smith, who co-wrote the song “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West which won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Song in 2005, is a third generation resident of the Woodlawn neighborhood, one of the areas making up the 20th Ward. The ward also contains pieces of other neighborhoods, including Englewood, Back of the Yards and Washington Park.

One reason Smith decided to seek office is so he could help provide a safe environment for his children growing up.

“My son wants to play in the park across the street, but because I can’t go out there and supervise him at the moment, he has to be a prisoner in his own home,” Smith said. “When we were young, we could go out and not only ride our bikes through the park but the whole city. How did it come to a place where my son can’t go in the park to play without me having to sit there watching him?”

If elected, he plans on incorporating his music career into the community to help children have an outlet of expression they might not have otherwise.

“[I’m] going to be doing weekly youth rap sessions,” Smith said. “We’re going to bring in youth from the community and allow them to express the vision of how they want to live, the kind of neighborhood they want to live in, the problems they face and how they feel they can address it.”

Smith’s lack of experience in politics was quickly pointed out by Cochran, who told the Chicago Sun-Times the public can tell the difference between an experienced official and a known hip-hop artist who degrades women and promotes violence in his videos.

Cochran could not be reached by The Chronicle for comment as of press time.

“Anyone who knows [me] knows I don’t glorify violence, drug dealing and things like that,” Smith said. “I think it also shows how my opponent is out of touch with the language of the people.”

He later said although he is not a “professional politician,” it doesn’t mean he can’t garner results.

“What have the people who are so-called ‘professional politicians’ given [the constituents]?” Smith asked. “Take a walk through the 20th Ward. You have to ask yourself, ‘What have you gotten for all that experience?’”

In the last aldermanic election in February 2007, Cochran defeated then-incumbent Alderman Arenda Troutman, who’d been appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1990 to fill the vacant seat in the City Council after the previous alderman died.

Cochran received 4,461 votes, while Troutman received 2,284 out of 7,133 votes cast. The month before the election, Troutman was arrested and indicted on corruption charges, of which she was eventually found guilty, but managed to receive one-third of the votes cast regardless.

There are 21,523 registered voters in the 20th Ward. Because only one-third of all voters went to the polls during the last election and Cochran won by 2,177 votes, Smith believes transparency will help bring voters out.

“People are not engaged,” Smith said. “People are disenchanted, and I think we have to be genuine and gain the trust of the people who didn’t vote. We need to be an example of the change we talk about.”

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (4th Ward) said she has enjoyed her time working with Cochran in the City Council.

“I’ve been happy to have him as a colleague,” Preckwinkle said. “He came into office at a fairly difficult time, and I know he [has] worked to restore confidence in the position.”

Cochran served as a Chicago policeman and federal marshal before retiring in 2003 after 26 years of service. He also owns a laundromat in the ward.

Smith’s music career may have some effect on voter turnout, but it depends on how popular he is within the community, said Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

“Nobody knows [if Smith’s fame will have an impact],” Oliver said. “If he has some name recognition that will probably help him if it’s a low-information election.”

But Smith said he has already noticed people in the community excited about his campaign.

“You’d be surprised at the [constituents’] energy,” Smith said. “I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll hear, ‘Hey brother, I’m voting for you!’”

While at Columbia, Smith majored in radio.

Smith said his time at the college was spent talking to professors and working in the English Department, where he grew as an independent thinker.

“Being a student here, for me, was a lifestyle,” Smith said. “That lifestyle was very important to political awareness and artistic growth.”

Currently, not all of the 21,523 registered voters in the 20th Ward agree with Smith’s ideas about its current leadership.

The Rev. Michael Runnels, pastor of the Greater Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, 5856 S. Wabash Ave., has been satisfied with many of the steps taken by Cochran to help improve the community, but more can be done, he said.

Since Cochran took office in 2007, the ward has made improvements to its infrastructure, specifically water mains. From 2008 until the present, there have been 13 instances of water main repair in the 20th Ward.

But Cochran has also tried to have solidarity within the community.

“One of the initiatives [Cochran] has started with us is the community gardens,” Runnels said. “They’re bringing peace to troubled communities that have had violence and bloodshed. We’ve noticed a striking reduction in the crime wave.”

However, crime is still prevalent within the community, especially violent crime. Between Oct. 14 and 18, there were 30 reported incidents of battery, according to Chicago.EveryBlock.com.

Though violence is somewhat curbed, Runnels said more work still needs to be done. That doesn’t mean more of an effort exclusively from the Chicago Police Department but by organizations within the community, he said.

Although the U of C is in the 5th Ward, if Smith is elected he says he wants to utilize the 20th Ward’s proximity to the college to help increase educational awareness.

“We have to make sure the people from the ivory towers come down to the village, and the people from the village have an opportunity to raise [up] to the ivory towers,” Smith said. “There’s no reason a child born in Woodlawn, Washington Park and Englewood shouldn’t have an opportunity to be a professor at the University of Chicago. We have to connect the dots.”

Smith scoffed at the idea of putting his music career before serving the community if he’s elected.

“I’m not concerned about my music career,” Smith said. “Hip-hop was most powerful and politically effective when it was local.”

He referred to his campaign as “grassroots,” and made note of how its beginning was similar to the start of hip-hop.

“How did hip-hop start? Two speakers and a microphone in the park,” Smith said. “How did my campaign start? Two speakers and a microphone in a

small business.”