Carol Felsenthal
On politics

His Father Moved Up from Chicago Alderman to Mayor; Does Rod Sawyer Want to Follow in His Footsteps?

Freshman alderman Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, won his city council seat only by 104 votes in a runoff against incumbent Freddrenna Lyle…

UPDATE 11/16:

For all of 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer’s tough talk about voting against the Mayor Emanuel’s budget unless he found money to hire more than the 500 police officers that will barely keep pace with retirements, the rookie alderman was not among the three who voted no yesterday. (Those would be his Progressive Caucus colleagues Robert Fioretti, 2nd Ward, John Arena, 45th Ward, and Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward.)

I caught Sawyer on his cell phone Friday morning and he explained that he voted for the budget because it’s basically “solid, not perfect but good” and “I felt to say no just for the sake of saying no was disingenuous.” Sawyer did speak up on the council floor yesterday, expressing his concerns about police numbers, mental health services, and outsourcing. When I interviewed him on October 30, Sawyer told me, “I do like a lot of the portions of the budget . . . I do see that the mayor is actually trying to reign in the spending, and at the same time trying to increase revenues.” Sawyer told me Friday that he has had no talks with the mayor during the weeks leading up to the vote.
 

Freshman alderman Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, won his city council seat only by 104 votes in a runoff against incumbent Freddrenna Lyle. But, a win is a win, as they say, and just like his late father and “best friend,” Eugene Sawyer, he now represents the far South Side ward. An alum of St. Ignatius, DePaul, and law school at Kent, Roderick, 49, responds in a sweet, easygoing manner when I asked him whether he aspires to move up to the mayor’s job: “I’m already living my dream today. I don’t think much about it.” (His father, Eugene, who died in 2008 at age 73, became Mayor in 1987 on the sudden death of Harold Washington. The elder Sawyer served 15 months before a special election gave Rich Daley the job for the next 22 years.)

I met the son, elected in April 2011, for lunch across from City Hall and we talked for two hours about his passion for city politics that dates to his boyhood—“I was a City Hall pack rat.”—and about his roots on the South Side—he lives with his wife, a Com Ed exec, and his children, 18 and 12, in a house in Park Manor, the neighborhood where he grew up. (“I’ve never lived more than a mile from where I was born.”) He also reminisced about his long ties to Barack Obama and about the two Eddies—Burke and, the “fast” one, Vrdolyak.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: What’s your relationship with Rahm Emanuel like?
RS: It’s professional. I don’t have a lot of interaction with him personally. Never called him. I talk to his staff a lot.

CF: The Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown quoted you as saying that aldermen should withhold votes for [the 2013] budget unless mayor assures the city council that there will be money to hire more policemen than the 500 planned to merely keep up with retirements.
RS: I believe that. Sure. [The budget sailed through the Budget Committee last week without any mention of police hires; Sawyer does not sit on that committee.] I think as Council members we need to exert some kind of authority to say that in order for us to be truly partners, we have to exercise our right and show that we can vote something down. We need at least another 500 policemen. The mayor is very great at finding money. I’m hoping he can find money for this. This is just too important.

CF: So when the budget comes to full Council vote, you’ll vote no?
RS: I’m not sure yet. I do like a lot of the portions of the budget and I’ve been watching budgets for years, well before the current mayor got in. I voted for the first budget, everybody did, it was 50-0. Even then I had concerns, the mental health cuts, for example. I’m still concerned because I’m not sure that the people are getting the proper service. Let’s make the mayor work with us to find more money to hire more police officers.

CF: You told Mark Brown that you’d be willing to increase the property tax?
RS: I’d be willing to talk about it, yeah. I know that’s an extreme measure, and I know the mayor doesn’t want that to happen. He made that promise, and he wants to keep true to his promise, and I’m saying that I would not hold that against him if he changed his mind.

CF: When you talk about more police, you talk about escalating violence in your own neighborhood. You know what it was like growing up in Park Manor and neighboring Chatham as a boy. How’s it different today?
RS: I knew my beat officers. They were the same all the time for years and years. They were there all the time, walking the beat, in the cars. You’d wave; they’d honk the horn; they’d stop and say, “What’s going on?”…. I do appreciate [Police Superintendent] McCarthy’s commitment that we have beat officers. When I talk to my officers today throughout the district, they like the plan—“Hey, the plan is great; we just need more officers so we can do it.”

CF: So the streets were safe back then?
RS: Absolutely. I left in the morning, in the summer, came home at night. Didn’t have cell phones. All I remember is [my mother calling]“Rod-er-ick!” She wasn’t worried about me being snatched. I can’t let my son go three or four houses on his bike before I get worried.

CF: Who are your soul mates in the Council; I assume, like you, they’re members of the Progressive Caucus and the Black Caucus.
RS: My soul mate is Leslie Hairston (5th), one of my oldest friends. I worked her first campaign. She watches my children. She goes out with my wife. One gentleman that kind of touched me when we spoke one time is Scott Waguespack (32). He talks real talk, and he said something to me one day that kind of hit me in the gut: “I don’t have nearly the violence you all have out South and West—Why isn’t the Black Caucus standing up and doing something about it?” I wish I could answer that question. We should be doing something, screaming hollering because all this violence is occurring in our neighborhoods.

CF: The conventional wisdom is that the spiraling shootings and homicides result from gangs and that those gangs lack leadership and their members are younger and younger.
RS: Yes, gangs are called cliques now rather than gangs, because they’re not real gangs. This may sound strange to you, I’m not anti-gang. I’m anti illegal and anti-social activity. There have always been groups of men or women that got together to coalesce around a particular issue or neighborhood or wider place. You can call them Elks. You can call them the Hamburgs. You can call them the Gangster Disciples. You’ll never get rid of that concept of a fraternity—of a group of men getting together, secret handshake wearing the same color shirt. I think it’s pretty much part of human nature, but where I draw the line is when it jumps over to illegal activity. I think we need to reevaluate how we deal with gangs, tell them you can do something positive for your neighborhood. Even gangs when I grew up had some positive aspects.

CF: Are you saying they did good work in the neighborhood?
RS: On occasion they did. Most of them just stood around and looked cool… [maybe] a little scuffle … that was pretty much about it. Now it’s 14 year olds carrying Uzis. All they’re doing is wreaking havoc on their own neighborhoods. We have to work with them as I did as a young lawyer in the mid-‘90s. I even helped form a group with Wallace “Gator” Bradley, United in Peace, a not-for-profit group. The message was to deviate from the illegal activities, start being a positive in your community.

CF: You knew and volunteered for Barack Obama in 2000 when he ran unsuccessfully against Bobby Rush for Congress?
RS: When he decided to run for Congress, he asked me to help him. Everybody knows me as a Chicagoan, so I would bring him around places where he may not have known to come. “These are places you need to go to. You need to go to Izola’s on Saturday morning; you need to go here on Wednesday night.” I took him into a lot of bars. No one had the vaguest idea that he’d be president.

CF: Did you volunteer for his U.S. Senate campaign?
RS: No. When he got beat by Bobby Rush the way he did, in all honesty, I didn’t think the [U.S.] Senate was going to be a move.

CF: You have said that the biggest influence on you was your father. Tell me something about him I don’t know.
RS: The one person [in the City Council] my dad probably talked to more than anybody was Ed Burke (14). They were extremely friendly. I remember growing up, my father and mother used to go play cards at the [Ald. Ed] Vrdolyaks’ house. They were social friends. Obviously politically they were on opposite sides. But they got alone very well.

CF: Tell me how your dad became mayor in 1987 after Harold Washington’s sudden death.
RS: Harold Washington was out front that he was going to be mayor for 20 years, so there was no succession plan. He trusted my dad. He knew in his absence, things were going to be handled. My father was the first person to publicly endorse Harold from the city council at that time.

CF: So your dad was thinking, “I can be mayor now.”
RS: No, my dad was looking at retirement. That was the last time my dad had planned to run [for alderman]. The thought process was: As I get out of [law] school in ’90, next election in ‘91 and hoping that I’d run as 6th ward alderman. We talked about that. My dad was the longest serving black Council member. People naturally looked to him because he had the highest voting turnout [for Washington] in his ward, but [he] also got along well with his white counterparts. Of course that was then taken to be some kind of negative Uncle Tom stuff. At that time, Burke wanted—most of the white alderman wanted—my dad to serve out the term that ended in 1991; my dad had no interest in being there longer All my father wanted to do was fill the unexpired term of Harold Washington, that’s it. The black community filed a law suit forcing a special election. My father ended up serving just 15 months.

CF: Was he bitter?
RS: He was despondent. He was very upset, not about losing, but about how the black community thought of him. He was most unashamedly black. Being called those names and people talking about him who didn’t even know him hurt him.

CF: You going to run for reelection?
RS: If I like it, and if people like me, I guess we’ll try it again. If I’m not effective or if I don’t feel I’m being effective, then I can move on and do something else. I’m a lawyer by trade; I’m also a real estate broker. I think I can find work if I need to.

CF: You think Rahm will run for reelection?
RS: He seems to have some additional ambitions. I don’t know what they are because I’m not in that circle. I can see him running for higher political office in the near future—governor, senator, president.

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