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A newly formed political group goes on the attack in Evanston’s municipal election
First Ward aldermanic candidate Clare Kelly said a mailing last week from a new Evanston political organization, charging her with uncivil behavior, is resorting to “an age-old sexist trope” about women in response to the challenge she is posing to incumbent Judy Fiske.
The group, Evanston Together LLC, highlighted several past instances of alleged uncivil behavior by Ms. Kelly in a mailing last week, including a July 25, 2018 incident, charging she showed up in City offices without an appointment and yelled and shouted at City staff.
The mailing further asserted that staff finally had to call Evanston Police to get her to leave – an assertion disputed by Ms. Kelly as well as another activist who accompanied her that day.
The charge of yelling and screaming is exploiting “an age-old sexist trope labeling strong women as yelling and angry,” Ms. Kelly said.
“That’s what happens when a woman stands up,” she said in a phone call March 19.
“It’s a total derision of a woman that protests.”
A New PAC
The group that sent the mailing Evanston Together LLC, was created March 10 of this year, with its stated purpose of “Elections in Cook County,” according to the group’s statement of organization form filed with the State Board of Elections. Even though it is organized as an LLC, the application said it is a political action committee (PAC).
Marya Frankel, a Sixth Ward resident, is listed as the group’s chair and Richard Peach, one-time president of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, as its treasurer.
Mr. Peach was listed as one of the signers on an email earlier this month summoning a wide range of residents active in community affairs to a virtual meeting March 3.
The call for action came after the Feb. 23 primary, in which activists, who have linked together on a number of issues, pulled upsets over longtime Council mainstays, Alderman Donald Wilson in the City’s Fourth Ward and Alderman Ann Rainey in the Eighth.
The group has raised concern about an “anti-incumbency” effort and called for efforts to ensure that Evanston “continues to be led by independent-minded aldermen — Council members who listen to a variety of opinions and then use their good, independent judgment about what they believe is best for our whole community …” and who “stand against those who use threats and intimidation.”
In a brief phone interview on March 19, Mr. Peach confirmed that Evanston Together grew out of that initial summons.
He said a number of members of the new group say they believe some candidates embrace a change from the City’s current Council-Manager form of government to a partisan “strong mayor” system.
Council-Manager Form of Government an Issue
Evanston’s City Manager form of government, with a professional administrator making day-to-day decisions running the government and elected Council members in a policy role, dates back to 1952.
Mr. Peach said the mailings are intended to let people know what their options are, with more mailings expected up to the April 6 election.
A follow-up mailing, termed a Voter’s Guide by the organization, warned that “our professionally managed government could become a political free-for-all,” and endorsed Ald. Fiske; Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward; as well as newcomer Katie Trippi in the Sixth Ward, as the group’s candidates for office.
Asked how decisions are made on the mailings, Mr. Peach maintained “we’re trying very hard to keep candidates out of it. We don’t want to impinge on their campaigns. We want to work with them.”
Mary Rosinski, a candidate for alderman in the Seventh Ward, criticized the tactics used.
“What they did yesterday [March 18], to slam a candidate with half-truths and innuendos, is as close as you can get to [onetime Republican political strategist] Karl Rove,” she charged.
The group’s mailing, two-toned in color and approximately 8-by-10 inches in size, charged Ms. Kelly with disruptive behavior — yelling and shouting down community leaders on several occasions.
It also maintained that Ms. Kelly after a March 28, 2019 traffic stop, later emailed Police Chief Demitrous Cook and tried to get him to issue a statement that she was not arrested, writing that “as a candidate for public office in the upcoming municipal election…this published error has the potential to be very damaging.”
Ms. Kelly said her response in the incident was concerning an error that she wanted corrected and her comment to the Chief in the Dec. 29, 2020, email was “just an honest statement,” about damage to her reputation.
She said Google searches would bring up her name attached to another woman charged in the same published police blotter with reckless conduct.
She said two people at the Evanston Police Department’s front desk as well as a Commander with the department verified she had no arrest record, but told her that only the Chief could correct the matter.
“My campaign is based on transparency and accountability,” Ms. Kelly stressed. “Like many of my neighbors I got a traffic ticket a couple of years ago and my opponent apparently thinks my traffic ticket is the strongest argument against my campaign. She is grasping at straws.”
Asked on March 19 about the group’s mailing, Ald. Fiske, Ms. Kelly’s opponent, said she had not seen the piece. “That has nothing to do with our campaign,” she said.
Some of the issues in the mailer, though, did echo concerns Ald. Fiske raised publicly at the Evanston League of Women Voters candidates forum March 13.
“I am concerned that some candidates have filed lawsuits against the City, have filed complaints against elected officials, or hiding their arrest records – that’s already a point of contention in this election,” she maintained.
She said at the forum that the next Council, faced with the City’s recovery from COVID-19, needs “to be working together totally and civilly to solve actual problems, not shouting at Council meetings or bullying people at board meetings. That’s what we’ve experienced in the past [that] has come from the person running against me.”
In the campaign, Ms. Kelly has hit hard at her opponent, charging that the City has “squandered tens of millions of dollars in the last four years in expenditures” and maintaining Council members have “to stop being spoon-fed” information from the City’s upper management and make independent decisions on the budget.
Different Versions of Civic Center Encounter
The July 25, 2018 incident was brought up in an email earlier this year from Kelley Gandurski, the City’s Corporation Counsel, responding to a complaint from Ms. Kelly’s attorney, Matthew Topic, that the City was blocking the longtime activist’s emails.
“This is not the case,” responded Ms. Gandurski in an email that was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
“Ms. Kelly regularly sends numerous and repetitive emails to City staff,” she wrote. “Due to the sheer volume of emails sent by Ms. Kelly there was a disruption to staff operations. A search of emails from Ms. Kelly revealed the existence of over 1,100 emails sent by Ms. Kelly in the last four years. (Ms. Kelly said many concerned requests for information about City spending on the Robert Crown Center, and estimated she has sent 30 or fewer emails this year.)
Ms. Gandurski said “the fact that Ms. Kelly may not receive a response to every [non-FOIA] email she sends to City Staff is not a First Amendment violation. It is instead a determination from staff on how best to utilize limited resources in an effort to manage an entire City and the concerns of 75,000 residents.”
Continuing, Ms. Gandurski observed in her response, “We need not remind you that, while Ms. Kelly may exert her First Amendment rights to express her viewpoints via email or otherwise, there are limits to First Amendment rights.”
“The First Amendment does not give one license to threaten or harass City Staff,” she wrote. “For your reference on July 25, 2018, Ms. Kelly appeared at the Civic Center without an appointment, walked into the Law Department, screamed and yelled and called one of the attorneys a liar when Ms. Kelly was dissatisfied with a response to an FOIA request. From there, Ms. Kelly went to the IT Department, screamed, yelled, and threatened a staff member such that 911 was called by City Staff. I understand that was the third incident of this kind.”
But Ms. Kelly and Trisha Connolly, a resident active in local issues who said she accompanied Ms. Kelly that day, disputed that account. Ms. Kelly said she went to the offices to inquire about emails that she had not been receiving on the library parking lot development on which she had raised concerns. She said there was no yelling.
Ms. Connolly recalled that the two initially were at the Civic Center for something unrelated to emails and in the course of being there, decided to check on what was going on with Ms. Kelly’s email request.
The two went upstairs to an office to inquire and then were sent down to the Clerk’s office, she said.
“They were basically giving us the runaround,” Ms. Connolly said.
Eventually, they ended up in the office of Luke Stowe, the City’s Chief of Information, who told them he could not find the email they were referring to, and informed them that they would have to leave, Ms. Connolly said.
“There was no shouting or screaming,” Ms. Connolly said.
On the way out, Ms. Connolly said, she and Ms. Kelly ducked in an office down the hall from Mr. Stowe’s and asked an IT worker there about their search. He was very helpful, offering to take a look, she said.
While in the office, Mr. Stowe reappeared, she said, and told the women they would have to leave or he would call police. Mr. Stowe declined to comment.
“To that I said, and I wasn’t screaming at him, ‘If you call police I’ll get my phone out and film it,’” related Ms. Connolly.
City Manager Erika Storlie soon appeared on the scene.
Ms. Connolly maintained the incident was crafted like “this big eruption and we were being noisy and screaming and awful people, and that never happened and police were never there.”
The two did not harass anyone, she said.
Rather, “We asked questions, and they didn’t like the questions we asked,” she said.
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