Ex-cop, award-winning rap star square off in 20th Ward

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With less than a week remaining before the 20th Ward aldermanic race heads to what appears to be a dramatic conclusion, the two remaining combatants are pulling no punches in attempts to rally support behind their campaign and make pitches to an otherwise

With less than a week remaining before the 20th Ward aldermanic race heads to what appears to be a dramatic conclusion, the two remaining combatants are pulling no punches in attempts to rally support behind their campaign and make pitches to an otherwise apathetic voter base.

In the Feb. 22 general election, just over 7,400 of the more than 23,000 registered voters in the ward cast ballots.

Former Chicago police officer Ald. Willie B. Cochran and hip hop artist and Grammy Award winner Che “Rhymefest” Smith touted lofty plans for improving the downtrodden ward from a harbinger of crime, underdevelopment and unemployment to a self-sufficient thriving area.

Both men hope to represent the area that covers Englewood, Washington Park, Woodlawn and Back of the Yards following the April 5 runoff.

Smith sees violent crime, lack of jobs, foreclosed properties and vacant lots as major issues facing his constituents.

“I want to re-invigorate it by rebuilding the economy by helping to encourage existing small businesses and by bringing new investment to the ward. I am committed to working to bring new green jobs and sustainable industry,” Smith said. “My other main priority is working with the community and residents to make the ward a safer community for parents to raise their children and for businesses to thrive.”

Smith, 33, who has made it his duty following the primary election to greet potential voters at South Side public transportation hubs just after dawn most mornings, said residents deserve true representation that actively educates residents on all services available to them, which includes providing basic needs and curbing criminal activity.

“More young people are being killed every day,” he told the Defender. “I believe we must work to address a community distrust of law enforcement through increased CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) participation and other community involvement initiatives, while ensuring the police has the resources and support they need.”

Cochran, 58, who received 46 percent of the vote in the primary election, stressed that development is something he would love to see improved throughout the ward. He needed 50 percent plus one vote in the primary to avoid the runoff.

“Development leads to decent jobs, access to needed goods and services, and improved conditions and availability of housing, which all enhance the quality of life in the ward,” said Cochran, who has encouraged the construction and improvement of local properties along 61st and 63rd Cottage Grove, and in Washington Park and Englewood.

The incumbent, who spent 25 years as a cop before retiring in 2003, said tackling violence in the oft rugged ward is a task that will take a community effort.

“It is everybody’s responsibility, not just the alderman. The community can help by looking out the window and reporting what they see,” said Cochran, who is being endorsed by Rep. Bobby Rush, Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler and business and labor unions.

“Crime is something I despise.  I want to address this though education, ex-offender employment opportunities and jobs programs,” he added.

The longtime political veteran intimated Smith should not be taken seriously as a candidate due to his checkered past and lack of experience.

“(Smith) has a lot of promises he can’t keep. We are judged on our past. Hypocrisy has no place in politics,” he said after learning Smith took a shot at his campaign. “He contributed to crime wherever he was. How can you judge someone else when you are the direct reason why police man power is extended in places where it doesn’t need to be.”

Smith, who has past misdemeanor weapons and domestic abuse charges, has attempted to put those transgressions behind him and prove he is a viable candidate for alderman. He said working alongside political heavyweights like activist Dr. Cornell West, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Shelia Jackson over the years has prepared him to be a community leader.

“No one asks me about my past,” said Smith who is backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU and Cook County Democratic Women. “People ask me what am I going to do. They are more concerned about having their basic needs taken care of. Who are we to say that there is no redemption? Your past does not determine your future.”

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel has not endorsed or made direct contact with Smith or Cochran. However, Emanuel’s support is something both men would view as an advantage.    

“It is the apathy of the voters. That is what I am concerned about,” Cochran said. “It was at 32 percent. It says that we have to do better to get to the polls. It tells me I have to organize my community better.”

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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