What happened to a meeting where two Black aldermen and several business and religious leaders never showed up?
By Erick Johnson
The doors were locked and the room was still empty at 9 a.m. On Saturday, November, 17, an invitation-only town hall meeting involving several Black aldermen was scheduled at Captain’s Hard Times in Chatham.
Scrambled eggs, grits and sausages were served up, but something was missing on the program: nine prominent speakers, including Aldermen Michelle Harris (8th Ward) and Carrie Austin (34th Ward).
A Crusader reporter, and several aldermanic challengers were not supposed to know about it. There were no press releases or flyers sent out. But when the Crusader received a tip that such a meeting was about to go down in response to its investigative series “Bought?” a reporter traveled to the iconic eatery, where several other non-invited guests and demonstrators waited for elected officials to arrive.
To activists, the meeting was an opportunity to question two of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s biggest allies face to face.
Harris and Austin drew heavy criticism after several Crusader stories reported that they were among several Black aldermen who took tens of thousands from the mayor during his re-election campaign weeks before they approved a $5 million settlement to the estate of 17-year old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by convicted murderer Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014.
But activists wanted to know what Harris and Austin had to say at the private town meeting.
They were disappointed.
The exclusive, well-crafted meeting turned out to be a question and answer session where mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle spoke before a room of about 40 people.
Two weeks later, questions remain about a private town hall meeting, where no one showed up, not even some of Black Chicago’s movers and shakers. It’s a mystery that left some guests at the event scratching heads, and rival candidates in hot pursuit to find answers.
The meeting was scheduled the weekend before Thanksgiving, when most residents are traveling or shopping for the holiday. But a source close to the Crusader leaked an invitation to the newspaper weeks prior to the meeting.
The invitation was on YouVivid, a free cell phone mobile application that allows one to create and send invitations to events. Titled “Communication and Dialogue Makes a Stronger Community,” the invitation includes a picture of the hands of Black and white individuals resting on one another. The invitation also gives the meeting location and directions of Captain’s Hard Times, and a 9 a.m. start time. There is also a button where invited guests can RSVP for the event.
The invitation doesn’t mention what the town hall meeting is about but does provide the names of important people scheduled to attend. In addition to Aldermen Harris and Austin, it included millionaire businessmen Everett Rand and Larry Huggins, restaurateur Josephine “Mother” Wade, Reverend Leslie Sanders of Hope Presbyterian Church of Chicago, Reverend (John) Harrell of Proviso Missionary Baptist Church, Reverend Walter Turner of New Spiritual Life Missionary Baptist Church and activist Jedidah Brown, who is running for alderman in the 7th ward.
Last August Austin, Huggins and Rand were among several names on a committee for a fundraiser for Wade, months after a robber took $10,000 in copper wire from the restaurant’s electrical system, causing Wade to shut down her restaurant, and causing her to lose additional money from lost business and catering orders. Prominent businessman, Michael Sacks, the mayor’s biggest financial contributor was also on the fundraising committee.
Close sources told the Crusader that the meeting aimed to come up with a political strategy after the Crusader on October 4 published an investigative story that reported eight Black aldermen took campaign donations from the mayor within weeks of them approving a $5 million settlement for McDonald’s estate.
Harris received the largest in campaign donations with $161,718. Austin received $73,832.
To find out why the meeting never occurred, the Crusader sent emails to Harris and Austin, asking them about the meeting. Neither responded by press time on Wednesday. The Crusader was unable to contact Pastors Sanders, Harrell and Turner.
The Crusader did reach Huggins, who said “I think that meeting was something that was sent out and it didn’t make any sense. I had no intention of going to that meeting. Somebody put my name on that list without checking with me first.”
During the week leading up to the meeting, the Crusader called Captain’s Hard Times and was told that there was no such meeting scheduled at the restaurant.
But when guests arrived at the meeting, some grew confused when they learned that Preckwinkle would be speaking. Some expected to see Aldermen Harris, Austin and the other invited speakers mentioned on the invitation. None of them showed up.
Alderman Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward) showed up and briefly introduced activist Jahmal Coles and left. He did not stay for Preckwinkle’s 30-minute speech outlining her plans to help the Black community. The mayoral candidate said Sawyer had to attend another scheduled engagement.
After the meeting, one of the meeting’s organizers, Eli Washington, chairman of the Chesterfield Community Council, told the Crusader that he did not know anything about the meeting when a reporter showed him the invitation.
“I don’t know anything about that,” he said.
Nick Shields, Preckwinkle’s new director of communications, said he knew nothing about the initial meeting involving Harris and Austin.
The mobile invitation never sent a message saying the meeting was canceled.
Several people who attended the meeting with Preckwinkle told the Crusader that they were expecting Harris, Austin and people on the original invitation list. They said they heard about the private town hall through word of mouth.
Linda Hudson, a political candidate who’s running against Harris in the 8th ward, showed up with several protesters who were ready to demonstrate outside Captain’s Hard Times. They waited for nearly an hour for the meeting to start, but went home after learning that Harris and Austin would not be there.
“Its’ crazy,’ Hudson told the Crusader. “We were clearly expecting to see them but did not.”
Another candidate, Preston Brown, Jr., whose running against Austin, showed up at Captain’s Hard Time after hearing about it from a resident.
“This doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We didn’t expect to see a meeting with Preckwinkle.”
Cleopatra Watson, who’s running against incumbent Anthony Beale (9th Ward) also showed up expecting to see those originally invited for the town hall meeting.
“That’s why I came,” she said. “I definitely did not expect to see Preckwinkle.