If you have forgotten how innocent young children can look, drive by St. Sabina Academy on the South Side and you will see them. Then walk across Racine Avenue and into the offices of 17th Ward Ald. Latasha Thomas and listen to her talk about some of the recent killings in the Englewood neighborhood in her ward. "When we lose a child," she says, "we lose a link to our future. It is heartbreaking when a child is murdered. We have to have some hard love and do something about this [violence]."And here's a little background on the 17th Ward Alderman...
Thomas has spent most her life living in the ward. Her memories stretch back to a more prosperous era of movie palaces, department stores and "the milk man delivering the milk."She obviously comes off as a champion and a promoter of her ward. She says that there is more good than bad there. One of her accomplishments that she points to here is a new mall going on the block of 69th and Ashland. Anchored by a grocery store and there is a bank there. I drove by their earlier this summer attempting to avoid the traffic on the Dan Ryan. I remember that it used to be a CTA bus barn. That last quote in that last paragraph I quoted was pretty good.
She was appointed alderman in 2000 to replace Terry Peterson, who became chief executive of the Chicago Housing Authority. In 2003, she won the election with 80 percent of the vote.
Thomas comes to politics naturally. Her grandfather worked as a precinct captain in the well-oiled machine of William Dawson, the legendary South Side political boss, and both of her parents also practiced that vanishing form of personal politics. Her late father was a CTA supervisor and her mom, who has a nursing background, currently works for the county.
Born in 1965 and the eldest of the five kids, Thomas as an 8th grader wanted to be the first black president of the U.S. and thought the way to go about that was to become a lawyer. A member of the debate team at Kenwood Academy, she went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she majored in political science, and a law degree from DePaul University.
She worked in private practice, served as a law clerk and corporation counsel, and was with the Department of Human Services while also serving as Peterson's chief of staff.
She has been married for 19 years to Tim Thomas, whom she first met in college, even though they had both attended the same high school. They make a political "power couple," since he is deputy commissioner in both the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor's Office of Special Events (and a former University of Illinois basketball star).
"Power couple? I don't feel that. We never, ever, talk about work at home," says the alderman. In part, that's because they are busy with their two teenagers, Victory and Timothy III, and taking care of their 100-year-old home in the Gresham neighborhood. (To see a map of the ward and a photo of Thomas, go to www.cityofchicago.org and click on the "Your Ward and Alderman" link).
She still practices law, though she will not accept clients in the ward, and is running for reelection next year. She no longer wants to be president.
"In this job I can see what I am doing for people and I am confident in the growth and prosperity of this area," she says. "I tell people, 'If you're not in here now you better get in.' I am proud of the people who have stayed here through thick and thin.
Here's another good quote from the alderman...
"The media doesn't know Englewood. Yes, there are problems and that's what gets in the news. They should come down here for the [annual] South Side NeighborhoodOgden Park I hear is a good park. This park was designed by the Olmsted Brothers could rival other well designed neighborhood parks in Chicago such as Garfield Park, Marquette Park, Washington Park, and Sherman Park (another Englewood park). Those parks have winding streets and lagoons.
Gospel Festival [this weekend in Ogden Park] and see that. It's the largest neighborhood gospel festival in the city, and I actually think it's better than the one downtown. We have 20,000 people in that park ... families, kids ... and nothing bad happens. Why don't they report on that?"
All the same this is the first time I've ever heard about a neighborhood gospel fest hosted in a neighborhood park. Perhaps this is something I should look forward to in the future.