Annisa Wanat has no illusions about the fight ahead of her.
Wanat, 41, is an intelligent, bright-eyed consultant from Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, on the northwest side. Over the last two decades, she’s taught high school students as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria, and worked across four continents, including in the American Midwest, to strengthen public services, reduce poverty, and increase governments’ transparency and accountability.
Now she’s trying to become the next alderman of the 33rd Ward. In her way, of course, is the current alderman, Deb Mell, whose family has run the ward for four decades.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Wanat said recently in a chat at a café in her ward. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work. But it’s not impossible.”
Born and raised in the northwest suburbs, Wanat said she remembers coming into the city every Sunday for dinner at her grandparents, in the 5200 block of W. Melrose St., in the Portage Park neighborhood. Growing up in a suburban community, she especially relished walking around and exploring Chicago on these weekly trips. “My grandmother would take us for walks after dinner,” she reminisced. “I used to love coming into the city,” she said.
Wanat went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Education from Miami University, and a Master’s degree in Public Affairs from Indiana University. For several years after graduate school, Wanat lived in Washington, D.C., where she was employed by the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit organization working to strengthen democratic institutions around the world. Wanat has also been on the payroll of One.org, an international organization working to end extreme poverty.
From South Sudan to Afghanistan, she has experience mentoring government and civic leaders, educating citizens on policy issues, and advocating for improved public services. Wanat speaks four foreign languages – Bulgarian, German, Serbian, and Spanish (though, she admits, “none fluently”).
For the last year or so, Wanat has worked as an independent consultant, advising organizations, such as nonprofits, on issues like organizational development and strategic planning.
Since 2008, Wanat has lived in the 33rd ward’s Albany Park neighborhood, saying she chose the area because of its diversity. (“I hear a different language everyday,” she said. “It’s a nice reminder of how diverse the world is.”) In the ward, she’s a volunteer tutor, and is active in several neighborhood groups.
Campaigning door-to-door, Wanat says she hears many of the residents of the 33rd ward talking about their desire for stronger neighborhood schools, and increased public safety. “People don’t want to hear gunfire at night,” she said.
In addition, an overriding concern of Wanat’s – one that she’s been advocating for around the world – is transparency and accountability in government. “I think it’s important that everybody gets a chance,” she said during our talk on a bright late-August morning. “The playing field should not be skewed,” she said. “Everyone should have the same opportunities.”
Wanat is running against Ald. Deb Mell, a former state representative who has run the ward since July of 2013. That was the month her father, Richard Mell, resigned as alderman of the 33rd ward after 38 years in power. Upon resigning, Dick Mell asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel to appoint his daughter to the seat. And, of course, the mayor appointed Deb Mell to the seat, with the Chicago City Council confirming the appointment on the same day.
Wanat, who said, “In all transparency … I was an applicant (for the job),” added, “There is no one who doesn’t think she (Deb Mell) was going to get the job from the get-go.”
Rod Blagojevich, the imprisoned former governor of Illinois, is married to the former Patti Mell, sister of Deb and daughter of Richard. Speaking of the Mell/Blagojevich clan, Wanat said, “The family is not known for promoting open and transparent government processes.”
According to Wanat, when Dick Mell resigned, “He maneuvered and used his clout to have his daughter appointed to his seat.” In addition, Mell had his own chief-of-staff appointed to his daughter’s former post in the statehouse. “Currently,” Wanat continued, “we are not represented by people we elected.”
Dick Mell has been a public advocate of patronage in city government, claiming that he helped put college students through school by getting them do-nothing jobs as bridge tenders along the Chicago River. So I asked Wanat: What’s so bad about patronage?
“If you give a person a job because of who they know rather than what they can do,” she said, “you’re going to end up with inefficient public services, money wasted, and public services that aren’t run well.”
Wanat said, “People are very frustrated with ‘the Chicago Way.’”
According to her website, annisaforalderman.com, Wanat decries balancing Chicago’s budget “at any cost.” She recommends TIF reform, so more money is targeted to small businesses, and “responsible income generation,” such as a congestion tax in the Loop. She also says the City Council is too big for a city of this size, and that reducing its numbers could save Chicago $10 million a year.
In regard to development, she recommends an overall plan for her ward, so gentrification doesn’t force out long-term residents. “One of the key jobs for an alderman is to bring the ward together,” she said during our interview. “We need a revitalization plan.”
With the new school year just begun, eyes are again focused on public education in this city. Wanat wants to see a movement away from a top-centered, Mayor’s Office control of Chicago Public Schools. She says we need an elected school board; a moratorium on charter schools; and a review of the CPS budget. She said many of the parents in her ward send their children to private, charter, or magnet schools in other neighborhoods, but “really want strong public schools within the ward.”
In regards to leadership and transparency, Wanat believes aldermen need to foster an exchange of ideas, and involve residents more in decisions affecting their ward and government programs.
On this topic, she said the current alderman lists her office hours on her website, but “never does any outreach.” In fact, she continued, “Over 50 percent of the ward residents don’t speak English. Forty-five percent of the ward is Latino. And she (Deb Mell) doesn’t have Spanish on her website.”
Albany Park is considered to be one of the most diverse communities in the United States, with 45 languages spoken there, according to the Albany Park Community Center. According to the multilingual Wanat, “We need someone who can communicate with different cultures. It’s a very diverse ward.”
Aldermen Scott Waguespack (32nd ward) and Ameya Pawar (47th ward) are members of the City Council who took on established aldermen and won. Wanat said she is looking to their campaigns as templates. “There is a very large movement in Chicago right now,” she said, “of people who are wanting to get rid of ‘the usual.’”
Asked if she’s thought about what she’d like to do if she isn’t victorious, she mentioned her background in advocacy, and her desire to work in government. However, she cautioned, all that is moot.
“I’m going to win,” she said.
Chicago’s municipal elections are scheduled for Feb. 24, 2015.
Photographs by Lawrence Hartmann; and from Annisaforalderman.com and Annisawanat.com.
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