Alderman Roderick Sawyer: Carrying A Legacy, Fighting for the Community
By: Mary L. Datcher
At 55, Alderman Roderick T. Sawyer of the 6thWard is Chicago’s most influential councilmen and political figures on the scene. For the past three years, he’s held the position as Chairman of the City Council Black Caucus, a group of 18 aldermen who represent predominately African American wards throughout the city.
Sawyer’s path to public service is not surprising, as the son of the late Eugene Sawyer whose rise to political dominance as long-time 6thWard Alderman and the second Black mayor of Chicago—he is currently serving his second term following his father’s footsteps.
“My father was alderman for 17 years. I was a committeeman for twenty-some-odd years. As a youngster, I was at the side of my dad. I watched how people treated him. When he walked down the street, people were appreciative of him in an era when they gave out jobs. Back then, the community was very tight-knit, and people were very thankful that not only did they have a job but a career where they could provide for a family. They sent their children to school,” he says. “They were productive; their houses were paid for, we had block clubs and community organizations back then. We had a precinct captain organization that was second to none, highest voter turnout in the city.”
He said these were some of the things growing up watching his father; he was the proudest of in his community engagement. During the late 1960’s to 1990’s, the 6th Ward was considered one of the highest voter turnout communities in the city. During Mayor Harold Washington’s reign, Ald. Eugene Sawyer was a staunch supporter and one of Washington’s most loyal friends and advocates. After Washington’s death in 1988, an in-council battle for his seat between Sawyer and fellow alderman Tim Evans split the council Black members, resulting in Sawyer’s appointment as the 53rd Mayor for the City of Chicago. He was defeated by Richard M. Daley in 1989.
Carrying On the Legacy, Engaging the Community
As he witnessed firsthand the changes occurring throughout his father’s career, [Roderick] Sawyer graduated in 1981 from St. Ignatius College Prep to begin college at DePaul University—eventually acquiring his Bachelor of Science in Finance and J.D. from IIT-Kent College of Law in 1990.
Not far from home, he returned to the Southside community performing volunteer work. He soon opened his law office on 75th Street.
“I wanted to come back, although I never really left. I stayed in Park Manor all my life. I wanted to come back and contribute to my neighborhood. When my father passed, people talked to me about running for public office. I tried to push back and do other things with some mild degrees of success. But, it wasn’t where my passion was, my passion was serving people,” said Sawyer.
In 2011, he decided to run for alderman, defeating incumbent Fredrenna Lyles becoming elected as the second Sawyer to hold the office.
But, it hasn’t been an easy road between prioritizing the concerns of his constituents in his ward, identifying the problems of Black Chicagoans on behalf of the Black Aldermanic Caucus and becoming the lead spokesperson to address these issues head-on. From the high profile, police brutality case of Laquan McDonald to the deaths of Quintonio LeGrier and mother of five, Bettie Jones—Sawyer walks a fine line between the community and bureaucratic red tape.
A few weeks ago, he defended the Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson’s support of Officer Roberto Rialmos to remain on the force after he reviewed the deaths of LeGrier and Jones as “accidental.”
“I want to be clear. I support Supt. Johnson in his position 100 percent. I disagree with a lot of people. The nature of what we do, we’re able to disagree without being disagreeable. This particular instance, I disagree with the decision that he made. He did explain it to me—it explained to me quite well. He had to use the prior orders regarding the use of force which he changed since being in office. He’s revised them all and was using the current status which implemented on the use of force. Otherwise, he would’ve come to a different decision.”
He continues, “Now, my understanding is the police board member had disagreed with it, and it’s going to the full board now. The system works. The system works if you allow it to work. He made a recommendation. COPA made a recommendation, and it went to the police board, they made a recommendation now it’s going to the full board for a hearing. Hopefully, they’ll come to a decision. There’s a lot of input because it’s been some disagreements on all sides. I feel the system works. We shouldn’t abandon our trust for Supt. Johnson because he decided that some of us don’t agree with.”
Sawyer acknowledged under the circumstances, the situation could’ve been handled better with LeGrier having an aluminum bat versus being confronted with rapid gunfire, and in that case, less force was an option. “There are de-escalation policies in place now where they calm the person down or do things lesser lethal weapon.”
Since former Supt. Garry McCarthy’s firing by Mayor Rahm Emanuel has the trust and interaction between the Black community and Chicago police force improved?
Sawyer answers, “Yes, based on my interaction with the CPD. The police have become much more community-oriented—more than ever before. I have officers that are engaged in youth activities. They were cleaning up lots and participating in the events such as high school proms, swimming, and bowling programs. Police are getting involved in the community; they’re not just here to arrest and be the bad guy. The police are being more like the ‘officer friendly’ that we grew up with.” He said working with area districts such Commander Ken Johnson in the 7thDistrict located in the Englewood community has shown a decline in homicides along with Harrison police district in the Austin area.
“Those are two examples of how the police are doing more than arresting themselves out of problems. They’re interacting with people more; they are doing job fairs.”
Bringing Back Economic Development
Unlike progressively diverse communities such as Bronzeville, Englewood, Hyde Park, South Loop and near the Westside—his ward covers the residential neighborhoods of Park Manor, Auburn Gresham, Greater Grand Crossing, Englewood, Chesterfield and West Chatham. Developers are not easily attracted when the lack of TIF funding is not available for most of his area.
Sawyer explains, “When you talk about TIFs they first need to be established. Aldermanic wards such as the 8thand 34th have TIFs in their area. The 34thWard has large areas of closed industrial land where there’s TIFs in place. There are some monies out there to do development. They also have chemical fields with properties must be environmentally cleaned up. I’m a bedroom community, so I have single-family homes. There aren’t many high rises or super big apartment buildings—two to four flat buildings and no super high traffic commercial corridors,” he said.
Before being elected, he says his predecessor tried to establish more TIFs in the area, but often pride and the traditions of a once thriving middle working-class community have stood in the way. “One of the requirements to establish a TIF is you had to acknowledge a community was blighted. No one wanted to consider ourselves blighted. That was an offensive term to Chatham residents. So, it was difficult to get TIFs established. Here we are 20 years later, and it seems this is the only way we can get things financed which I think is unfair.”
The 6thward may not be in proximity to the lakefront or within a three-mile radius of downtown. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 52, 341 residents, a 5 percent drop from 2000 and the decline may be more as we approach the 2020 census. It is home to several commercial corridors—71st, 75th, 79thStreets for small businesses.
Part of a thriving neighborhood economy is providing a welcoming platform for companies to set up shop for consumers without the dollar traveling outside of their community. Sawyer is on a mission to build and maintain revenue exchange within his ward.
“I have to find innovative ways to fund projects in my area. The Thrive and Neighborhood Opportunity Funds are ways to help funnel monies into our communities on smaller projects. It’s still difficult to get large projects. For example, I’ve been advocating for some transit-oriented development projects near the Red Line. I think it’s important when you have 7,000 commuters a day at these locations, and we’re not asking them to buy things located near the El train stops where they travel every day.”
The last major project funded by TIF funding was for the new building expansion of South Shore International College Preparatory High School in 2011. Since then, other projects have gradually enjoyed the benefits of TIFs including Mariano’s in Bronzeville, Whole Foods in both Englewood and Hyde Park as well as XS Tennis Village in Washington Park. Sawyer understands his challenge and feels the current mayoral administration has demonstrated more development efforts in the African American community since his becoming alderman.
“I wasn’t here under the leadership of Mayor Daley, but I was an interesting observer. I think we’ve done a lot. I think we’ve become more cohesive and direct in asking for the things that could benefit us as Black people. I think we’ve done this more so under Mayor Emanuel. It’s to our credit, our corporate credit of the 18 Black aldermen we’ve been more successful. We’ve concentrated on a few things, we’ve focused on what’s directly affecting the Black community and how we should be at the table instead of on the menu,” said Sawyer.
The Role of the Black Aldermanic Caucus
What is the role of the Black Aldermanic Caucus? Have there been significant strides for a town which is considered the most segregated city in the country? As cranes fly in the sky in overly aggressively developed, areas in the South and West Loop, construction contracts and on-site jobs to Black folks are still sparse.
“I feel we do best when we pick some issues that are agreeable to all of us. You don’t necessarily have a set of ideas, all you have to do to be in the Black Caucus is to be ‘Black.’ As Black people, we all have different opinions on several things, but I think we can come together on things as it relates to jobs and contracts and fair treatment for African Americans. We try to focus on those core issues we can all gather around. We know fairness in contracting to make sure Blacks have a sufficient to bid and to be successful in the workforce comes through the city,” says Sawyer.
He explains other professional services that include city contracts for “Blacks to have a seat at the table,” and the Caucus has communicated this as a priority to the city. “We will fiercely oppose anything that does not include Black people in any significant way,” he reiterates.
The Future of the 6th Ward
The 55-year-old alderman shows no signs of slowing down as he gears up for his re-election campaign and revitalizing one of the Southside’s popular pub crawl districts—75thStreet.
“When I was a kid, 75th St. had more four o’clock bars short of downtown. From El Matador, Frances, The Other Place, The Apartment, The Barricader, Phase II, Little Felix, The President’s Lounge. These are places along the street; now we have few good ones—Fifty Yard Line and Reynold’s among the remaining ones. We need to increase it by adding more restaurants, bars, and grills so people can walk the street and entertain themselves.” He said this would also include other businesses such as clothing retail stores and professional services.
In 2011, a neighborhood treasure, Army & Lou’s restaurant closed its doors leaving a noticeable change in business traffic. Sawyer is happy to announce the building was purchased and currently undergoing a renovation adding the second floor. Restaurants such as Five Loaves, Brown Sugar Bakery, Lem’s, Soul Vegetarian are among Black-owned businesses which continues to maintain a loyal customer base.
“If I see a Black business that is somewhere else, I invite them to come to my ward. Sometimes, I get turned down, but I get some interest. I’ve been to places downtown, on the North and Westside. I’m an avid cheerleader for the ward trying to bring Black and viable businesses here and pitch my neighborhood to those that could mutually benefit.”