Patricia Watkins wasn't invited to the televised January 17 debate between the candidates for Chicago mayor, but that didn't stop her from declaring herself the winner in a statement released after it was over. The Watkins campaign held a "virtual" debate in its South Side office at 79th and Ashland that was broadcast online, during which the 53-year-old candidate answered the same questions Rahm Emanuel, Gery Chico, Miguel del Valle, and Carol Moseley Braun had faced. "Chicago voters need to hear from all the candidates, not just the ones the media has chosen for the spotlight," Watkins said in the statement. "So I'm not going to let something as silly as the lack of an invitation stop me from talking about the issues."
Watkins entered Chicago's most watched political race in November with minimal city-wide name recognition. As of January 20th, she had 1/20th the money of the fund-raising leader (Emanuel) and consistently anemic polling numbers (around or less than one percent in major surveys). But in the narrative she has worked to craft, none of that matters. She wants voters to see Chicago's political life as she does: an illegitimate charade played out by the news media, powerful corporate backers, and the occupants of City Hall, all of whom do little more than perpetuate an equally illegitimate set of economic, legal, and educational policies that have driven the city to the brink and forced misery on the struggling citizens who populate its forgotten, failing neighborhoods. And into this farce, Watkins argues, have now ridden a set of characters vying for control of a reality they've assiduously avoided dealing with, one they neither understand nor truly care about.
On January 31 she was expounding on this message during a candidate forum on 95th Street, one she had been invited to, when Carol Moseley Braun levied the instantly notorious charge that Watkins was unfamiliar with her record due to the "20 years" she had spent "strung out on crack." Braun's intemperate accusation came in response to Watkins' scornful dismissal of Braun's resume. Despite "all the violence running rampant," Watkins had said, "I did not even know the woman lived in the city of Chicago. I have not heard her voice out there on the streets."
"I am tired of seeing people missing in action, come showing up from nowhere," she said after the debate. "It's confusing people. And these people have been confused enough. We've suffered enough."
According to Watkins, she is the candidate who can cut through the confusion -- a person whose past struggles are an asset, not a liability. "I'm the only anti-Rahm," she told a small group of supporters at her West Side office a few weeks before election day. "And it's not based on rhetoric. It's based on lived experience. He can't get where I am from where he is. It took years for me to become the person I am."
Born in 1957, Watkins grew up near Cabrini-Green, one of seven children of a mother who worked her way through school and a father incapacitated by a car accident. Bored in school, she drifted into drug addiction, starting with marijuana and alcohol and eventually moving to cocaine. She started cutting class in 7th grade, then dropped out before getting a vocational degree, which allowed her to lie about her age (she was 16) to land a job at Ingersol Steel. Within a few years, she was a union steward who was signing her paychecks over in full to her dealer, unable to support her two young children or buy herself toothpaste. "When you are a drug addict," she says, "you just learn how to make things come together for you." She adds, without elaboration, that being a woman helped her desperate cause.
In Watkins' telling, her story took a dramatic turn after a life-changing trip to her sister's Pentecostal church at age 23. Skeptical and clad in filthy clothing, she says she told the preacher that she was on drugs and wanted to quit. In response, he rolled up his sleeves to reveal scars sewn by heroin needles, a testament to his own previous addiction. She tells of divine intervention, of her own unsure prayers, and her life flashing before her in an instant before collapsing on the floor. Unwilling to accept what had happened, Watkins says she went home and smoked pot in front of her mother, just to disprove the quickly spreading rumor that she had been saved. The drugs, she claims, suddenly had no effect, and the following morning the urge to get high, with her for so many years, was gone.
Laid off from Ingersol Steel in 1981, Watkins went back to school, eventually getting a BA from Roosevelt University and a Masters in Human Services Administration from the Spertus Institute. She joined a new church led by Apostle Joseph Stanford, a Chicago preacher who has remained central to her life and work (as well as the primary financier of her mayoral bid and a top political advisor). Watkins was drawn increasingly into Stanford's life and community service work. Initially, services were hosted out of her basement. A 2005 Chicago Tribune article, one of the only journalistic accounts of Watkins' biography, documents how in 1982, the fledgling congregation raised $160,000 by selling homemade cookies and collecting donations. It used the money to buy a former theater on 79th and Ashland and turn it into the ornate home of Ambassadors for Christ Church, to which Watkins still belongs.
In the ensuing years, Watkins became a CPA, and in 2009 earned a Ph.D. from Capella University, an online program, in nonprofit management. She often describes herself as a researcher, and her doctoral thesis focused on the role research plays in successful social movements. "To outsiders, it may appear that the work of the social change agent is simply to arouse the masses and lead protesters to participate in direct action," Watkins wrote. "In reality, if the work is to be successful, it must be grounded in a deep understanding of the complex conditions that are relevant to situational analyses, cross-group interpretation, organizational capacity, and impact assessment."
In 1995, after more than a decade working with her church to develop affordable housing in Garfield Park and open ministries in the United States and abroad, Watkins founded the Target Area Development Corporation, an activist group headquartered next to Ambassadors which trains organizers, lobbies for legislation in Chicago and Springfield, and promotes local economic investment. As CEO, Watkins grew TARGET's annual budget, supported by grants, from $10,000 to a high of $3 million. The group's first successful action was to agitate for the closure of a brothel at the corner of Western and 79th, and it claims to have helped secure over $50 million in investment along the 79th Street corridor between Western and Halsted, including banks, a Walgreen's, restaurants, and a new retirement home. (Target staffers confirmed these claims verbally, but as of press time had failed to provide documentary support for them.)
In recent years, Watkins has set her sights on a variety of targets. In 2003, she helped to form the Developing Justice Coalition (DJC), a collection of two dozen Chicago organizations that produced studies linking high levels of recidivism to the inability of past offenders to seal their records. It then led a successful, multiyear lobbying effort which resulted in passage of SB 3007, a law which permits for the sealing of nonviolent felony records. This was followed by the 2007 passage of the DJC-backed SMART Act, increasing sentencing options for those convicted of low-level drug crimes by encouraging their diversion into treatment programs rather than prison.
Target is a key part of PRISE, a coalition that increases parental involvement in decisions affecting schools in Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, and Austin, as well as SAGE, a state-wide version of the same effort. It has helped secure state funding for Grow Your Own Teachers, an initiative currently paying for over 200 Chicago parents to become local teachers, and advocates for CeaseFire, an anti-violence program which turns former gang members into "violence interrupters" working to stop gun crime in the hands-on way epidemiologists treat disease. (A 2008 analysis conducted by Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research concluded that Chicago neighborhoods where CeaseFire was active had seen "distinctive declines in the number of persons actually shot or killed ranging from 16 to 34 percent.") Watkins also sat on the board of Change Illinois, the coalition which pushed for the campaign finance reforms that went into law this year, instituting the first limits on donations to state races in Illinois history.
Substantial praise for Watkins comes from other activists involved in these efforts. Don Washington worked with the DJC, and explained how she secured support for the new sentencing laws from the Illinois Retailers Merchants Association (IRMA), a key hurdle in the course of the negotiations. "Patricia was one of the people that made it really clear to the guys at IRMA that they had to reevaluate how they thought about work forces and how they thought about higher democratic values," he said. Watkins made IRMA members understand that it was in their interest to turn former offenders into workers and consumers. "That's one of Patricia's gifts," Washington continued. "She's very good at making you clear on where you stand, and then, once you understand where you stand, she's very good at saying, do you see how...[what I want] would be helpful to you?"
Rami Nashashibi, Executive Director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network and a long-time Target collaborator, sees Watkins as "a very dynamic, brilliant, and courageous community organizer" who "has an uncanny ability to broker extraordinary dialogue with the most unlikely actors," including community and business groups, think tanks, and foundations.
"She was one of our best spokespersons," says CeaseFire director Tio Hardiman, who described Watkins as a "pace setter" among Chicago organizers, someone whose "undying passion to help change hearts and minds" convinced aldermen of the program's utility and led to its expansion from a handful of city wards to over 25. And Cynthia Canary, Executive Director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, cites Target as a "phenomenal partner," with Watkins finding "ways to effectively communicate why this seemingly wonky issue actually mattered on a day-to-day basis to people in their communities."
Watkins says that when supporters initially started urging her to run for mayor, she rejected the idea, but gradually reconsidered. "I asked myself, why are you saying no to everybody? Largely because of fear of failure." Examining the field, the only candidate she admired was Miguel del Valle, but in her estimation, he wasn't going to be able to pick up enough of the African-American vote to win. Of the remaining entrants, she says she "did not see a single one that would represent the voice of the regular, every-day citizen in government." She declared her candidacy in November.
As her assessment of Del Valle shows, Watkins is hardly oblivious to the impact race will have on the election. The relationship between her campaign and the subject is multi-faceted. Watkins rejects any suggestion that she wouldn't be a mayor for the whole city. "The problems that people face are everybody's problems. All of us are paying, in social costs and financial costs." When asked what her candidacy had to offer for well-off communities, her response reflected a belief that the whole city has been in the same bind: "Finally having a voice in city government."
At the same time, however, Watkins' support is primarily drawn from African-American South and West side residents who feel alienated and abused by city politics. Darrell Williamson, a 27-year old South Side volunteer and employee of CeaseFire, grew up on 79th Street. The Gangster Disciples recruited him in 6th grade. He remembers seeing Watkins out on the street encouraging him to come into Ambassadors as a teenager, but he ignored her, and by 17 he was facing two charges of attempted murder (he was acquitted of both), followed in ensuing years by convictions for drug manufacturing and distribution. By his mid 20s he had already spent over three years in prison or under house arrest.
"I was surprised when I heard that she was running," he says, "I was kind of hurt at the same time. I know in politics, it's a lot of corruption. You have to have money, power, and influence, and I didn't really see Dr. Watkins with that."
Angelique Orr, a 14-year Target veteran and a Watkins volunteer, says she thinks the "process of exclusion, the process of segregation, the process of political favors, the process of corruption" defines the workings of the city. The inequitable results are "always laid on the backs of people, most of the time poor and working class people." Unsurprisingly, African-Americans pay a disproportionate price. During one of our conversations, Orr offered an unsolicited take on Rahm Emanuel's proposed sales tax on "luxury" items like nail treatments. "To me, that's a black people's tax," she says. "If you look in the black community, we have the most barber shops, the most beauty shops, we do the most shopping. It's a black tax."
These are the feelings to which Watkins speaks. When she criticizes the Daley administration, she isn't satisfied to limit its failings to the much-maligned parking meter deal. Instead, she brings up other, older controversies such as the hired truck scandal and Jon Burge as evidence of the incumbent administration's long-term corruption. She talks about inequitable garbage pickup in different sections of the city, and is fond of quoting a 2009 University of Illinois study claiming that the state loses $500 million a year to corruption. Watkins' Chicago is one defined as much as anything else by the persistent fact that black men under 35 are more likely to die by homicide than any other cause, a statistic she brings up during every stump speech.
For Watkins, the local media is part of the problem. She describes her exclusion from early televised debates as an "atrocity" revealing the degree to which "corporate interests continue to manipulate and shape the ideas and the visions of the people who live in this city." She claims that the January 20 WGN/Chicago Tribune poll which gave Emanuel 44 percent of the vote while barely registering her was flagrantly deceptive, misrepresented the electorate by deliberately overemphasizing Hispanic participation. (A spokeswoman for the Tribune, Kathleen Mersman, disagrees, claiming that the poll factored historical voting patterns into its results.)
"They have millions of dollars, all I have is Patricia Watkins, a girl from Cabrini-Green, a reformed drug addict, dropped out of high school, steel worker," she said recently."Why are you afraid of Patricia Watkins? They're afraid because they're afraid of the truth."
Voters, Watkins claims, can't look to the leading candidates for a way out. "We can't count on Rahm Emanuel!" she said to agreement at her South Side office opening. "He's been making millions and millions of dollars off of people just like us, and you'd better believe it's not going to end when he gets in office." She returned to the same theme a few weeks later on the West Side, arguing that Emanuel had shown his true colors during his time on the board of Freddie Mac, collecting a large salary while he "looked the other way on scandal after scandal" which led to the financial crisis and the subsequent bailouts, "the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of this country." (Emanuel has staunchly rejected the charge that his work with the lending institution contributed to the brewing crises.)
"He doesn't care about us," Watkins continued, before derisively claiming that Emanuel used his time with visiting Chinese president Hu Jintao to discuss business instead of human rights. That's all a Mayor Emanuel would care about, according to Watkins: the business elite. "We've got to shut this thing down."
Watkins says the fact that she hasn't held elected office is a positive. "I'm not a career politician," she reminds everyone she addresses, "which means I have no experience in corruption or cronyism." She also claims that the other candidates are sidestepping the underlying causes of the city's needs. As an example, she describes their proposals concerning public safety as lacking "legitimacy" for failing to adequately deal with former offenders. "The way they approach public safety is punitive measures," Watkins says. "They think about enforcement, laws, police. Those are the things that happen after you commit a crime. We need to get in front of the problem."
Ties to traditional moneyed interests, Watkins says, are part of the reason why her opponents' cures are topical or misguided. But more importantly, their relative privilege means that they also fail to understand the daily realities of Chicago's marginalized citizens. "I know what it means to live in a ghetto," Watkins says. "I know there's plenty of people trying to change things, and they've got to be frustrated because common sense does not prevail here."
"There's two different types of mayors," says Don Washington. "There's the autocratic mayor -- we've had that model for the last 20 years. And then there's a community mayor. We haven't had one of those since Washington. What that means is you're constantly weighing people's interests and constantly building coalitions to get people to see how their interests align with what you want to do for the city." He believes Watkins exemplifies the latter.
There's a decidedly bottom-up feel to many of Watkins' proposals. She wants to form multi-neighborhood community councils throughout the city which would empower citizens to advocate more effectively for changes. She believes many social ills can be effectively addressed through the empowerment and expansion of "evidenced-based models" of action, such as groups like CeaseFire, Grow Your Own Teachers, and others. She has called for an independent forensic audit of the city's budget to weed out waste and corruption. She wants all available city jobs posted online and filled through a public application process, and low-income housing built more evenly throughout the city so as to lessen "concentrated poverty." She wants at least some school board members to be elected, and an educator at the helm of CPS.
When pressed on the matter, Watkins' plans for achieving such reforms and shifts in the government's priorities and investments remain somewhat vague, given the realities of the City Hall bureaucracy. She seems to have faith that the mere fact of having a mayor with her background would go a long way on its own.
But it's also worth noting that as strident as her rhetoric is, Watkins isn't opposed to working with existing structures. Her approach to education provides an example: she's an advocate for local teachers and public education, but isn't for the closure of charter schools, and she welcomes the help of national programs like Teach for America. Similarly, she thinks the process of utilizing "turnarounds" to reform failing schools can be counterproductive, but wouldn't rule it out if no other option exists.
Perhaps the most realpolitik aspect of Watkins' campaign involves her fundraising. At events, she cites the fact that she's raised over $500,000 as proof of her legitimacy as a candidate, but she doesn't note that $300,000 of that came from her Ambassador's pastor, Joseph Stanford. Nearly $100,000 more was donated by Target employees. All such donations were collected before the new funding requirements Watkins helped to pass went into effect. "You deal with the hand you're dealt, not the one you wish you had," Watkins said when asked if she was a hypocrite. "So if I was abiding by the rules and nobody else was, that would make it unfair for me." She says she supports the spirit of the campaign finance legislation. "I'm glad it's here. I wish it had started July 1st. Then we would be in a better position against our peers."
Watkins stepped down as CEO of Target in order to run, and she says that she's unlikely to return if she doesn't win. Instead, she's interested in trying her hand at something with a larger reach, perhaps working with a statewide group. In the meantime, she continues to campaign as if her candidacy is a calling. "We've got a moment in time," she exhorted supporters in January. "We've got to look this thing in the eye and say we can and we will have better than what they're presenting to us. We've got to fight like there's no tomorrow. We've got to fight like our life depends on it."