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A guide to facing down an incumbent alderman

by Diana Novak
Jan 26, 2011


Courtesy of

"The original purpose of the site was just to get people talking," said John Courtney.

One of Chicago’s most senior aldermen, Bernard Stone (50th), is OK with new people running for office. 

“I don’t tell them not to run,” said Stone, who is running for his 11th term as alderman of the Far North Side ward. “They have to start from scratch. That’s not so easy.”

He cited the last scene of the Robert Redford film “The Candidate” as an example of what happens when a newcomer takes office. “He turns to his campaign manager and says, ‘What do I do now?’”

For Tom Courtney, a candidate for alderman in the 27th Ward in Old Town, the real concern is getting to that point. Courtney, a lawyer, has carefully developed a campaign strategy aimed at beating an incumbent with more name recognition and more resources.

“I believe I have an opportunity to win the election, but I just know that incumbents have a lot of advantages,” Courtney said. “The system is geared to them, keeping them on the ballot.”

Step one was beating challenges to his candidacy filed with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

“You have to be very careful, because if you don’t do everything correctly, you could be knocked off the ballot,” Courtney said. “And even if you do do everything correctly, they’ll still try to knock you off.”

Courtney beat the challenges, and he and his brother, John Courtney, filed objections against all of the other candidates, successfully knocking two of them off the ballot.

Step two was getting people talking about what’s at stake and not about the personalities running for office.  
The brothers set up a website,, which portrays itself as an unbiased forum for discussion of 27th Ward issues. John Courtney answers at the phone number listed on the website.

Issues and some suggestions of how to address them are listed on the site, but they’re not attributed to the candidate.  Comments from readers indicate that they don’t understand that this is a campaign website.

“It was kind of a litmus test to see where people stood on things,” John Courtney said.  “We felt that if the candidates actually talked about the issues, versus themselves, it would present a more clear picture of what people are running on. “

The website offers profiles of both Burnett and Courtney and contact information for an organization called Campaign for Change. One blog post on the site discusses Burnett’s 1998 armed robbery conviction and the clemency he was granted by Governor Jim Edgar. The blogger asks readers to comment on whether or not they think it is OK to have convicts appointed or elected to office.

The website collects donations, although it is not clear whether the money goes toward the Courtney campaign or the allegedly neutral Campaign for Change.

Courtney explains the website’s evasiveness as campaign strategy. “The problem is, if you run…[with] a powerful incumbent like [Walter Burnett, Jr.], if you run against somebody directly like that, they’re very well financed. They know people; it’s very easy for them to attack a person versus attacking an issue.