Just 15 blocks separate the campaign offices of incumbent Ald. Debra Silverstein and her opponent, Mueze Bawany — yet the candidates vying for Chicago’s 50th Ward seat are a study in contrasts emblematic of the area itself.
Last week, those contrasts were amplified by the revelation of controversial tweets Bawany posted in 2019 with phrases like “f— all you Zionist scum” and “F— off honky.” These comments shifted the conversation from traditional voting issues like crime and education to more personal questions about the candidates’ beliefs.
The impact of the tweets was clear after Bawany apologized on his website and again in front of a crowd at a candidate forum last week. Silverstein, a three-term incumbent who describes herself as an Orthodox Jew, responded with a statement of her own condemning the tweets. She skipped the forum with a spokesperson, saying it was not “appropriate under the circumstances,” without elaborating.
But this week, several more controversial tweets from Bawany’s past resurfaced, some as recent as 2021. Screenshots show Bawany calling then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “some f—ing honky feminist,” saying “the American people are pretty f—ing stupid,” and writing of a police officer accused of roughing up a preschool student, “Tell me why no one should f— this cop up?” And Bawany twice referenced defunding the Chicago Police Department — a phrase he’s avoided on the campaign trail.
Those tweets prompted more contrition from Bawany, who released a statement asking “not to be judged for how I showed up on social media during my low times but how I’m committed to show up for my neighbors now. I cannot and do not defend my tweets then.”
This time, he added: “I hope that Ald. Silverstein’s record receives as much scrutiny as my deleted tweets. The focus of Ald. Silverstein’s mistakes deserve to be elevated to 50th Ward voters just as much as my commitment to keep improving and being accountable as a leader, if elected.”
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But the tweets could prove particularly problematic for voters of the newly drawn 50th Ward, one of the most diverse areas in Chicago. Bordering Evanston on the far northern end of the city and covering most of West Ridge and a little bit of North Park, the ward is home to socialists and conservatives, Muslims and Jews, Indian and Pakistani Americans and many other ethnic groups.
Whatever the impact of the tweets on voters, Silverstein also has to defend her record against the political newcomer. For her, that begins with the recent investments in her neighborhood.
“I was able to get a state-of-the-art library that has affordable housing above it,” Silverstein explained in an interview with the Tribune. “And $68 million for our schools, including two annexes at Rogers (Elementary), Decatur (Classical School and) $10 million for our parks.”
Bawany, a Chicago Public Schools high school teacher who is on leave during the campaign, is supported by large donations from the Chicago Teachers Union. He doesn’t think Silverstein should get credit for the school improvements.
“The stats that they’re citing are not in any way accurate,” Bawany says. “CPS capital doesn’t work like that. No alderman can say a school needs a wing.”
Silverstein expressed confusion as to why CTU would back her competitor, claiming she has backed “every single ordinance that CTU ever asked me to vote for.”
After the first set of Bawany’s tweets emerged last week, a CTU spokesperson called them “offensive, hurtful and unacceptable” but noted that he had apologized.
Along Devon Avenue, the economic vein of the 50th Ward — which Silverstein takes credit for improving with a “multimillion-dollar streetscape” — the varying identities of the area stand out: A kosher bakery called Tel Aviv is just a few doors down from halal sweet shops. Business signs are written in Hebrew, Hindi and Arabic. Across the street from Silverstein’s office is an Indian and Pakistani restaurant whose owner, Mazhar Allam, supports the incumbent, calling her nice and helpful.
“This is really a melting pot for everybody,” Silverstein said in a recent podcast interview. “I wish the rest of the world could see how we get along. I’m really very proud of that.”
Many of Bawany’s supporters defend his character online and handed out a document signed by 70 Jewish community members supporting his character.
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Like the community they hope to lead, the differences between the candidates have also been on display during the campaign. Bawany, who emigrated from Pakistan to Chicago when he was 3, wears his emotions on his sleeve. He was moved to tears a handful of times during an interview with the Tribune and another dozen times during last week’s hourlong forum. He acknowledged that his students call him “‘Mr. Crywany’ instead of Mr. Bawany,” eliciting laughs from the crowd of about 150.
While Bawany is a political newcomer, Silverstein, 57, has been entrenched in elected politics for more than a decade as she seeks a fourth term. Her answers are short, concise, with little emotion, and focused on the work she has done as alderman.
Her former husband, Ira Silverstein, was a state senator for two decades who lost his 2018 primary reelection bid after he was accused of sexual harassment by a victims rights advocate but was later cleared of that claim by the legislative inspector general. The couple have since divorced.
One area of her record that Debra Silverstein has had to defend surrounds a recent controversy over the sale of the old West Ridge Library. According to Block Club Chicago, which first reported the story, the branch was set to be sold last year for $400,000 to a group called Yachad, which planned to lease part of the building to another group that Silverstein co-founded. After community organizers cried foul over what they viewed as a lack of transparency around an insider deal, the sale of building was put up for a bid and reportedly ended up going to another entity that paid more than twice as much.
“I handed (Yachad’s bid) over to the Department of Planning and Development, and they worked out all the details,” Silverstein told the Tribune. “So apparently, there were some people in this ward that didn’t like that. And then (the department) did go back and open the bidding process again.”
How candidates handle crime is also an important topic for voters. Silverstein echoed what she hears from constituents as she knocks doors: The 50th Ward needs more police on the streets. She claims credit for bringing 20 additional officers to her ward while also labeling her opponent as a defund-the-police candidate.
Bawany was careful not to use that term to define his plan; he agreed that more cops are needed but also emphasized the need to invest in crime reduction in other ways.
“I’m not going to give anybody leeway to just use the term defund because it becomes one of these easy non sequiturs,” Bawany said. “But we’ve also had the lowest graduation rates ever of the (police) academy. Someone who can respond to people in crisis that doesn’t require an armed response is a necessity. It’s been a necessity.”
However, in one of the tweets that emerged Wednesday, dated August 2020 during unrest that followed the police murder of George Floyd, Bawany wrote in a comment on a CPD post, “Imagine when y’all have to get real jobs. #DefundCPD.”
Bawany took his chance to criticize the incumbent as well. He brought up her vote for a budget that closed mental health clinics in 2012 and said a City Council member should show more “dignity” when it comes to serving their community.
“It just hurts to see, you know, a neighborhood where there’s such an immense amount of need being neglected,” he said in the same interview with the Tribune.
Silverstein said she voted with the majority on the mental health clinic closures and took issue with his portrayal of her character.
“I seem to think that I am an extremely transparent alderperson, and I’m an alderperson for everyone in this ward,” she said. “As far as transparency, I think maybe you should go back to my opponent and ask him why he has deleted some tweets before he ran for alderman.”
Silverstein also questioned Bawany’s ties to the area, saying he hasn’t been a long-term resident of the ward. Bawany explained he had to move around a lot during his childhood due to evictions caused by his family’s poverty.
And then there is the new ward map. Every 10 years, ward boundaries are redrawn to account for population changes. Last year, the new wards passed 43-7 including a yes vote by Silverstein.
Bawany lives just outside the new ward — his residence is within the former 50th Ward borders — so he would have to move if elected. The new map no longer includes Warren Park and has had a chunk taken out of its center and given to the 40th Ward. While the new ward’s racial and ethnic demographics are similar to those in the old map, Bawany says this new map favors Silverstein.
“That is one of the most progressive precincts in our ward,” he said in reference to the area taken out of West Ridge in the new ward map. “And that is the heart of people who have organized against Debra Silverstein for this community.”
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Bawany has received backing from the CTU, the SEIU Health Care union and local individuals — many of whom came out in continued support of Bawany after the first batch of his old tweets surfaced. He has also been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America’s Chicago branch, which has not responded to the Tribune’s request for comment. Asked by the paper what socialism meant to him, he said, “I don’t care for the label, I really don’t. But what I care about is people who care about people and who want who see housing as a human right.”
Silverstein has outraised him more than 2-1, and she has a track record of beating her opponents by more than 40 points in her two races as an incumbent.
“I don’t know if on March 1 we’ll say ‘Alderperson Bawany,’ or if I’ll be back in school on March 7,” Bawany said. “But there’s a thing about this area, there’s a pain people go through. And if I can in any which way alleviate it, I will.”