Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus Chairman and Sixth Ward Alderman Roderick “Rod” Sawyer was born to do this job, literally. As the youngest son of Chicago’s second and last Black Mayor, Eugene Sawyer, Alderman Rod Sawyer learned Chicago politics through the lens of the Harold Washington political era. This third son of Alderman turned Mayor Sawyer, Rod knew at an early age that he would eventually become a politician.
“I caught the bug,” Sawyer recalls. “I was intrigued by politics at an early age. I liked how he got treated for helping everyone. People looked out for him, made sure we were ok. It was a constant feeling of community.” Sawyer attended the prestigious all Black, non-religious private school Howalton Day School growing up. He went on to St. Ignatius for high school, DePaul for undergrad, and completed his law degree at Chicago Kent College of Law. All the while Sawyer stayed involved in politics with is father, one of Harold Washington’s top allies.
“When Harold ran,” Sawyer reminisces, “Dad was the first elected official to be with him.” And it had paid off. Ald. Eugene Sawyer was Washington’s President Pro-Tem and Chairman of the Committee on Rules. But it was during the young Sawyer’s first year of law school that Black politics in Chicago changed forever.
“We were sitting in a bar when the news that Harold was on his way to the hospital came on. I ran to a pay phone, called Dad and he told me to come to City Hall. When I got there he and the people in the room were crying. Harold had passed,” Sawyer recounts.
“My dad just wanted to fill out the rest of Harold’s term, to finish the work they began.” While things did not end well for the elder Sawyer, Rod Sawyer recounts the 15 months Mayor Eugene Sawyer were great times for Black people. “He was the original person to ask ‘What’s in it for the Black people?’ and he meant it.” Sawyer contends that the Black community got more out of his father’s 15-months tenure than they ever have since. Sawyer also proudly points to the fact that during his father’s term, Wrigley Field got lights, the City Council passed the Human Rights ordinance, and signed an unprecedented 4 year agreement with police and fire. But Eugene Sawyer always had Black on his mind.
“Blacks were at the top of my dad’s list. We led the city in business, contracts, employment, bond trading and debt service,” Sawyer says wistfully. It is that level of Black participation in city business that led Sawyer to pursue the position of alderman and eventually Chairman of the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus, a job that the previous two Chairmen have happily relinquished at the end of their terms.
In 2011, Sawyer fulfilled his lifelong calling to become an alderman. While he was a practicing attorney, Sawyer stayed in the community he grew up in and always remained active, working with local business owners and community groups, but when the opportunity to run presented itself, Sawyer seized it and ran for Alderman. He ran a simple campaign, promising to “clean up, fix the streets, keep the lights on, and expand the business corridors. I had grown up in this business, so I knew the job.”
But getting to know Mayor Emanuel was a completely different story. “We did not really talk during my first four years. I just got his number this year,” Sawyer laughs. “But I knew how to get my stuff done. I knew department heads, commissioners, and deputies in place that had been there for years, who were willing to help.” Compounding the tensions between Sawyer and Emanuel was Sawyer’s membership in the “Progressive Caucus,” which has made it their business to challenge Emanuel at every turn. To say the relationship between the Progressive Caucus members and the Mayor was frosty was an understatement.
But after the 2014 Municipal Election, Sawyer won outright and Emanuel was forced into a runoff with CTU backed Chuy Garcia. Looking for friends and support in the Black community, the relationship between Emanuel and Sawyer thawed because Sawyer leads one of the highest voting wards in the city. When Emanuel came to Sawyer for support, Sawyer obliged and the lines of communication between the two were opened up. “We talked more in the first month after he was re-elected than we did in the whole four years of my last term,” Sawyer explains. When Sawyer was elected Chairman of the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus, the Mayor playfully gave him one of his famous one word “expletives” as a welcome.
The title Chairman of the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus, while prestigious comes with the unique challenge of getting 18 different Black aldermen that represent completely different communities, with different issues to vote together. It is a very difficult task, Sawyer admits, “so we are trying to do it in small bites. I am trying to find basic issues that everyone can agree on, like increasing Black contracting opportunities. We all agree that needs to happen, but how do we get there? Small bites.”
“I want the Black Caucus to be relevant again. We have eighteen members, eight shy of a majority.” Some of Sawyer’s top priorities as Chairman include addressing meritorious promotions for police detectives, increased contracting opportunities, and Sawyer would like to get the word “minority” out of all city procurement. “We are not a minority in this City, so we need a paradigm shift on how we approach business in this city. Black and Brown need to operate from a position of strength.”
But Sawyer’s position with the Progressive Caucus brings his leadership into question with some members of the Black Caucus who are closely aligned with the Mayor. One Black alderman who asked not to be identified suggested that Sawyer would have a challenge getting “eighteen votes against the Mayor. What can Rod bring to the table for my ward?”
Sawyer on the other hand is optimistic about the challenges he faces as he leads the Black Caucus. “I am excited that members want to get engaged, plus we have a new influx of who want to be about something.” But Sawyer also says the Black Caucus cannot do it alone, the community has a responsibility as well.
“We should have 20,000 votes from every Black every ward. We are doing ourselves a disservice to ourselves. Crime, poor education, and unemployment are by products of people getting out to vote. When we voted we had Black businesses, commissioners, contract and jobs. Heck we even had a Black mayor!”
And Sawyer knows that first hand, after all he did live with Chicago’s last Black Mayor.
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