Eight years ago, Anan Abu-Taleb ran for Oak Park village president on a platform of “We’re Open for Business” and “Tall is Better Than Short.” There was a dollop of “We’re Just About Broke, and That’s a Problem.”
That was really about it. Abu-Taleb did not talk about sustainability. Or equity. Or connecting with Austin. Or even connecting with the park district.
It was a simple, direct and limited promise of change. And Abu-Taleb was elected readily over what turned out to be the last in the lineage of Village Manager Association candidates who had largely ruled Oak Park for better than a half century.
Six years ago, after ground was broken on the first of several high-rises along the Green Line in downtown Oak Park, I asked Abu-Taleb how he had co-opted the long-vocal critics of forward change, especially tall change, in the village. He seemed a little surprised himself but grateful.
Four years ago there were a few fissures and renewed talk of “shade studies” and the life of trees as the Albion high-rise project moved through Oak Park’s newly accelerated planning processes. Still, Abu-Taleb ran unopposed for a second term.
Two years ago, Bob Tucker, the last of his early allies on the village board, cycled off and that was the end of the halcyon days for Anan. The past 18 months have been a battle, with Abu-Taleb often looking as if he doesn’t grasp the changed landscape, objects to the lingo, and likes his public safety more traditional than reformed.
And then came COVID. Wreaked havoc on both village hall and the Abu-Taleb family’s livelihood in the restaurant business at Maya del Sol and a fledgling spot in Pilsen. As for all of us, it has been a hell of a year.
That Abu-Taleb announced last week he will not run for a third term came as little surprise. Oak Park has a worthy tradition of two terms and out. That he waited until December to make it official reflects a desire not to be a lame duck too early and, I’d suppose, his still coming to terms with Tucker’s decision not to run as Abu-Taleb’s designee for a replacement. He still seems a bit stunned that Tucker is sitting this election out. I am, too, for that matter.
It seemed like a well thought out plan until the plan changed. For his part, Tucker is still assessing how his deserved bona fides as a progressive are now read as too middle of the road for some activist portion of the Oak Park electorate.
The election next spring for village president will be fascinating. Unless there is a late entrant — and the petitions are all due by Dec. 21 — there will be four candidates. Three tend toward the progressive end of the spectrum and one is right of center, an unusual stance in Oak Park.
Abu-Taleb, in our interview last week, inserted himself into that race. Forcefully. “I know who I won’t endorse. I will not support Trustee Boutet.” He called her disruptive to the village staff and board and repeated the word from four years ago that Boutet “has an axe to grind with the village manager.” That axe was likely sharpened when Manager Cara Pavlicek did not promote Boutet from acting village attorney to the permanent post.
Abu-Taleb had positive words for Trustee Dan Moroney who, he said, had matured in office and knows how to read a budget.
There will be time for that campaign next year.
I’d close by noting that Abu-Taleb accomplished a lot of what he said he’d do. Oak Park has had an intense building boom that created a skyline and broadened the tax base. He genuinely fixed the futzed-up economic development programs both at village hall and the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation. He reimagined Madison Street and brought it back from the dead. The village finally created a five-year capital plan, added steady funding for it and the alleys and the streets in town are in decent shape. He made tough choices early in COVID and has been consistent since.
His blind spots are his blind spots. He’ll leave office having not led on equity or reimagining policing. He was the right person eight years ago, and he knows he is not the right person for the next four.
I offer him thanks for his service, his decency and his vision — even if that vision was ultimately limited.