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Wednesday, July 11, 2007 05:23 pm

A matter of perspective

Freshman alderman Gail Simpson’s fresh take on Springfield

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PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES
Untitled Document Gail Simpson lives in a two-story house in the Stratford Place subdivision with her 21-year-old daughter, Morgan, and their pet Chihuahua, Spike. She has an administrative job at a state government agency and divides her spare time among two different churches, a service-oriented sorority, and her true passion — golf. It’s a comfortable existence for a 53-year-old divorcée, but there’s one luxury she cannot afford: as the new City Council member representing Ward 2, Simpson simply can’t keep quiet. Unlike the other six rookie aldermen sworn in 10 weeks ago, Simpson doesn’t have the option of retreating into the woodwork to learn by watching during her on-the-job training. As the lone African-American council member, first black female alderman, and the successor to Frank McNeil — whose 1984 voting-rights lawsuit led to the creation of Springfield’s aldermanic form of government — she carries a powerful symbolic burden whether she wants to or not. As representative of the ward with the highest crime rate and lowest income, she’s accountable to the city’s neediest constituency. She can’t even pretend to be reticent or inarticulate: Long before Simpson ever considered running for City Council, she made a memorable appearance in the chamber as the president of the local alumnae chapter of the historically black Delta Sigma Theta sorority. As she accepted a proclamation designating March 4, 2004, Delta Day, she turned to Mayor Tim Davlin, asked permission to speak, and proceeded to give him a tongue-lashing for his handling of numerous racial issues. “When we look back on the election and try to characterize what has happened, words like ‘duped,’ ‘betrayed,’ and ‘taken for granted’ come to mind,” she told Davlin. “We are here tonight because we are fed up and want more than lip service. We want satisfaction, and we want to see a positive change.”
Now that she has an official seat on the horseshoe (term limits prevented McNeil from seeking reelection), Simpson has continued to challenge the status quo, questioning the lack of city-sponsored garbage collection and promising to vote against Davlin’s pick for chief of the Springfield Police Department, Ralph Caldwell. She’s also made news outside the council chambers: In May, she wasphysically assaulted in front of the police station by a mentally ill homeless man — an event that helped spur city officials to establish a locker system for the homeless. This month she found herself in the center of a brouhaha concerning SPD’s Taser-aided arrest of a fleeing motorist inside the Abundant Faith Christian Center — a controversy that earned Simpson first runner-up on a local AM-radio talk show’s “Butthead of the Week” election. Here’s the thing about Simpson, though: She didn’t care whether she won the Butthead award. She listened to the radio show for a few minutes, then clicked it off, apparently without regard for the heated opinions of anonymous critics out in Springfield radioland. “I’ve always been one that spoke out. It’s very difficult for me to sit back and just watch stuff happen. That’s why I ran [for City Council],” she says.
S impson isn’t wired like a politician. Politicians tend to omit, disguise, or spin any unpleasant facts that don’t fit their public personas. Simpson, on the other hand, seems compelled to point out the hickeys on her personal history. She makes one exception, calling her mother a “domestic engineer” instead of a maid. The second of five children born to that “domestic engineer” and a peripatetic dad, Simpson grew up in Chicago. She was still in grade school when her mom relocated the family from a predominantly black North Side neighborhood into a South Side home surrounded by nice white families who soon moved away. She attended Catholic schools through ninth grade, when she decided that she didn’t like the all-girls environment of her parochial high school. “Of course, it’s the worst mistake I made,” she says. “I probably could have gotten a much better, much more disciplined education had I stayed at Longwood Academy, but hey.” She graduated from Calumet High School instead. Simpson got more serious about her education during her freshman year at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. She happened to get a peek at her student file, where she found a note from her high-school guidance counselor recommending that Simpson aim for vocational or technical training. “Now, that didn’t have anything to do with my grades, because I was a pretty good student. I think it was probably the norm in Chicago city schools in terms of what counselors felt certain youth could accomplish. It was a motivator,” she says. She refers to it as “the first time I ever realized that I needed to look at the world through something other than rose-colored glasses.”
She earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SIU in administration of justice, or law enforcement, and briefly considered applying to the Illinois State Police. Instead, she entered law school at Saint Louis University, where she lasted just one year. She was distracted by a sudden onslaught of phone calls from her aging mother, who — dealing with added stress in her life — began to lean heavily on both her oldest daughter and her oldest companion, Mogen David wine.
Three years ago, when she put her mother into a nursing home and watched her go through withdrawal symptoms, Simpson was finally able to put a label on her mother’s condition. “My mom’s an alcoholic,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t realize she was alcoholic; I just knew I hated that she drank. It’s hard even now to say ‘alcoholic,’ but that’s what she is.”
Simpson doesn’t blame her mother’s phone calls for her own failure to handle law school. “I didn’t make the grades,” she says. “I had to leave.”
She moved home to Chicago and found a job with an attorney. Every month she received a packet of job leads from SIU’s career-placement service. One of those packets included the announcement of a new paid internship program established by then-Gov. Jim Thompson, now called the Dunn Fellowships. Simpson applied, was selected, and moved to Springfield. She has been a state employee ever since and now works at the Department of Children and Family Services, coordinating training programs for caseworkers and others responsible for preparing foster kids to live independently. Over the years she married and divorced twice. Her most enduring relationships are with her two close girlfriends, her daughter, and her faith.
T he notion of running for City Council came to her several months after she bashed Davlin over the head with the Delta Day proclamation. She didn’t utter the idea aloud until her friend Ted Curtis suggested it. “I felt like he must be reading my mind!” she says. Curtis is a Republican, Simpson a Democrat — but the City Council is officially nonpartisan, and Ward 2 constituents are more focused on city services than on party politics. She contacted Frank McNeil, who told her that although he had already pledged his support to Darrell Harris, she shouldn’t let that fact deter her ambitions.
“I said, ‘Oh, it won’t!’ ” she recalls. Harris eventually dropped out of the race, and McNeil threw his support wholeheartedly to Simpson. He walked the ward with her, knocking on doors in the cold, in the rain. “Frank is an awesome man,” Simpson says. “He always has been, but now I’ve gotten to know him on a whole different level.”
Simpson campaigned on the promise to improve conditions ward-wide, not just for the black neighborhoods. “I probably wouldn’t have won without white votes,” she says. But McNeil understands — as no one else could — the unique responsibility Simpson will carry as the lone black alderman. “It’s a very daunting position, because you are elevated, whether you want to be or not, to be the spokesperson for all black people,” McNeil says. “You have to be very guarded about what you say and when you say it and who you say it to. What you say can be taken out of context so easily.”
Simpson, McNeil says, hasn’t disappointed him. She has spoken up for their ward, even though hundreds of critics lob insults at her anonymously by way of AM-radio talk shows and the State Journal-Register’s online comment board. The most frequent accusation lacks both originality and empathy: It’s that Simpson is making racial mountains out of molehills. On McNeil’s advice, Simpson shrugs such comments away, excusing them as the musings of people who view life from a different vantage point.
“It’s about perspective,” she says. “When you talk about race and people sometimes are not getting it, it’s because their perspective is totally different.”
She mentions the note her high-school guidance counselor put in her file, the white homeowners who fled Chicago’s South Side when black families like hers started to move in. These experiences shaped her perspective. “It’s like this incident at Abundant Faith,” she says. “It’s about perspective.”

H er role in this latest hubbub may have been overstated by the media. Simpson says that she first learned about the incident when Abundant Faith’s pastor, Jerry Doss, telephoned her, upset that SPD officers had entered his church during a worship service to arrest Robert E. Collins. Collins, 20, is the son of an AFCC member and had attended AFCC as a child, though his pew time had tapered off in recent years. On July 1, Collins rushed into the church at approximately 11:40 a.m., seemingly late to the most popular of AFCC’s three Sunday-morning services. He was dressed casually, the way he always came to church, but this time his hair was disheveled, as though he had planned on wearing a hat all day but removed it to enter the house of worship. “At church, men don’t wear hats,” says a church official who witnessed the incident but asked that his name be withheld. Looking somewhat suspicious, Collins took a seat in a side section of the sanctuary, about four rows from the front. The congregation had just finished Communion, and Doss, preparing to take up the offering, was reading a letter from a missionary who would be among the beneficiaries of the day’s collection. As he read, says the church official, three or four police officers and one Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy burst through the main door, yelling, “Where is he? Where is he?”
People pointed to Collins, and the officers rushed toward him. “Everybody stood up, some moved out of the way, and it was, like, ‘What in the world is happening?’ ” the official says. Doss, still at the microphone, immediately began speaking to the officers, saying, “We will not interfere with your doing your job, but please make as little commotion as necessary and please do not use excessive force,” modulating his words in an effort to maintain calm, the official says.
The police used a Taser to stun Collins, then handcuffed him and removed him through a side door. Doss asked the congregation to remember that no one was without sin and to pray for Collins.
“The pastor just did his best to maintain peace within the sanctuary, but some people got up and walked out. Some were emotionally upset,” the church official says.
Doss — who is out of town this week and unavailable for comment — was also upset by the incident. By the time the church service ended, the law enforcement officers were gone and Doss had sketchy details of why Collins had been arrested. That night he sought help from Simpson, whose ward includes the church. “He called me because I’m the alderman and he had a concern. He called me because he had not heard from anybody on the police department, and I volunteered to bring them together — the [police] chief and Doss — to have a dialogue,” she says.
B elieving that the problem could be solved by getting the two men to talk to each other, Simpson called Caldwell and arranged a meeting for the next morning. She was somewhat surprised when each man showed up with a posse — Doss with a contingent of clergy, Caldwell with a group of law-enforcement officers. Simpson says that she was even more surprised when she learned that Doss had invited the media to a postmeeting press conference.
As the pastor and the police chief answered reporters’ questions, Simpson found a back exit and left unnoticed. “I did not need to be on Front Street. I was acting as a conduit between the police department and Rev. Doss,” she says.
At the press conference, Doss speculated that such an incident would have been handled in a more respectful, less disruptive manner if it had occurred in a “west-side Catholic church.”
“That’s my opinion — my opinion,” Doss said, adding that his opinion was colored by his involvement with African-American police officers who have complained of discrimination and by his own life experiences. “I have some strong feelings about it, and I’m not saying they’re all accurate, but I have strong opinions about it,” he said. However, Doss also told reporters that Simpson arranged the meeting and that she had attended a worship service at Abundant Faith that same day. When Doss’ comments were connected to Simpson’s disapproval of Caldwell, she says, an inaccurate picture was formed. “Not one time did I inject racism into this. I don’t think I ever said anything about the west side. At all times, my concern was for the safety of the individuals in the church,” she says. Of course, the officers undoubtedly shared that same concern — but didn’t know Collins in the way Doss and the other church members did. In fact, another African-American church official told Illinois Times that the incident was less a racial incident than a culture clash: a clash between the viewpoint of law enforcement officers, doing their best to catch the bad guy, and the congregants of a church founded on the idea of welcoming sinners of all stripes. Again, Simpson points to her favorite concept: perspective. “It bothers me that people who have never had a negative encounter with the police are so quick to jump to the defense of the police and not take a moment to walk in other people’s shoes,” she says. “You would think that people could look at Rev. Doss and realize that this was a very emotional situation for him and have some compassion for that.”
Instead, she says, she has received letters calling her racist, a letter saying that she shouldn’t be an alderman, and a call on her cell phone from a man whose number was withheld, saying that he wishes that the church had been shot up. Simpson has also become fodder for WMAY (970 AM) talk-show host Pamela Furr, who has called the alderwoman “bizarre.”
Simpson lets these arrows bounce off her. “I am not bothered by the criticism,” she says. She says she would prefer not to find herself in the spotlight, her name in the newspaper, her face on the television. “I’d like to be quiet,” she says, “and just press my [voting] button when called for.” She promises that the kinder, gentler Simpson will appear just as soon as city services are evenly distributed, the police department has won the trust of her ward, and everything’s hunky-dory in Springfield. Until then, Simpson says, she’ll speak her mind: “Sitting back and watching stuff happen — I’m not comfortable with that.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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