Will the Real Shajan Kuriakose Please Stand Up?

Shajan Kuriakose woke up one day last year and decided to move to the 50th Ward and run for alderman. No, he moved here because the Silversteins recruited him as a candidate to split the Indo-American vote in the upcoming election. No, he moved here because business interests on Devon wanted their own candidate and chose him. No, he lived here as a small child and thought it would be a great place to raise his own family. Maybe the merchants’ invitation and the Silversteins’ blessing awakened his childhood memories and he rushed right over.

That might explain why he left a plush downtown condo and moved into a second-floor walk-up in a building now in foreclosure. It could be why his name is still on the doorbell at the condo, 10 months after he supposedly moved here. He claims the building neglected to remove it.  Say what?

He’s a candidate for alderman after living in the ward for just 10 months. Not to worry—by Election Day he will have been here long enough to meet the one-year residency requirement

Where Kuriakose actually lives is still unclear. He’s dragged out the simple process of proving his residency by refusing to provide a lease for the apartment he claims is his home. Most candidates whose residency is challenged would do so. But Kuriakose can’t. He moved into his new home late in February 2014, and the building went into foreclosure that June. He says he rents an apartment with a refrigerator, microwave, computer, phone chargers, and all the other appliances and electronics found in every other modern household, yet I hear he pays less than $5/month for electricity. If he can get that deal for the rest of the ward he might be worth electing.

There’s no legal proof he owned his condo, either. Everything is hidden in a maze of corporate names and dizzying real estate transactions. Why would a candidate be so cagey about something as simple as where he actually lives—unless he has something to hide?

Considering that he describes himself as an investor, small business owner, and consultant with experience in the banking industry, it’s curious indeed that he never investigated the building he was planning to move into, a building that was being managed by MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems), the banking system’s pre-foreclosure administrative service. The fact that he doesn’t have a lease certainly calls his business acumen into question. The candidate’s lack of transparency in the matter of where he lives suggests that he might be equally devious as alderman.

Even if he succeeds in getting on the ballot, there’s a stench surrounding his reasons for moving here that won’t go away.

According to an interview he gave DNA Chicago, Kuriakose plans to broaden the Indo-American presence on Devon Avenue and in the ward in general.  No, he’s not the Indian candidate. He wants to represent all the residents. No, business owners on Devon didn’t ask him to run, he decided to do so in January and moved to the ward a couple of weeks later. Honest. No, the statements reported in the DNA interview were not exactly what he said. Actually, they were taken out of context. No, he didn’t mean he wanted a Diwali parade. That was another inaccurate quote.

His first piece of campaign literature implies that his campaign is involved with the city’s Chicago Snow Corps program. No, all it does is suggest that residents who want to participate sign up through his campaign office rather than call the city’s 311 hotline. No, he’s just making information about the Snow Corps available to residents. No, he didn’t mean to suggest anything more. No, there’s nothing underhanded in it, he’s just trying to help the ward he loves, the ward where he’s never been involved in any community service activities.  He came to run for alderman, not to volunteer.

Associating your campaign with ongoing programs that benefit the taxpayers is an old political trick. It’s surprising to see such old-style politics in a first-time candidate whose youth and modernity are supposed to be assets. But, as Secretary of the Indo-American Democratic Organization, he’s undoubtedly no stranger to Chicago’s traditional political shenanigans.

His economic plan? Well, Kuriakose is going to make up for the deficit in “targeted and forceful initiatives” by asking businesses what they need to locate here and then “make it a reality.” One of the problems in the ward is that businesses refuse to listen to what the residents and customers want, and apparently Kuriakose won’t either. He will also help entrepreneurs realize their dreams. Nothing wrong with that, unless their dreams include more of the same dreary stores currently driving customers away.  Nowhere does he say how the residents will figure into the plans that he and the commercial interests will make for us.

I met Kuriakose when he was canvassing the neighborhood to connect with voters, and I asked him how he would revitalize Devon’s business district. Not surprisingly, he said future economic development has to be concentrated away from Devon. Is this because other shopping areas in the ward are in worse shape, or is it because the merchants on Devon refuse to change their business model even though it’s killing their businesses? Would he be guided by what’s good for the entire ward or what’s good for Indo-Americans or what’s good for the Devon merchants who (honest) didn’t recruit him as their candidate? Just asking.

Like Silverstein, who four years ago proposed holding more festivals to attract business, he wants to stage events like a 5K run and develop parades and other events to attract tourists and “showcase our amazing neighborhood.” Like Silverstein, he doesn’t seem interested in the impact of these events on residents or have the vaguest explanation for how this would attract business.

Kuriakose isn’t familiar enough with the community he would represent to understand that turning the neighborhood into a theme park for tourists makes no sense. Devon Avenue thrived for more than 50 years as a major retailing district not because the merchants provided a circus-like atmosphere but because they stocked merchandise that attracted customers and built relationships with shoppers who returned time and again to stores that gave them value for their money and made them feel valued in return. That kind of loyalty does not and cannot come from tourists.

Although he is correct that community involvement in economic planning is absent under the current alderman, his solution—creating a Zoning Advisory Board composed solely of “different types of property owners”—would further disempower residents, especially those who rent, in favor of absentee landlords and commercial interests. He seems unaware that renters pay property taxes, too, they just don’t get tax deductions for it.

Kuriakose seems to spend a lot of time covering his tracks. His name never surfaced in Jonathan Porter’s challenges to nominating petitions submitted by Fuji Shioura and Zehra Quadri; however, in answering Quadri’s challenge to his residency, Kuriakose is represented by the same law firm that represented Porter. Rumor has it that the lawyer in both cases may be his cousin.  Kuriakose himself told me, when I asked if Porter was covertly working for him, that he didn’t know “Jon” Porter but that “I believe we have friends in common.” Friends and relatives, apparently.

Too many explanations. Too much backtracking. Too little credibility.  Any bets on where he’ll be living after the election?

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