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Though she was technically a child in the ’60s, lifelong Evanston, Ill., resident and activist Mimi Peterson insists she isn’t a “child of the sixties.” The distinction, Peterson says, lies in the impetus behind her public participation having more to do with a selfish desire to protect her family’s well-being rather than thrusting herself in the spotlight for some greater common good. It was just 15 years ago that Peterson began to speak out against crime and the opening of a residential facility for the mentally ill in her neighborhood. But now Peterson, who teaches swimming part time at the local YMCA, finds herself speaking more and more frequently, if not more vociferously, to reporters about her hometown. And the 37-year-old activist’s profile has only increased since April when a tree-trimming contractor hired by the city sued her, alleging public comments she made at a January City Council meeting defamed him and harmed his company. Dubbed by Peterson’s supporters and the media as a SLAPP, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, the suit was filed by Vince Winkler and his Winkler’s Tree Service. Winkler, whose suit is seeking $250,000 plus court costs and damages, did not return calls for comment. Nor did his lawyer. The suit has stunned many in Evanston, particularly Peterson’s 4th Ward Alderman Steven J. Bernstein. The public service-minded real estate lawyer, while he acknowledges some in town may be happy to see Peterson “squirm,” says he’s concerned about the precedent the defamation suit against her would set for others who have something valuable to bring to the City Council table. As for Peterson’s plight, Bernstein described the wife and mother of three as “hard nosed.” “She may have ticked people off,” he said. Bernstein noted, however, that, “Anybody who is passionate about something or another has a tendency to influence people in a positive or negative way.” Peterson acknowledges she has been a particular pain to some Evanston officials over the last few years. “The city staff can’t stand me,” she said. Still, she sees no reason to mend her ways at this late date. It would be difficult to pigeonhole Peterson as either a left-wing do-gooder or right-wing reactionary. Her first foray into politics was in the mid-eighties when she took a “not in my backyard” stance against locating a residential facility for the mentally ill in her neighborhood. She spoke up again when crime rates began to rise and maintains her position as area coordinator of Crown Park Neighborhood Group. And when questions arose about whether Northwestern University was paying its dues to its host city, Peterson was available to beat the drum on behalf of the whistle-blowing watchdogs. She currently serves as co-chair of the Fair Share Action Committee. As Peterson became more comfortable in the realm of politics, she said she began working on electoral campaigns, including those involving Bernstein. So when she noticed that her elm tree needed help and didn’t like being rebuffed from city hall, Peterson didn’t hesitate to make that her next project. Now, if Peterson’s not at Evanston’s City Council meetings or lobbying one of its committees, she’s watching them on television, keeping abreast of the latest issues confronting the city she’s called home all her life. She has become an unofficial spokesperson of sorts when local reporters are looking for a good quote from someone who knows what’s going on. Her spokesperson status has continued with the filing of the suit, and prompted an editorial opposing the suit to be printed in the Chicago Tribune. So if the defamation lawsuit was intended to shut Peterson up and keep her from venturing out, it may have backfired. She said she feels even more supported now by the community. “It was never the plan that Mimi Peterson would come out of this being the poster child for free speech,” she said.

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