A Voter's Guide to the MWRD Commissioner's Race

 /  March 6, 2018, 9:14 p.m.


This primary season, registered Democrats will be voting to fill three of the nine seats on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation Board. While one of the three seats up for election is uncontested, the other two have a wide range of candidates vying for appointment; and so, it is worthwhile to consider the candidates running, and the significance of the role they aspire to fill.

Why you should care

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Chicago is, in their own words, responsible for “protect[ing] the health and safety” of Cook County residents while “maintain[ing] water as a vital resource” in its service area.  A noble goal to say the least, in practice this primarily means treating wastewater in one of its seven “water reclamation plants”, and managing the 560 miles of pipes which rest below the city’s streets. The MWRD is also responsible for stormwater management: in extreme cases this can mean diverting water from flooded streets, bt more typically it entails ensuring proper drainage to prevent the minor flooding of sidewalks and roads (i.e. preventing the 54th and Woodlawn river).

While the MWRD races are perhaps the least talked about this election season, their significance shouldn’t be underestimated. Water is perhaps the most intimate and vital of resources, and its mismanagement can have devastating results. For evidence, one need only look to our neighbors in the North: the Flint water crisis, in which thousands of residents of Flint Michigan were exposed to toxic levels of lead, was the result of an immense (and partially criminal) bureaucratic failure by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The MDEQ failed to follow federal standards of lead and copper water treatment, which would have prevented the water’s contamination. Their failure devastated the Flint community, and has been linked to a Legionnaires outbreak which claimed 10 lives. Given that the MDEQ is roughly equivalent to the MWRD in terms of purpose and scope, the importance of these elections is clear.


The first of the two races will be to fill the seat left behind by the sudden death of Commissioner Timothy Bradford this December. All candidates will be write-ins.

  1. Cam Davis is a former Obama staffer who has spent his life studying and litigating water, specifically the Great Lakes. He has listed his priorities as preventing basement floods, prioritizing green infrastructure work, and promoting high wage water-related jobs for the Cook County community.

  2. Frank Avila is a graduate of U of I at Urbana-Champaign who served as CFO of the MWRD in the past. Among his general goals of better water treatment and flooding prevention, he has proposed putting billboards on public property owned by the MWRD to raise government funds.

  3. Joe Cook is a lifelong lawyer, who began his career prosecuting criminal cases for the Cook County State Attorney’s office. He currently works as a lawyer for the MWRD.

  4. Simon Gordon is a Bishop of Churches throughout the Midwest, a lifelong Baptist who sat on former President Obama’s interfaith council and has been recognized repeatedly for public service. His broad goals fall in line with those of the MWRD, but he has singled out the southside of Chicago and its southern suburbs as areas of particular focus, where he intends to spread the resources of the MWRD in the form of good paying jobs.

  5. Vernard Alsberry, Sharon Walker and Karen Bond are also on the ballot but unfortunately The Gate could not find any information on their platforms or campaign.

The second contested race will be for a six year seat on the board of Commissioners for the MWRD. Voters will be able to pick three of the four candidates.

  • Debra Shore has served two terms on the MWRD and is running for her third. Her priorities going forward include further efforts to prevent rainwater flooding (which she anticipates increasing with climate change) and establishing an independent Inspector General to insure proper management of funds by the MWRD.

  • Kari K. Steele is also running as an incumbent. She has a chemist’s background, having worked at the plants she now manages, and among other goals intends to promote green infrastructure and encourage STEM careers.

  • Marcelino Garcia is running for his first term. His background is in law, having graduated from Northwestern Law school and served as a public interest law attorney for the past two decades. His priorities include equitable service throughout Chicago and the establishment of green regulations to fill what he perceives to be a void of Federal Leadership.

  • Marin J. Durkan is also running as an incumbent. Uniquely, he serves as a representative of the Local-150 (i.e. the Union of Operating Engineers), which he claims has given him a unique ability to negotiate public works projects for the MWRD.

Bottom Line

While the 6 year term is pretty set with four candidates running for three seats, the Bradford vacancy is a wild card without any incumbents. The field ranges from Preachers to Lawyers to Chemists, each with similar goals but different strategies. For more information, we recommend readers consider the Chicago Sun Times Voter Guide which includes interviews with the candidates running for the 6 year opening, and the Chicago Sun Times Bradford profiles, which include information and interviews with most of the seven candidates running for the Bradford Vacancy.

The featured image is licensed under the Creative Commons; the original image can be found here.

A correction was made to this article on March 8th, 2018. While the original listed MWRD candidate Cam Davis as "Cameron Davis", we discovered that "Cam Davis" was preferred on the ballot. We updated our article appropriately.

Jacob Toner Gosselin

Jacob Gosselin is a fourth-year majoring in Math and Economics and minoring in Creative Writing. He is interested in health policy and criminal justice reform. He's currently working as a data journalist with Injustice Watch, a non-profit newsroom in Chicago. He's previously interned at the Brookings Institution's Center for Health Policy, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. On campus, Jacob is the Captain of the Varsity Cross Country and Track teams, and was the Managing Editor of The Gate from 2017-2018. He enjoys reporting on local issues, running with his friends, and tutoring at Chavez Middle School with the Chicago Peace Corps.


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