Reclaiming Power: Candidates talk Citizen-Governance in the 20th Ward Aldermanic Forum

 /  Jan. 23, 2019, 7:39 p.m.


In a bustling Social Sciences lecture hall, residents of the 20th Ward—which extends from forty-eighth to sixty-eighth street, spanning much of the University of Chicago’s campus—gathered to listen to six of the fifteen candidates running for one of Chicago’s most contested aldermanic seats. The 20th Ward Aldermanic Forum, co-hosted by the UChicago Political Union and UC Democrats on December 4, offered residents an opportunity to meet a diverse range of candidates, from nightclub owner Clifton Pierce to recent graduate Anthony Driver.

This upcoming municipal election is one of Chicago’s most competitive-- reflecting a trend of first time candidates running for office All six candidates at the forum emphasized grassroots tactics, such as hitting the streets to build trust in the community.

Given the 20th ward’s history of corruption, the candidates’ focus on building trust with constituents is unsurprising. On December 14, 2016, Alderman Willie Cochran (20th) was indicted with fifteen counts of charity fund misuse, including eleven counts of wire fraud, two counts of extortion, and two counts of bribery. He would later be charged, but chose to remain Alderman of the 20th Ward despite pressure to step down. Cochran announced last November that he would not run for a fourth term.

Cochran is no special case; he is the third of the 20th’s last four aldermen to be indicted for bribery, among other charges. Cochran himself ran after criticizing the previous alderman, Troutman, for corruption.

The six candidates present all emphasized their authentic personal investment. In their introductions, family was a common anchor. Maya Hodari, former Director of Development at the Chicago Housing Authority, noted that the 20th was “where my home is, where my 11-year-old son is”. She went on to name affordable housing as the 20th’s most pressing issue, as did two other candidates: Jeanette Taylor, who has worked for over two decades as a “parent and school advocate” for Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and Nicole Johnson, communications manager for Teamwork Englewood and former Chicago Public Schools teacher.

Former attorney Quandra Speights introduced herself as a candidate with the bureaucratic experience to rectify the office’s past neglect of the 20th’s community, emphasizing that she could “meet people where they are.” She prioritized economic development, encompassing housing issues.

Former civil servant Anthony Driver, who at twenty-five is the youngest candidate, has “worked at every level of government.” He introduced himself as “a fourth generation resident from a working-class family” and prioritized civilian police oversight.

Pierce, who owns multiple nightclubs and was the oldest candidate present, wanted to “make the South Side great again” by reducing gun and gang violence.

When the moderator—fourth-year Sam Roth of UC Dems—asked whether aldermen should prioritize ward- or city-level services, candidates prioritized either the 20th Ward (Johnson, Speights, Pierce, Taylor) or both the ward and city (Hodari, Driver).

Frequent mentions of candidates' ties to their communities and non-political backgrounds supported this election season’s narrative of everyday citizens reclaiming an office that has failed them—though Driver and Hodari have previously held government positions.

When outlining on policies to keep housing affordable, all candidates mentioned transitioning renters into home ownership.

  • Speights and Driver highlighted residents’ need for capital. Speights suggested economic incentives such as the Community Investment Corporation (a non-profit lender financing the purchase and rehabilitation of apartment buildings) or grants for buying homes, and Driver suggested a 20th Ward credit union as an alternative to banks that contribute to gentrification.
  • Johnson and Pierce emphasised new initiatives. Johnson wants to transfer 25% of city-owned land into land trusts and Pierce wants to build a gated veterans community on 63rd & State.
  • Taylor and Hodari named existing policies, such as dollar lots (City Lots for City Living). Taylor mentioned repealing legislation against rent control and the Affordable Housing Ordinance, while Hodari highlighted the Micro Market Recovery Program.

When asked about the role of external institutions such as UChicago and the OPC in the 20th Ward, all six candidates expressed skepticism, though most also discussed potential economic benefits. All six have supported a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for the OPC.

  • Driver and Hodari outlined the roles of different stakeholders. Driver explained that institutions needed to be good neighbors, economic engines, and engaged stakeholders. For Hodari, aldermanic duty included ensuring that institutions positively impacted the community by providing jobs, among other community benefits.
  • There was unanimous agreement about the need for constant dialogue between external project leaders and community members: “I’m going to make sure we’re having some real conversations about the community. The 20th ward community. [...] Everyone needs to benefit”, Speights said. Taylor echoed Speight’s statements: “Come to the community before they start taking over. Too often, the University of Chicago builds things, and they just pop up.”
  • Johnson and Speights provided specific input about ways in which institutions could positively engage the community. Johnson included educational aspects, like structuring OPC exhibits around current public school curricula. Speights reiterated the importance of including the community from the institute’s beginning and reiterated the importance of specific clauses in the the OPC’S CBA, such as the mandate that 80% of the OPC’s library construction jobs pay living wages and are reserved for South Side residents.

Roth noted that Ban-the-Box legislation, which prohibits employers from placing a criminal record checkbox on job applications, has been linked to increased racial discrimination. When asked how to protect the employability of citizens with criminal records, without increasing racial discrimination, most candidates offered two-pronged solutions to increase resource distribution to minorities:

  • Taylor said “there are just not enough facilities and not enough job training that goes on in schools”. To prevent discrimination against former convicts, Taylor suggested that employers needed to be self-aware about whether a position’s requirements truly included the lack of a criminal record
  • Driver believed “the city of Chicago should have just as many re-entry counsellors as they do parole officers” and “depending on the nature of the crime, whether it’s 6 or 7 years, if you haven’t committed an other crimes or misdemeanors or anything like that—your record should automatically be expunged.” He also proposed that aldermen and advocates “go in and audit these companies to make sure they’re doing their part to decrease racial discrimination.”
  • Johnson suggested “working with the county commissioners to ensure that people about to be released are enrolled in workforce development programs before being released” as well as requiring that business license applicants meet requirements for diverse and representative employee hiring
  • Speights and Hodari reiterated their support of Ban-the-Box, despite the program’s link to increased racial discrimination Hodari added that “there needs to be more legislation that really doesn’t have this high bar to clear when a person experiences discrimination.”
  • Pierce called for preventing crime in the first place, suggesting that currently, “if the police won’t get him [young black men], the gangs get him. Society gets him. [...] I’m coming in from the common sense side—prevention. Stop them from going there.”

Candidates highlighted improper resource allocation as a significant contributor to the 20th’s lack of resources. There was unanimous agreement that Tax Increment Financing (TIF) surplus allocation needed greater community focus:

  • Pierce declared, “We ain’t getting no TIF funds on the South Side”, and Hodari said, “Oftentimes me, the property owner, I’m paying increment and I’m not benefitting from how that increment is used.”
  • Pierce, Taylor and Speights supported allocating surplus to education, with Speights suggesting training and development programs. She added that TIF should be used to subside rent for new businesses, and two other candidates also specified restrictions on TIF funds for businesses. Johnson wanted new businesses to “partner with particular schools to provide an experiential learning element” and Driver pushed for democratizing resource allocation by giving the Ward “a chance to vote on small businesses”, while stressing that “you cannot come into our community and utilize these funds if you are not a resident of this community.”

Similarly, candidates implied that the charter/public school debate often neglected the community’s true needs. None of the candidates explicitly supported expanding charter schools, although Speights and Hodari were indifferent.

  • Pierce and Speights prioritized vocational training while Hodari emphasized, “I’m a champion for good schools that provide schools with high academic attainment”
  • Taylor, Driver and Johnson criticized the current way in which charters run. Taylor felt that “charter schools don’t give parents voice. They don’t have local school councils. They are not accountable to the community”
  • Both Driver and Johnson urged charters to return to their original purpose of testing out best practices to help improve public schools. They also proposed alternatives to expanding charters: “We need more staff, we need better pay for our teachers, we need more counsellors”, said Driver. Johnson suggested, “If we do have a vocational high school that’s CPS or a traditional public school, then that charter school nearby should provide the actual practicum or apprenticeship part of the program.”

Keeping the trend of community engagement, every candidate grounded their proposed modifications to the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) in rebuilding relationships with the ward:

  • Hodari, Johnson and Taylor felt police officers lacked familiarity with the 20th Ward. For officers to adjust their perception and instinctive response to the community, “they should know how we interact with each other”, said Johnson
  • Both Hodari and Johnson sought increased responsibility from police officers, with Hodari looking for increased dedication to CAPS, like increased meeting attendance, and Johnson wanting all police officers to “be included in the new contract that’s coming up, that is to take on personal liability insurance”
  • Taylor, along with Speights and Driver, pushed for civilian police oversight. Taylor encouraged CAPS to involve youth, stressing that a lack of resources and youth programs underlie criminal activity. Speights, who sits on the board of No Shots Fired, still felt that the ward needed a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) to be “empowered to hold police accountable for the crimes they commit, as well as to patrol and decide on how our communities are policed”. Driver believed civilian oversight was “the way to repair the relationship with the community”, and that every neighborhood in the 20th should elect someone to oversee and liaise with police on CPAC.

The six candidates shared more similarities than differences, as evidenced by their responses to the rapidfire questions: everyone supported an elected school board, participatory budgeting, establishing a public bank (excepting Hodari), and extending the greenline to Jackson Park (excepting Hodari and Driver). More importantly, they stood united in expressing the necessity of changing the status quo, the importance of democratic processes, and their histories of working for and with the community:

  • “I’ll be doing the work I started so many years ago”, Hodari emphasized
  • Driver brought up that “there isn’t a level of government I haven’t worked in, including city hall”
  • Taylor stated, “We have plenty of programs that run through the city, but too often, we can’t call the alderman and get access to them. I’m asking for your vote because I’ve walked the walk, I’m talking the talk
  • “Speights highlighted that “I’m uniquely qualified not due to my education, not due to my experience, but because I have been out here in these streets”
  • Pierce put the will of the community above all, saying, “I’m in the middle, I’m in the axle. I don’t know nothin’—but I know somebody know this, I know somebody know that. Just give me that phone and I’ma call somebody!”
  • “Everybody here knows what the community needs. That means you have a big responsibility to get it right this time, and we have a very big opportunity to do it here in the 20th Ward”, Johnson declared

Throughout the night, a story emerged of a community that had lost faith in its politicians and police but saw, as Speights said, “We have a chance to elect. Not select but elect someone new, someone fresh, someone who will respect the community.” As approving applause drew the Forum to a close, Driver voiced the overwhelming sentiment that electing that ‘someone’ meant putting “ordinary residents back in the driver’s seat”.

Miranda Zhang


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