“It’s About Listening”: IOP Fellow Laura Washington on Covering Chicago Politics

 /  March 12, 2019, 11:32 p.m.

laura washington

Through the hecticicism of Chicago’s mayoral elections, during which the city saw the largest candidate field in the race’s history, veteran political journalist Laura Washington stayed firmly abreast of the race. The Chicago Sun-Times Columnist and ABC-7 political analyst served her second term as a Pritzker Fellow at the Institute of Politics (IOP) this Winter Quarter, and hosted a total of seven mayoral candidates in the IOP’s living room to speak with students about their visions for the city.

Over the course of her career, Washington has worn many hats. She wrote and edited for the Chicago Reporter, an investigative journalism site focused on exposing racial injustices and inequity in the city, for over a decade. Outside of the press, she served as Deputy Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first (and, until the upcoming elections on April 2, only) African-American to occupy that office, and taught at DePaul University as the presiding Ida B Wells-Barnett Professor. She’s widely cited and featured in national media for her no-nonsense know-how of the Chicago political realm’s inner workings.

The Gate spoke with Washington about the Public Safety Forum for mayoral run-off candidates Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot that Washington is moderating on Wednesday; she also shared tips for student journalists and reflections on her career.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chicago-Style Politics: A Distinctive Breed

The Gate: You mentioned in an interview with Ari Shapiro for All Things Considered last month that one of the things that makes Chicago politics so distinctive is that Chicago's a very tribal city and that Chicagoans tend to vote along ethnic lines. In a mayoral runoff race between two black women, how's that dynamic going to change? What are the candidates going to have to do differently?

Laura Washington: It's a challenge for both candidates. Lightfoot, ironically, even though she's an African-American woman Southsider, did very poorly in African American wards.

I think it's important for both candidates to have to reach out and bring in numbers [on voting day] to show that they can govern and relate to everyone in the city. They need to build a coalition. In Lightfoot’s case, she needs to reach out to African Americans and Latinos, and in Preckwinkle’s, she did well in African American wards on the South Side but she didn't do as well in African American wards on the West Side. She didn't do as well as Lori did on the north side. I think the Southwest and Northwest sides are a real wildcard because those areas didn't vote for either candidate for the most part. 

It's important for them to tell their stories and to convince folks that may have not voted for them the first time that they want to represent the entire city and that they're concerned about all their issues. A lot of that is getting out to those neighborhoods and being real and being credible. They can't campaign [solely] as black women, they have to campaign as people who want to serve the entire city.

Gate: What topics will require the incoming mayor's immediate attention — whether that's something big in the news like #NoCopAcademy, or items that have been receiving less media attention?

LW: I think both candidates have answered just about every question imaginable around public policy. But a lot of it is getting drowned out by the focus on negative campaigning and personalities and flaws rather than talking about the issues. 

The hottest topic walking in the door is crime and violence. We’ll be going into the summer [the season with the greatest violence in the city] and there's questions about whether or not a mayor will keep [Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department] Eddie Johnson in place, and then there's a consent decree that has to be executed. That's going to be number one.

Number two is going to be that they both proposed lots and lots of new programs to bring equity to communities that have been left out — but there’s not any credible discussion about where the money is going to come from. What are you going to do about the pensions, what are you going to do about property taxes, what are you going to do about revenue from new sources like casinos and marijuana? They've talked a lot about these things but they've got to come up with a very specific budget in a relatively short time. 

Gate: So how do you prepare for an event like tomorrow's public safety forum knowing that most of the time, when you see these candidates in public appearances, they’re going to be beating up one another? How do you keep them focused on policy solutions?

LW: Avoid questions where you're playing into the negative conversations they've been having on the campaign trail. I’m not interested in who’s the better progressive. I’m interested in what are your positions and what makes them progressive. 

It's about being as specific as possible, and it's about listening. I find that the best moderators are people that listen to the answers — often politicians don't give complete answers — then take the opportunity to follow up.

The panel tomorrow is a little bit different. I'm moderating it, but the people asking questions are experts on public safety. They bring their own wisdom and expertise.

I've worked very carefully with the panelists to think about the questions they think are most important. Instead of asking “are you for police training academy?,” the question is, “We have to have training, [since it’s] part of the consent decree. So if not the police training academy, how are you going to respond to that need?”

Since these panelists know about public safety, it's going to be difficult for the candidates to hide behind personal charges or negativity. And in some ways, [the panelists] may even be in a position to help [the candidates] think about these issues and help them come up with good public policy.

I see tomorrow as being more of a conversation to advance some of the questions that [candidates] already been discussing on the campaign trail, and put some meat on the bones of their strategies.

A Storied Career

Gate: Do you find that audiences have been receptive to listening to stories about and by people of color and women, as someone who fits in both of those categories? Do you think  your experience as a black woman influenced your covering of stories?

LW: I think the beautiful thing about the digital media is that it’s less and less about personalities. [Readers] judge you on the reporting and work you're doing.

There's a lot more diversity and sensitivity to people of color in the media today, but earlier in my career I found that I would often be second-guessed about stories about my own community. People would be suspicious that I was bringing some kind of bias to a story about my community, when in fact my expertise in that community should have been seen as an asset. 

I think that's less true today, but I also think most journalists of color and women would tell you that sometimes they get second-guessed, especially if it's a beat that they're not perceived as being entitled to. Harder news topics like business and technology, [which are] the areas where there's less diversity, are the areas you have to fight harder to be taken seriously.

Gate: Can you talk about transitioning from a member of the press to Mayor Washington’s Deputy Press Secretary, and then back to the press again?

LW: It’s a challenge when you move from media position to an advocacy position — it can raise questions about your fairness. I thought about that long and hard before I decided to leave journalism and go work for Harold Washington, but ultimately I found it opened up a whole world of sources, knowledge, information, and relationships to me that I would never have had if I'd stayed in journalism. When I left City Hall and went back into the media, I was considered an asset because I had been inside City Hall and had those relationships. 

Gate: You have a lot of experience in investigative reporting on LGBTQ and black activism, as well as the various human rights laws in the city’s history, especially early in your career. Why did you choose to focus your investigative work on that topic?

LM: It's pretty fundamental to who I was and where I grew up. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago at a time and in a neighborhood that was still very segregated and disenfranchised in terms of access and resources. I looked around in my community and said: “Why is it like this? Why are African Americans not getting their fair share?”

By the time I got to high school I was questioning these issues and wanted to get answers. I felt that journalism would be an effective way of getting those answers and exposing the disparities. I started out covering African American issues but I think I've also always been someone who's advocated for social justice and equity in all communities — in a city like Chicago there's rich material to report on those inequities.

Though I don’t speak for communities of color and folks who've been left out of the system, I like to think that I help them share their stories and share their own voices. 

Tips for Student-Journalists

Gate: What should students keep in mind when pitching a story?

LW: Always goes back to human interest. Think about the audience that you're pitching to — not just the editor, but the readers and viewers behind that editor. What's going to be compelling to them?

As much as possible, think about the human aspect of the story, the people being affected by the story. Also, [the pitch should] answer the questions: why do those people care, why does it matter?

Gate: What organizations and people should students interested in covering Chicago politics be following?

LW: Everyone and everything they have the time and energy for!

My go to is, well, obviously the newspaper I write for — the Sun Times. Also ABC-7, a station I also do political reporting for. They're the biggest and best resourced TV station in town, so they do the most comprehensive job in covering news stories. 

I read a lot of my colleagues' works, particularly on Twitter. I look for people out there on the beats every day — particularly in the middle of an intense news cycle, I can follow the news today by following reporters on Twitter.

Washington also recommends: Politico Illinois Playbook the Daily Line, Block Club Chicago, the Chicago Reporter, and Capitol Fax.

Gate: Any reflections on your time at the IOP?

LW: I think it was a really unique opportunity for both the candidates and the students because when the candidates were with the students, they refrained from a lot of that negative campaigning and personal attacks. They understood these were a lot of smart young people who had intelligent things to say — so I think the candidates were more open, more revealing, and more thoughtful during those conversations.

And hopefully because of that, the IOP seminars contributed to a higher-level discussion and body of information about the campaign than you'd normally have had.  

Alia Shahzad

Alia Shahzad is a second-year majoring in a currently undetermined social science. She's Co-Chair of the IOP's Women in Public Service Program and an assistant projectionist at Doc Films. Over the summer, she interned at public policy media start-up Apolitical researching gender-based public procurement. She enjoys hiking, writing creatively, and brunching in Chicago's Chinatown.


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