A Maroon in Wildcat Country: an interview with Evanston Mayor-elect Daniel Biss

 /  April 27, 2021, 10 p.m.


With spring officially sprung on the shores of Lake Michigan, Illinoisans are witnessing the common perennials pop up—coneflowers, bearded iris, and of course, political yard signs.

In dozens of towns and cities across the state, municipal elections are in full swing. Nonpartisan blanket primaries were held in late February, still squarely in the grips of winter. In scenarios where no candidate reached some requisite threshold —often 50 percent, but not alway—top vote-getters advanced to April run-off elections. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Did I somehow miss a Chicago election?”, don’t worry! You didn’t. Chicagoans won’t go to the ballot box for mayoral and aldermanic elections until February 2023—but our suburban neighbors and rivals to the north in Evanston did, and new faces are already coming to city hall.

Mayor Steve Hagerty, first elected in 2017, opted not to seek a second term as chief executive of the City of Churches, and his successor is a familiar face in Evanston and Hyde Park alike: ex-State Senator Daniel Biss. Biss, a progressive legislator who gave up his north suburban seat to seek the governor’s mansion in 2018, came first to Illinois in 2002 as an assistant professor of mathematics right here at the University of Chicago. On February 23, he defeated two other candidates in the mayoral race to win outright with 73 percent of the vote.

The Gate connected with Mayor-elect Biss by phone following his win.

Note: The interviewer was an intern for then-State Senator Biss’ gubernatorial campaign in 2017.

The Gate:

Thanks again for taking the time today. You're mayor-elect of Evanston, and you take office on May 10 after the city council runoffs. What’s your first priority and what’s your top priority for the city?

Mayor-elect Daniel Biss:

Well, chronologically, COVID recovery has to be the first priority, right? I hope we'll see a lot of progress on vaccination between now and May 10, but obviously there's going to be a wild request to make sure that the vaccination distribution is efficient and equitable, and that the communication is strong. It's going to be critical. The economic recovery is going to be an unfortunately long and difficult project. Making sure that we manage reopening of various aspects of society in a way that is equitable and safe and science-based is going to be the job most urgently facing city government on the evening of May 10 when I become mayor.

On a policy level, the issue is that I've really fought hardest about during the campaign and talking most about is revisiting the way we do public safety, transformative ideas around affordable housing, a full implementation and expansion of our climate action and resilience plan, and then really overhauling the internal mechanisms of government to advance and make real the slogan of how we assess every decision through an equity lens.

On Proposed Criminal Justice Reforms in Evanston


I was hoping you could talk a bit more about your criminal justice proposals, how you plan on changing the Evanston PD, the amount of power you'd have over that, and your ideal vision for the change.


Well, I'll answer the middle question first: the power of the mayor. The mayor of Evanston is not like the mayor of Chicago. I will not be running the city government. The mayor essentially chairs the city council, which makes policies that are then implemented by the city manager. It's not quite as simple as what the mayor says goes in terms of how the city is run —but, of course, the mayor is the most influential person in setting those policies.

So, you know, there's a lot to be said around police accountability. There's a lot to be said around basic practices of the police department, around things like surveillance and the use of military style equipment. I think the centerpiece of what we need to be doing is really interrogating the last quite a few decades of American policy that reacted to violence by militarizing the response and the collection of problems that we try to solve with either violence, the threat of violence, or at least the capability of deploying violence. I think it’s just outside the bounds of common sense, right?

That's not how we interact with each other. It's not how we try to solve those problems in ordinary life. And yet, Evanston has a more significant police budget per capita than most of its neighboring suburbs. The explanation has always been that we have more crime.

Well, you know, much of what we ask the police officers to do is not something that requires the capability to deploy force or violence. There's a mismatch between what the actual problem is and what we are investing in to solve it. And fixing that requires a wholesale accounting of what we are currently asking the 150 or so men and women of the police department to do versus what is the correct way to solve the problems they're currently being called upon to solve.


I’m sure that when you were in the state legislature, working in Springfield, and through your gubernatorial campaign, you spoke with a lot of folks in different municipalities of different sizes and socioeconomic setups. Are there any other cities you'd like to sort of emulate in that [reform], or are you trying to be the vanguard on this, leading the way on a fully new method?


I think we're in this new moment of opportunity to be really bold in reinvisioning the way we do public safety. And I think there is a lot to be learned from a lot of different places, but there definitely is not a single place from which I would copy and paste. For example, a lot of people talk about what's called the CAHOOTS model for dealing with mental health response that has been in existence in Eugene, Oregon for a long time. That's great. I think there's talk now and before I was running for mayor: there's a subcommittee of the human services committee in Evanston that's been working on alternate emergency response ideas. They're thinking hard about this CAHOOTS model, but I don't think the conversation begins and ends there. Another example is that Berkeley, California has recently started to pilot the idea of not having armed officers do traffic stops.

And, that's a totally different type of question. Who do you want to show up to support a victim of sexual assault? Do you want an armed officer to show up with a gun and a badge, or you want a different type of professional show up there? Who do you want to be providing crowd control for peaceful mass events, whether they're public events or demonstrations? What are the circumstances when having an armed officer with a gun provides more safety and security? What are the circumstances when having that person there actually is creating a risk of escalation? And so I think the kind of soup to nuts analysis of what problems that exist in Evanston are best solved by a person with a gun and what problems in Evanston are currently trying to be solved by a person with a gun, but in fact would better be solved the other way? It's not like there's some other community that's just kind of done that. I think we need to be willing to borrow from a lot of different places and really ask ourselves the question in the broadest possible context.

On the Timing of Municipal Elections


Changing direction a little bit, a lot of people may not have known that there was an election this past week. An election in February, just three or four months after a presidential election, is sure to be odd, and I saw turnout was maybe a quarter of what it was in Evanston back in November. How do you feel about that? Do you think that changes any way state or municipal local government works? Do you think that's an issue?


Yeah, it's awful. I mean, I don't think this particular turnout was that low. The February primary for mayor four years ago had almost identical turnout, even though there was no pandemic and no polar vortex. And there were five candidates, so there were more different people trying to turn out their folks—so by the standards of what we're used to, the turnout was fine. But it stinks! And I mean, this is a bigger question, and a question I always talked about in the legislature. These things are set by state law, but I don't think we ought to have municipal elections in February, as you put it, just a few months after national elections.

I think municipal elections should occur in November at the same time as national elections. But if you're not gonna do it, then at least have them in April, which is where most of the municipal elections are. Don’t have a separate set of another round of municipal elections, before the main event, when the weather is even worse, when folks still kind of have their heads down in ‘November national election mode.’ But I think it's terrible. And it results in a lot of people's voices not being heard. Let's be real here; it's also deliberate, right? This is a system designed to benefit incumbents by keeping turnout down, and I just think it's bad government.

On Working with His Predecessor, Mayor Hagerty

Note – Biss announced his intent to run for mayor before Hagerty announced whether or not he planned to seek reelection. Hagerty was first elected in 2017, when he defeated Ald. Mark Tendam by just 159 votes in the April runoff. A local businessman, Hagerty had had the support of outgoing Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, who had served since 2009.


On that topic, you declared your campaign prior to the current mayor, the incumbent saying what his plans were [on running for reelection]. Do you plan on keeping good contact with the current mayor? What does the transition look like, and do you plan on any major breaks from his tenure?


He’s a friend; he was a supporter of my campaign. He's been committed to having a smooth and orderly transition and that's great. We've spoken on the phone a couple of times since the election, and I was in the meeting of his coronavirus task force that really pulls in key community institutions from across Evanston. They meet weekly, I was in their meeting today. So I anticipate a very comfortable, smooth transition. Will there be any breaks? We're friends, we have a lot of respect for each other, but we're also very different people in our backgrounds and worldviews. I’m an avowed progressive, who was an organizer and an academic, and he's more of a small business owner—there's a different set of worldviews.

If you look at my campaign platform, it calls for a lot of changes, and I think that's healthy. I would imagine that he agrees that that's healthy, and probably whoever comes after me as mayor will want to do things differently than I will. But, you know, I think coming to this from the point of view of someone who believes in organizing people to make grassroots change, and as someone who's not put off by really bold, fundamentally transformational ideas, I think the premise of my campaign was that we're going to do a lot of things in Evanston differently. And that's what made me excited to run in the first place. And that's what I mean to do starting on May 10.

On the 2020 Fair Tax Referendum, for which he campaigned:

Note – Amendment 1, the ‘Fair Tax Amendment’, was a constitutional amendment placed on the 2020 ballot in Illinois to repeal the state’s constitutionally-mandated flat income tax rate of 5 percent. Proponents included Governor JB Pritzker & Biss, who sought to move the state to a progressive tax rate in which higher earners would pay a higher rate than lower earners. Opponents such as Kenneth C. Griffin argued that the amendment would give too much power to the Democratic-controlled state government. The Amendment failed, garnering 46 percent of the vote statewide. In Evanston, 77 percent of voters voted ‘yes.’


A question on some statewide issues. I remember seeing you and Representative Guzzardi give a panel on the Fair Tax before almost anyone else was talking about it, in early 2019. Why do you think that as Biden was carrying the state and Senator Durbin was being reelected, that the Fair Tax was able to fall in such a way? And do you think there's any way for a similar thing to succeed in the future?


Well, I'm not much of a pundit. I will tell you that I'm heartbroken, just devastated for the state. I'm devastated for what we could have had. I continue to believe that passing that referendum was the most important thing that we could do, and we blew it. I did my best. I spoke dozens of times and tried to persuade everyone I knew to vote for it, but we just collectively didn't get it done. I think that the Illinois government has a trust problem, and with good reason. In that environment, the argument of, "Hey, do you trust these assholes to take more of your money?" sounds pretty good, even if it's not accurate, even if most people would've paid less, even if it’s just like the systems that the states that the folks who were against it usually tell us we should be emulating.

They always say we should be more like Wisconsin. Wisconsin had this thing in place since 1911, I think. Even though the argument that they made against it held no water, it sounded good. It was sharp. It was simple. It was easy to convey and, and it was hard to refute because the answer to, "Hey man, do you trust these assholes?" isn't 'yes'. It's ‘no, I don't trust them either, but even though I don't trust them, this is still the right thing to do. It's still a better system. It's still gonna be better for most of us.' And that just feels like a dodge to some people. So there was a messaging challenge. I think we didn't, we didn't make the cases crisply and clearly as we had to. There was a lot of money spent on the other side.

And, you know, it's always hard. Change is difficult, you know, and it's always easier to persuade people to mobilize against the perception that something is being taken away than it is to get people to mobilize in support of something that they think will help them. I think this was an example of that.

So is there hope in the future? You bet. I do continue to believe it's the most important thing for the state of Illinois. And so we're going to have to take another bite at the apple, but, you know, obviously it's not going to be in five minutes. We're gonna have to work to persuade people, to change their minds. And that requires governing. You've got to govern effectively and earn that trust and then come back to people and say, 'Listen, I've done my best with my hands tied behind my back by the constitution. If you think I've done well given the hand I was dealt, deal me a better hand so I can do a better job for you.'

On Governor Pritzker:

Note—Pritzker endorsed Biss by tweet just before the primary. In a 2018 interview with the Maroon, Biss said that electing Pritzker would be “literally the worst thing we could possibly do.”


Do you think that Governor Pritzker, your old opponent, has been doing governing in a good way?


I do. I think he has prioritized things that I personally agree with. I think coming out of the gate and fighting hard for the $15 minimum wage —which I strongly believed would not have passed without his leadership—was great. Again, I'm heartbroken about the outcome of the Fair Tax referendum, but that was exactly the right thing to do. I think the cannabis legislation was important. I think he's pushed for a lot of important things. I think that though there have been some ups and downs, like every single state in the country, I think that by and large his commitment to following science and being careful and responsible on the coronavirus is admirable. He’s been willing to take some heat for that in the interest of keeping people safe. And I appreciate that.

On his UChicago roots in Wildcat Country:


Okay, last question. You taught down here at UChicago for a period of time, and now you’re going to be the mayor of Evanston. How, how are you able to reconcile any sort of UChicago/Northwestern rivalry?


I am just unable to have that conversation from a reasonable perspective because my wife is a Northwestern PhD. Once I enter into that discussion in any way or context, it just becomes fraught and heated and difficult. And so, I'm going to wave the white flag—or maybe wave the purple flag—and leave that to someone with a higher pay grade.

Transcription partially through Temi. The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. No changes were made to the original image, which was originally uploaded here

Ridgley Knapp

Ridgley Knapp is a graduate of the College and second-year MPP student at the Harris School for Public Policy. When he's not working in or writing about politics and policy, he enjoys rowing and the New York Times crossword.


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