Candidate for City Council, 46th Ward
Education: B.A., magna cum laude, University of Notre Dame (economics and government); J.D., University of Chicago Law School.
Occupation: Litigation Partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Chicago, Illinois
Age: Not answered
Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered
Q: Last year, the Chicago Tribune's investigative series "Broken Bonds" reported that, since 2000, Chicago had issued long-term bonds to spend nearly $10 billion, much of it for short-term operating expenses. Hundreds of millions of dollars went to delay bond payments by refinancing old debts, a tactic known as "scoop and toss" that extends payments far into the future. Was this borrowing justified? Going forward, how should City Hall change its finances to pay down existing debts and provide services? Will you argue primarily for cuts in spending or for tax increases? Please be specific.
I think that our city, state, and, for that matter, federal addiction to deficit spending is deeply unhealthy, unsustainable, and immoral. Borrowing to pay for today's operating expenses places a huge burden on future generations for services from which they will never receive any benefit. We are also making our operating expenses more costly by paying debt service on top of routine expenditures. Our debt obligations also impair our ongoing ability to fulfill pension promises and make important investments in our schools and other programs. Deficit spending should be the exception rather than the rule; whatever economic justifications exist for it at a federal level are not present at the state and local levels. Going forward, the city must both raise revenue and cut spending. City budgets should be lean and cut waste. The city can cut expenses such as legal judgments and settlements by curtailing its misdeeds, including for police brutality. Ward menu funds should also be on the table to cut, along with frivolous expenditures and dubious technology. We also need better planning by CPS and other departments than that which occurred in the past, so that we are correcting our course gradually over time, as opposed to making major investments in schools that were suddenly shuttered shortly thereafter. However, I don't believe we can get out of this mess exclusively through spending cuts. Residents and businesses need to be told the truth about the dire straits of city finances, and our political will — particularly the political will of the elite — must be marshaled to endure a few years of shared sacrifice in the name of restoring our fiscal health. I think all revenue-raising ideas should be on the table, including expanding the city sales tax to more services, a progressive city income tax, an increase in property taxes (although I would support proposals to limit the burden of a property tax increase on the elderly or others with fixed incomes), the "LaSalle Street Tax", closing corporate tax loopholes, and TIF reform. We should try to spread the pain of these taxes by implementing multiple proposals and trying to protect low-income people, who are least able to absorb higher taxes without severe consequences. While I am conscious of the potential impact that tax hikes may have on economic growth, given our precarious fiscal position, tax hikes or new taxes should be presented as an opportunity to restore fiscal sanity to our city. Uncertainty is often worse for investment than adversity, and having greater certainty about our path to fiscal health will ultimately make Chicago a better place for residents and businesses alike to put down or deepen their roots. Once we are through this fiscal crisis, we can and should consider reducing taxes. Importantly, I would also advocate for greater transparency into the issuance of bonds. I would support requiring the City to provide detailed spending plans and put their proposals to a popular vote, as happens in many suburbs and other major U.S. cities.
Q: Chicago will face a substantial increase in contributions to its police and fire pension funds in 2016. Chicago's unfunded pension liability amounts to about $7,000 for each resident of the city. How should the city solve its pension crisis? Please be specific about pension changes, spending cuts or revenue increases you would support.
Our police and fire personnel work highly demanding and dangerous jobs to protect the public. It is important that we continue to take care of them in retirement just as they have taken care of us. Further, Illinois courts have been clear that the Pension Clause literally means that pension benefits offered to an employee "shall not be diminished." As both a moral and a legal matter, I don't believe it's appropriate or worthwhile to unilaterally take away benefits that have been promised to an existing employee. Thus, I believe that in the short term, our pension liabilities essentially are what they are. The question is whether we will pay for them now or defer payment by undertaking more debt. As I stated above, I believe revenue increases have to be part of the equation, as do cuts in spending. Over the long term, I would like to see our structural budget issues addressed so that we can continue to provide generous pension benefits to city employees.
Q: What changes should be made in the city's use of tax increment financing? Would you support expansion or extension of TIF districts in your ward? How should excess TIF funds be spent? Do you support the $55 million allotment of TIF funds to buy land for a Marriott Hotel and DePaul basketball arena? Please explain.
Much has been written about the ripeness for abuse of TIFs, and yet most residents have little to no visibility into TIFs because of the lack of transparency surrounding them, along with their sheer complexity. I believe that far too many tax dollars are diverted away from public schools and other priorities to TIF funds, and that much more oversight of this revenue stream is needed. In particular, TIFs should be used for their stated purpose of eliminating urban blight, and not as a slush fund for private development where no stimulus is needed. I don't support the DePaul deal because I think it's questionable whether the Bronzeville neighborhood will truly reap the benefits of the investment. Finally, I believe that 100% of the current TIF surplus should be reinvested in our public schools.
Q: The Tribune Editorial Board recently offered "12 ways to heal a city" — the best ideas among more than 1,000 suggestions from readers on how to craft "A new Plan of Chicago." These proposals are available at chicagotribune.com/plan. Please tell us which ideas you would champion. We invite you to offer additional ideas for dealing with Chicago's challenges.
I think all of 12 of the proposals have great merit. I would support all of them, but would champion the following to benefit the 46th Ward: (1) repurposing schools as community centers. I am on record in favor turning the vacant Stewart School building into a community center, although I don't oppose it being turned into a magnet school so long as an adequate number of slots are reserved for neighborhood children. Stewart is ideally located in the heart of the 46th Ward, and would be a great permanent home for many of the vibrant youth and arts programs in the ward. While we have great diversity in the ward, too often we tend to be isolated within our own housing structures and types. We need more opportunities to get out of our homes and come together as a community, and a community center is a great way to address this need in the 46th Ward. (2) Expand the SAFE Children program. This seems like an opportunity to help make our neighborhood schools much better by helping to change the family structure. What I've heard from talking to parents and educators in the ward is that one highly challenging child can disrupt the entire educational atmosphere for other children, and so I think intensive and sustained interventions like SAFE Children are much-needed to provide far more support than what teachers can provide to an individual student struggling in the classroom. (3) "Kids and Careers" and "Hubs and STEMS" -- I think the idea of privately sponsored career fairs would fit in very well in the 46th Ward, where many youth are hungry for job and career opportunities. Finally, I also think that truly understanding another person's problems requires getting to know someone on a personal level. I've deepened my understanding for the city and the challenges facing urban youth by mentoring a South Side teen and her siblings through the LINK Unlimited program. We need more such opportunities not just across the city, but within diverse neighborhoods like Uptown, which suffers from some racial and class tensions. I would support a program to help people (singles, couples, families, seniors) get to know and support each other through a mentoring or club program. More like a book club than a block club, the focus of this initiative would be on building relationships with people who are different from you. Given the wealth of racial and ethnic diversity in our ward, this could offer an eye-opening entrée into someone else's world. Promoting the organic development of such relationships would lead to greater empathy for and trust of the diverse members of our community, and feeds into the larger goal of community safety.
Q: Should the City Council keep or abolish the office of legislative inspector general? Should the city inspector general be given the authority to investigate aldermen and their staff members? Do you have other ideas to improve government ethics in Chicago? Please explain.
It doesn't matter so much whether it's the LIG or the city inspector general overseeing the aldermen and their staffs; the more important question is what kind of authority the overseer will wield. The creation of the LIG was theoretically supposed to bring a new era of transparency and compliance to City Council. But the aldermen did not give the LIG adequate authority to do his job, hampering his efforts by failing to provide for anonymous complaints, requiring approval from the Board of Ethics before he may conduct a full investigation, requiring that the alderman at issue be notified of any investigation, and most recently, stripping his authority to investigate campaign finance violations for this cycle. This is outrageous. Whoever is given oversight of the aldermen should be given the same tools and authority as the city inspector general currently has in his current work. That said, I support full funding and authority being provided to the LIG. I donâ€TMt believe the aldermen who support the transfer of authority, including Alderman Cappleman, have adequately justified their flip-flop from supporting the establishment of this office to now proposing its elimination for reasons of â€œefficiency.â€ It seems that the only thing that has changed since the creation of the LIGâ€TMs office is that the city hired an inspector general who actually intended to do the job to the full. I am sure that Faisal Khan expected that there would be a public outcry when he went to the press about his ongoing investigations and his need for funding vis-Ã -vis the attempt by some in City Council to eliminate his job. Sadly, he seems to have underestimated how deeply engrained the culture of corruption is not only in City Council, but in the public psyche here in Chicago as well. With regard to other ideas to improve government ethics, I would support reducing the influence of large donors through a public campaign financing programs such as New York Cityâ€TMs small donor matching fund program. I also support rules to ensure transparency of city privatization transactions to safeguard against debacles such as the parking meter deal.
Q: The Chicago Public Schools system has seen significant improvements in freshmen on track and high school graduation rates. CPS has also closed dozens of schools, used fiscal 2016 revenue to balance its 2015 budget and faces a roughly $700 million pension payment in 2016. Please give us your assessment of the academic and financial performance of the city's public schools. What is the key to improving public education in the city? Should members of the Board of Education be elected by the public or continue to be appointed by the mayor? Do you support the longer school day and year? Should CPS expand or reduce the number of charter schools? How should CPS close its significant budget gap?
A quality education is the great equalizer in our society. All Chicago children deserve a high-quality education. We need to make it simple for parents to understand their choices when their kids enter CPS, and also bolster neighborhood schools so the most convenient option is a good one. I am a pragmatic, data-driven person, and I believe that the CPS system is slowly improving based on recent numbers. But there is no single key to improving public education in the city. Some things we can do to set young people up for success include: 1) continuing freshman-on-track supports, and extending them down to eighth grade to further improve the transition into high school; 2) overhauling and increasing the availability and quality of special education assessments and services, especially as they follow transient students across schools; 3) investing even more in the training and retention of high-quality principals and teachers; 4) increasing and improving early childhood education opportunities across the city; and 5) increasing options for high-performing, low-performing, special education, and alternative students – especially in high schools. I support an elected school board. All of the other school districts in this state have an elected board, and Chicago does not merit different treatment. I believe the current system of mayoral appointments has resulted in a board skewed toward the perspective of the elite, where parents and teachers do not have a voice in the board's decisions. This has resulted in teachers and families feeling alienated and demanding greater transparency. I believe that in order to truly turn around our schools, we need all stakeholders to be at the table, working toward a common goal. I support the longer school day and year because it means more educational minutes being provided to our students. However, I also believe that policies that change the set-up of the school day, year, or schedule must be carefully coordinated with teachers and parents to ensure that our teachers are not overextended and our parents are supported in the change. I believe that the charter school movement has not resulted in better educational outcomes for most children, but instead has drained resources away from neighborhood schools while "cherry-picking" middle- to top-tier students. This has left neighborhood schools with few resources to work with the highest-need children. I believe that the Chicago Board of Education should place a moratorium on new charter schools and campuses, and instead invest solely in improving our neighborhood schools. We need to close the CPS budget gap, and in doing so, should prioritize the full funding of our schools over nearly all other competing city priorities. We should repurpose the TIF surplus for public schools and explore some of the other revenue-raising ideas I mentioned in response to Question 1, as well as conduct better planning so that CPS is spending dollars more efficiently. Going forward, we need to avoid deficit spending to fund pensions, and have a sustainable pension plan that continues to provide teachers with adequate retirement security.
Q: How would you attract more employers to your ward? How would you encourage employers to hire local residents? What have you done to promote economic development in your ward?
I would attract more employers to the 46th Ward by focusing on the development of an entertainment district around the Uptown Square at Lawrence and Broadway, along with other key intersections in the ward. I would work to attract a critical mass of new restaurants and retail that can service concertgoers in the ward and create a more inviting streetscape. I would also make sure existing business owners within our TIF districts are are aware of the availability of Small Business Improvement Funds (SBIF) to make improvements to their properties, including the removal of unsightly and often nonfunctional security gates. I will make it clear to employers in the ward that I believe the hiring of local workers is part of their bargain with the community, and that they should hire locally whenever possible. I will work to promote job readiness and training programs in the ward, and will host hiring fairs for local businesses and local workers. The "Hubs and STEMS" idea from the Tribune's "12 ways to heal a city" article has great potential as well — I would support an effort to connect students from Uplift High School and/or Truman College with local small businesses to help businesses create or improve their social media presence, which would lead to greater job readiness and perhaps some job offers. I have promoted economic development in my ward by serving for the past five years on the board of North Side Community Federal Credit Union, whose mission is to help low- to moderate-income people by offering them financial products and education to help them achieve financial self-sufficiency. I recently became the president of a new nonprofit spinoff entity from the credit union, North Side Center for Financial Empowerment, which will fund and oversee the financial education and housing counseling programs currently conducted by the credit union. My wife and I also shop in the ward whenever possible and when we eat out or order in, we mostly order from restaurants in the ward.
Q: Do you support or oppose the City Council vote to increase the minimum wage in several steps to $13 an hour by 2019? Please explain.
I support this proposal. I believe that the proposal provides more than adequate time for businesses to adjust to the higher wage. If anything, I believe the $1 per hour increase for workers earning tips was too low. I would like to see the state raise its minimum wage to $11, both to provide workers around the state with higher pay and to lessen any economic incentive for businesses in the city to relocate to the suburbs.
Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.
I don't feel strongly about the lakefront site of the Lucas Museum. Putting the museum elsewhere in the city, perhaps in tandem with the Obama Library, could create a new tourist hub and be better for development overall, though I don't see the lakefront site as overly problematic for any reason. My larger concern is that the concept of the museum either isn't fully developed or hasn't been fully explained to the public. We want to ensure that an undertaking of this magnitude will provide a lasting and durable contribution to the cultural life of our city.
Q: How can the city improve public safety? Please address the role and performance of the Chicago Police Department and the role of neighborhood residents in crime prevention. What have you done to improve public safety in your community?
The city can improve public safety in several ways. First, I believe we should restore police levels to 2011 levels. In the 46th ward, crime has risen following the 25% decrease in staffing in the 19th district. Officers face a "whack-a-mole" effect: officers are shifted to focus on robberies in Boystown, and then shootings rise in Uptown. Then officers are shifted to Uptown, and burglaries rise in West Lakeview. We need adequate staffing in order for our police to be able to patrol proactively, so that they are not just running call to call. This could also allow the commander to reconstitute tactical units to better address gang activity and crime patterns. Second, we can do more to increase youth engagement by promoting programs like "Becoming a Man" and expanding programs already offered by nonprofit agencies in the ward. I also support the creation of youth block clubs to get kids across demographic lines to work together on local civic projects such as a litter pick-up and lemonade stands for charity. I believe the job of keeping our streets safe falls on both the CPD and neighborhood residents. We all need to work together on this. This should include a reimagined CAPS program. I understand CAPS officers are currently receiving new training on community policing -- they are being taught strategies and tactics for building constructive relationships within the community, with the goal of creating a true partnership with the community. This is clearly so timely given the huge issue of the broken relationship between police and African-American communities that is playing out around the country. A key role for the 46th Ward alderman is to help mediate tensions that can arise between police and residents, and among residents of market-rate vs. affordable housing, because we need to embrace and preserve the diversity in this ward while also doing a better job of fighting violent crime. To date, my work in the neighborhood has been focused on providing economic opportunities for residents, primarily as a board member of North Side Community Federal Credit Union. Providing such opportunities to low-income people has an indirect impact on reducing crime. I also advocated with other community residents for the slumlords who owned Lawrence House to improve and maintain their property, which created dangerous conditions in the neighborhood. As alderman, I will walk the streets of the ward with the police commanders and build relationships across the community to create a culture of respect and send a message that violence in our community will not be tolerated.
Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.
I know it is popular to bash the red light cameras. Indeed, the issues surrounding the relationship between the vendor and City Hall further undermine public confidence in the City's ability to get a fair deal from its vendors or private partners. However flawed that relationship, though, I'm not opposed to traffic light cameras if the program can be administered fairly. As I stated above, the city needs revenue. And I have no problem with using technology to determine when an infraction has occurred, so long as the program is being administered appropriately. I would guess that some drivers have altered their habits, even in the short-term, as a result of the cameras, and I believe that is a positive outcome.
Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?
A tentative yes. Without having the benefit of an insider's perspective, it certainly seems to this outsider that having a 50-person legislature has not served our city well. With each alderman controlling his or her own fiefdom, the economic incentive and broad ability to commit fraud or otherwise enrich oneself to the detriment of ward residents has proven too great for too many aldermen over the years. In a system with fewer aldermen, city departments would have to be given greater responsibility, freeing up aldermen to engage more intensively with serious policy decisions. Bigger wards would also provide a better pool of qualified candidates.
Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?
My highest priority is ensuring that our streets are safe. Whether it is gang-driven gun violence in Uptown or robberies in Lakeview, safety is the top concern residents express to me. In addition to increasing the number of police on our streets, I think there is a strong community-building role for the 46th Ward alderman to play. Because of our diverse neighborhoods and the political polarization we have seen in this ward in recent years, I believe it is critical for the alderman to bring together residents from across the ward and across demographic lines to attack crime and facilitate an open and honest dialogue among residents and police about the issues of crime and affordable housing so that we are building trust and celebrating our diversity instead of exacerbating racial and class tensions in the ward. As I stated above in response to question 10, the alderman can help mediate tensions that can arise in our neighborhoods around the issues of affordable housing and crime. Currently, our alderman exacerbates these tensions by seeming to be at war against affordable housing, and pursuing vagrancy, loitering, and pigeons more aggressively than violent crime. We need a unifying figure who can move us beyond the divide created under the prior two aldermen, so that we can focus as a community on the issues of safer streets, stronger neighborhood schools, and small business development.
Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.
I spent most of the beginning of 2014 in the hospital with my son. My wife Anita and I adopted a baby boy, Lincoln, in early January of this year. Although we had been in touch with the birth parents through our agency and were fully expecting to adopt him, we weren't expecting him until around his due date of April 12. Instead, he was born at 26 weeks, weighing 2 lbs. 3 oz. I was at dinner with friends during the "polar vortex" on January 5 when the birth mom called me (after having an emergency C-section, unbeknownst to us) and announced, "well, you're a mom." We spent his first two weeks with him in the NICU at South Bend Memorial, periodically making milk runs to Michigan City, where the birth mom lives and was pumping breast milk for him. We then transferred him to Lurie Children's Hospital, where he stayed until April 9, just shy of his due date. He is now 22 lbs. and very healthy and happy, with just a little catching up to do through physical therapy. I kept a blog of this experience at: http://lincolnjames2014.blogspot.com/ We named him Lincoln James to honor his birth parents, L and J, and because the surname "Lincoln" means "town by the lake," which connects his birthplace of Michigan City with his adopted home of Chicago. The name is also fitting in that President Lincoln spent his formative years in Indiana before relocating to Illinois, and my son started his journey in Indiana as well. As same-sex parents of an adopted, biracial baby boy, we think the 46th Ward, with all its diversity and rich cultural heritage, is the perfect place to raise our family. We just need to work on making the neighborhood safer and better for families, more commercially vibrant, and more harmonious.