Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Debra Silverstein

Debra Silverstein

Candidate for City Council, 50th Ward

Debra Silverstein

Candidate for City Council, 50th Ward

Portrait of Debra Silverstein

Education: Undergraduate degree in accounting, University of Illinois - Chicago

Occupation: Alderman, 50th Ward, City of Chicago

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


Candidates running for City Council, 50th Ward

Responses to the Chicago Tribune's questionnaire

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.

The City of Chicago should not mortgage its annual budget or its future through risky bond deals or financial shell games. We cannot borrow to pay for day-to-day costs, such as basic services. However, when it comes to funding massive capital or other infrastructure projects, multi-year financing makes sense. A project that may be in use for decades can be paid off over a portion of its lifespan. The City is also re-funding its debt, or using new money to pay off debt, and I voted for debt authorization in the City Council. "Scoop and toss" is bad policy, but the City is facing a dearth of options. The scheduled increase in debt payments coupled with the projected pension obligations are two issues that cannot be resolved at the same time, so borrowing to buy time – and avoid a catastrophic cut in services and massive spike in fees for residents – leaves us no choice at this time. Fortunately, our economy is growing and this will increase our revenue streams in the City. It is promising to see the City is finally having an open and honest conversation about its finances. For many years, these decisions were not discussed in an open and transparent manner and we are going to do what we can to avoid revisiting these types of issues in the future. Another step in the right direction was the creation of the City Council Office of Financial Analysis (COFA), an independent body charged with researching and issuing opinions on critical financial matters to assist the City Council. As an accountant (I was a practicing CPA with 25 years experience before I was elected to the Chicago City Council), I would support a graduated income tax with a fair tier structure. I also support a land-based casino in the City of Chicago. I would be in favor of supporting a sales tax on large-scale finance transactions, or what is referred to as the LaSalle Street Tax. Corporations should not benefit from loopholes that choke the flow of tax dollars and fees into the City and CPS budgets and the City Council should pursue legislation to close loopholes that provide unfair tax breaks to businesses or even individuals. For example, this fall the City Council passed legislation to close a loophole in the use tax charged to Chicago businesses that buy products and goods elsewhere. This will result in an additional $17 million in annual revenue for the City of Chicago. The City Council should continue to look at comprehensive TIF reform. I have signed on to a moratorium on additional TIFs until the program is audited and overhauled. I would consider additional revenue generating measures for the City of Chicago and I acknowledge that this is the critical issue in the coming years, but I would have to evaluate all revenue enhancements on a case by case basis. So far, no comprehensive revenue solution or solutions have been presented to me or the Chicago City Council.

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.

Legislators need to deliver on promises made to employees and retirees. I agree with the courts that Senate Bill 1, the legislation that cut COLA increases, was unconstitutional. I also agree with the Illinois Supreme Court's decision in July that prevents any diminishment of health care benefits for retired state employees. I oppose further attempts to cut pension benefits for City employees and retirees. The City Council and the Illinois General Assembly are going to face some major challenges in 2015. However, we have yet to see a comprehensive budget proposal take shape in either elected body to address the pension crisis. As I indicated in an earlier response, I would support a graduated income tax as long as it had a fair tier structure. I support a casino for the City of Chicago. I am in favor of a sales tax on large-scale finance transactions, the so-called LaSalle Street Tax.

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.

In 2011, I publicly joined Cook County Clerk David Orr in calling for a moratorium on new TIFs pending a comprehensive audit to evaluate how the TIF system can be reformed. The City of Chicago is actively reforming its TIF program and implementing more sensible policies. The 2014 and 2015 budgets include a TIF Surplus of $50 million and $60 million respectively. Of this amount, 20 percent was earmarked for the City of Chicago, 50 percent was earmarked for the Chicago Public Schools and the remainder was designated for the City's sister agencies, such as the CTA and the Chicago Park District. This systematic "surplusing" of the TIF funds allowed CPS to avoid scheduled budget cuts this year. These are dramatic steps in the right direction. However, there is a time and a place for TIFs and I have been very successful in carefully reinvesting TIF dollars in our community. Devon Avenue was struggling to retain businesses, dilapidated and borderline unsafe for pedestrians and drivers alike. The new Devon Avenue Streetscape Project is revitalizing one of the City's great business districts, and while we have secured additional funding from the State of Illinois, this ongoing work is contingent on TIF dollars. When it is completed, the improved Devon Avenue will replenish the TIF and new tax dollars will flow into the City's coffers. My goal is to continue to use TIF dollars strategically to ensure these funds are solvent and used for smart, carefully selected projects that are supported by constituents and the business community. I support aldermanic discretion when it comes to TIFs located in another ward. If the hotel and stadium project is a good fit for that alderman and for the people of that ward, and produce needed revenue for the City, then I would leave that decision to the alderman. However, I am aware there are instances when TIF dollars are not used in the original spirit of the TIF concept and I would be willing to review reform measures that eliminate TIFs that are deemed to be ineffective or no longer necessary.

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 Please tell us which ideas you would champion. We invite you to offer additional ideas for dealing with Chicago's challenges.

As far as the Chicago Tribune's special piece on "12 Ways to Heal a City," I think it represents a much-needed fresh look at the critical issues facing City government. "Schools as tools," using vacant Chicago Public Schools or other properties as community centers and job training centers is a terrific repurposing of existing city-owned properties. I have been dedicated to increasing parental involvement in our 50th Ward schools. We have built amazing relationships among parents, teachers, principals and other stakeholders, at both our public and parochial schools. "It Takes a City," a program to expand programming to teach parents to be more involved in their schools is a smart way to increase student success. The numbers speak for themselves with program participants 50 percent more likely than peers to be on track for graduation from high school. Some of the best ideas for legislation have been brought to me by people like the contributors to "12 Ways to Heal a City." I co-sponsored the Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance to protect working class residents by requiring banks foreclosing on a property to provide the tenants a rent-controlled lease until selling the property or pay them a "relocation assistance" fee of $10,600 per unit. This ordinance and the Bed Bug Ordinance to make landlord more responsible for the conditions in which their renters live, were both driven by neighborhood, grassroots organizations. In my first term, I authored two landmark pieces of legislation that will protect Chicagoans – including first responders and young people – for decades to come. The Dangerous & Vacant Buildings Ordinance was created with the help of fire officials in the wake of several tragic incidents during which firefighters were killed while working in dangerous truss construction buildings. The firefighters had no information about the fact that these buildings were prone to collapse. Now these buildings are designated in the databases used by firefighters and police and these first responders are notified in advance of arriving at a location. The City Council backed my health and consumer protection ordinance to prohibit tanning salons from providing services to teenagers. Health advocates across not only Illinois, but the entire nation, cheered when they saw Chicago take the lead on this critical health issue. I oppose the privatization of public assets and I will continue to fight efforts to sell off City assets. I support the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance to establish a process to provide for public input and City Council review of any proposed City privatization plans. We have worked creatively to solve problems affecting everyday, working class Chicagoans and I am proud of my voting record during my first term on the Chicago City Council.

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.

Chicago's Inspector General Joe Ferguson is the best watchdog for City government. His office has generated the greatest volume of substantive reports when it comes to impropriety and maleficence. Under his leadership, the City government has emerged from many years of federal hiring oversight and ushered us into the post-Shakman era, saving the City millions of dollars. In 2013, the City Council also signed off on a new ethics ordinance that the Inspector General is charged with enforcing. He should be granted the expanded powers to investigate members of the City Council. There should not be a cozy relationship between the Inspector General and the members of the City Council, but there must be a working relationship. The current Legislative Inspector General can no longer function effectively in his position. There may have been mistakes on both sides, but until the situation is remedied, the only people negatively impacted are the people of Chicago and others who believe strongly in ethical, transparent government.

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?

Residents should be able to take great pride in public education in the Chicago and, citywide, we have some work to do. That said, key indicators are trending in the right direction. Graduations rates are up, hitting a record high of 70% for the school year that ended last spring. More young people are going to school with attendance rates over 90%. While they need improvement, ACT scores are at a record high and graduation rates at City colleges are expected to triple over the next three years. The City is bridging the gap between wealthy and poor neighborhoods by expanding early childhood development. We are going to provide free pre-K to low income families starting next year. The earlier children start their education, the better. Locally, I am very proud of our schools. Before I took Office, there was no meaningful relationship among school officials and educators and the 50th Ward Alderman. I meet regularly with principals from the public and parochial schools. I have sponsored Educational Forums to help parents learn more about early childhood, elementary and high school programs. All of my 50th Ward schools recently earned the much sought after +1 designation, ranking them among the very best school in the Chicago. The 50th Ward is home to the best elementary school district in the State of Illinois – Decatur Elementary. Our schools are on the right track, in part, because I have delivered million of dollars in City resources to 50th Ward schools. In 2012 and 2013, CPS invested nearly $7 million in capital dollars in 50th Ward schools. That includes new lighting at Armstrong; flooding abatement, new lighting, new lockers and additional facility improvements at Boone; a new playground, HVAC and chimney repairs and new lighting at Clinton; new lighting at Decatur; structural improvements including brickwork, ADA upgrades, new lockers and lighting improvements at Rogers; and lighting improvements and security cameras at Stone. All three un-air conditioned schools (Boone, Decatur and Rogers) now have air conditioning. Had the resolution to place a referendum on the ballot to create an elected school board made it out of committee, I would have voted for it. I am on the record as supporting an elected school board or a partially-elected school board. I believe the CPS CEO should be selected by the school board and receive final approval from City Council as well. Yes. The more time young people spend in the classroom, the better. I co-sponsored two resolutions calling for moratoriums on new charter schools and I stand by those resolutions. Given the fact that the City has shuttered 50 schools, it is inherently wrong to open for-profit schools. The City Council should invest in the CPS. If the State of Illinois was to approve a graduated income tax, that would lead to new tax dollars for CPS. If the casino project ever gets off the ground, those revenues should be earmarked for schools. I would consider additional proposals on a case by case basis.

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?

For it's diversity and it's wealth of unique businesses that serve Chicago's Indian, Pakistani, Jewish, Asian American and Russian communities, Devon Avenue is one of the City's great business districts. However, the infrastructure throughout our premier business district along Devon was crumbling and desperately out of date. In 2011, I set out to reverse that course. After relentlessly petitioning the Office of the Mayor and working with other elected officials, I delivered a multi-million dollar streetscape project for Devon Avenue. The project was the result of long collaboration with business owners and neighbors. After nearly a dozen meetings, the streetscape plan began to take shape. The scope of project includes new streets, wider sidewalks, new lighting, street furniture, new planters, unique street identifiers and trees and features to improve pedestrian safety. The multi-year project is currently underway and, as each phase is completed, it will drive the local economy and encourage reinvestment in what is truly one of Chicago's diamonds in the rough. The goal is to make Devon shine again. The first phase has resulted in an amazing transformation. Residents and business owners are already benefitting from a completely transformed thoroughfare and Devon will help the City as a whole when it rebounds and reclaims its status as one of Chicago's biggest contributors of sales tax dollars. We have invested more than just money into Devon. Nearly every month, I meet with public safety officials and business owners to help make Devon safer for them and their customers. The number one complaint from businesses was parking for customers. We changed the parking zone regulations in the neighborhood so they now make much more sense: Customers can park in residential areas during the day, when residents are elsewhere, and when residents return from work, the restrictions for visitors go into effect and the residents can find parking. Previously, the parking rules were reversed. It was a poor fit for all parties and the feedback has been positive. There are other parts of the ward that need help. I would like to see improvements in the Touhy and Western avenues business corridors and, while it will take time to realize these changes, I see a better future for these areas. Recently a strip of storefronts along Touhy that were vacant for five to ten years were sold and we should see new businesses moving in to those locations. My Office has been effective in filing empty storefronts. A recently shuttered Dominick's is now home to a completely refurbished and modern Cermak's grocery store. Additional new businesses include Starbuck's, Petco, Ross Dress for Less, Chase, Culver's (coming soon), Advance Auto Parts, O'Reilly Auto Parts, Wing Stop, Lickity Split (a new ice cream shop that should open this spring), Relish and a new Ted's Market, among others. I work closely with the ward's largest employers, such as S&C Electric. One of Chicago's oldest operating manufacturers, S&C has partnered with my ward office on several initiatives to give back to the 50th 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.

In December 2014, I proudly co-sponsored and voted for the proposal to increase the minimum wage increase. The people who buy the groceries and pay the rent in Chicago's working families deserve more than just enough to get by; The City Council voted overwhelmingly to deliver a living wage to people struggling to make ends meet. My 2011 campaign was actively supported by UNITE HERE Local 1 and, after I was elected to office, I lobbied on behalf of their members in support of a living wage for their employees. In September 2014, I was proud to see an executive order come forth to immediately increase the minimum wage for all City service, construction and concession contract employees. This action helped deliver on an agreement I had with UNITE HERE to advocate for them in the City Council. I also supported the executive order to extend a minimum wage increase to all City of Chicago sister agencies, including the Public Building Commission, Chicago Housing Authority, CTA, City Colleges, Park District and Chicago Public Schools. This action helped more than 2,400 sister agency employees.

Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.

This decision is best left to the alderman, the constituents of that ward, the Office of the Mayor and the City departments involved in the project. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is a unique opportunity for the City of Chicago. It will drive tourism and much needed economic development. While the selected location is a sensitive issue because of a long-standing commitment to keep the lakefront free and clear of manmade structures, the site is currently a parking lot, not a public park or beach.

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?

Strong relationships and leadership are critical to public safety. I speak with or text the 24th Police District, the 17th Police District or my contacts at the Office of the Cook County Sheriff on a daily basis. When I took Office, these relationships did not exist. Since the start of my term in Office, I - or someone from my staff - have attended all CAPS meetings with residents. Our CAPS program is active and has been effective in addressing local concerns thanks in part to our involvement. I talk regularly with constituents and business owners about the public safety issues that concern them so I am aware of the issues and I am able to hold police officials accountable for addressing these issues. In 2011, I initiated a program through which I meet monthly with business owners to address specific problems along Devon Avenue. The ongoing program was completely new and has been very successful. It has led to additional video monitoring by businesses along Devon Avenue and these recordings have been used to arrest and prosecute criminals. In partnership with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, I have hosted several special, day-long policing events with a multi-jurisdictional task force with numerous public safety agencies, including the 24th Police District. These events, which were the first-of-their-kind in the City of Chicago, flooded the neighborhood with more than 50 Sheriff's Police and Chicago Police officers. The taskforce has netted dozens of arrests in our community including the criminals with outstanding warrants, violent offenders and drug dealers. Drugs and weapons were taken off the streets. Other wards have adopted this program following the successes in the 50th Ward. Additionally, Devon Avenue has been the scene of several tragic accidents involving vehicles pedestrians. The new streetscape project incorporates engineering solutions to slow traffic and prioritize pedestrians over motor vehicles. Upon completion, this roadway will be dramatically safer for everyone.

Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.

The red light camera system is not perfect and any expansion of the program should be suspended until the City Council can be assured that the yellow light times are at appropriate levels and that motorists are not receiving tickets in error, but I believe the program has increased safety. Devon Avenue has been the scene of several tragic accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians. The new streetscape project incorporates engineering solutions to slow traffic and prioritize pedestrians over motor vehicles. Upon completion, this roadway will be dramatically safer for everyone. The red light camera program is not a comprehensive solution. I believe revenues should be set aside to provide funding for additional pedestrian and motorist safety measures such as traffic-calming engineering projects, green light synchronization to help the flow of traffic and pedestrian-friendly bumpouts and islands to make crossing major streets easier.

Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?

No. The 50th Ward includes approximately 55,000 residents who deserve to have their service needs addressed in a quick, efficient and professional manner. I am a full-time alderman and it is a 24-7 job. It would be impossible to be responsive and efficient with double the residents, at least at current staffing levels. We are a small office, but we have decades of public service experience among our staff and it is a group of people who put the constituents first. I have close relationships with the City's department commissioners and I do not hesitate to contact them directly. As a group, we work tirelessly to fix potholes, clean sewers, complete tree trims and remove graffiti as quickly as possible. I have maximized investment in our community to benefit our constituents and businesses. Our ward's streets and alleys were devastated by years of neglect. For years, very little was spent to fix our city streets. Since 2011, I have secured millions of dollars in discretionary funding to repave more than 100 streets in the 50th Ward.

Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?

When I was elected in 2011, the 50th Ward was in bad shape. It had been neglected. For some perspective, the previous alderman had only approved a few street resurfacing projects in at least five years and numerous residential streets were full of huge potholes. In the past four years, we have repaved over 100 of the 50th Ward streets and used millions of dollars in discretionary funds to meet the standards our residents deserve. My highest priority is serving my constituents and I outlined exactly how I continue to strive for exemplary constituent services. A big part of that is delivering City, State and federal resources to the ward. For example, the Devon Avenue streetscape project includes $1.7 million in state funding. I obtained an additional $1 million in state funding for an expansion of the North Shore Channel Bike Trail. This money will allow us to build a long-promised new bridge crossing for the trail at Lincoln Avenue, giving the 50th Ward's residents a beautiful and fully connected bike path that stretches for many miles to the north and south. Additional state funding includes over $1 million for residential street lighting. When I ran for Office, I pledged to improve our community's many parks. I delivered on that promise and secured funding for eight state-of-the-art neighborhood playgrounds, one for each of the parks in the 50th Ward. When the historic Indian Boundary Park Fieldhouse was destroyed by fire, we worked with the Chicago Park District to ensure it was restored to exacting standards.

Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.

While I have lived in Chicago since I was in college, I was born and raised in Memphis, TN. My father and aunt went to high school with Elvis Presley.