Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Don Gordon

Don Gordon

Candidate for City Council, 49th Ward

Don Gordon

Candidate for City Council, 49th Ward

Portrait of Don Gordon

Education: Loyola University, 1986 (B.A. Econ) Keller GSM, 2003 (Masters Project Management)

Occupation: Author and Adjunct Lecturer, Northwestern University

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


Candidates running for City Council, 49th 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.

Much like with individuals, taking on long-term debt to finance short-term expenditures is a financially flawed idea. There are almost no circumstances in which this can have anything but a disastrous outcome and should be avoided at all costs. Refinancing old debt to take advantage of lower interest rates in order to lower long-term costs can certainly be advantageous, but this was not the intent of the tactic known as "scoop and toss". One has to look, however, at the circumstances that put us in this situation. Beginning early in Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration the tax increment financing program was launched and became a huge boondoggle for political favors and pinstripe patronage. It was off the books of the city budget and therefore subject to little scrutiny. Yet for years it drained tax revenue from the agencies which depended on it – most importantly our schools, but also the city itself. Today over 30% of the city's land is under a TIF, skimming off hundreds of millions of dollars from the taxing bodies that depend on the funds and redirecting the revenue to corporations and individuals under the guise of neighborhood development. I've come to call Chicago's implementation of TIF the "Bucks for Billionaires" program and it has had dire consequences and major negative impacts upon the city's budget as with the other taxing bodies. Therefore, the first step in solving our financial crisis is to enact a moratorium on any future TIF's and most importantly shut down those TIF's that are the largest drain on our tax base and those that are not by any stretch of the imagination in blighted areas and therefore do not meet the "but for" criteria set forth in state legislation. A research study that I had my students at Northwestern undertake showed that over $700 million of TIF funds is currently sitting unallocated and uncommitted. Extensive research done by Tom Tresser and the Civic Labs show similar results. Until this issue is addressed and resolved there is absolutely no justification in raising property taxes or cutting city services. I believe that the tax increment financing program has been and continues to be the crux of our city's financial woes.

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.

Please see my answer to #1 to address the immediate budget issue of funding these accounts. To that I would add the following statement. The first thing we have to do is change the nomenclature that we use to talk about this issue. These are not pensions in the sense that the average person on the street understands. This is their "social security" type retirement funds we're talking about. Framed in that context, this discussion takes on a whole different perspective. Add to that discussion the fact that over 50 years ago (1951) Congress added Section 218 to the Social Security Act. This mandated that all states be required to offer public employees the option to contribute to Social Security. Since Chicago's "pension" system (teacher's included) far preceded Social Security, public employees stayed with the Chicago system because it was a better deal. I believe this needs to be revisited for future public employees. To me it seems ludicrous that we continue to support a retirement system when the federal government offers an alternative and one that cannot be manipulated by employers. If this transition were to occur then both the city as well as the state would have to contribute in the same way that any employer contributes and in a timely manner. Long-term I believe that this is the solution.

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.

Again see my answer to #1. To that I would add the following statement. What is missing from the TIF program is metrics and accountability. Though I believe there are other financial methods to use to drive neighborhood development — a public bank being just one of those — we cannot continue the TIF program as implemented without a complete overhaul which includes far more transparency than exists today. Most of what was recommended by the mayor's own TIF reform committee shortly after he took office was never implemented. However, as I stated in my answer to the first question, I don't believe we should be skimming any more revenue from our property tax base until the city's budget deficit (including fire, police and teacher retirement funding crisis) is resolved. It is absurd that we prioritize city funds for neighborhood development when we can't even keep our schools open. We're "painting the house as the roof is caving in". This needs to stop immediately. I have said that I support a moratorium on all future TIF's but also support shutting down TIF's that are major drains on the city's tax revenue. Any uncommitted, excess TIF funds (there's over $700 million) should be re-allocated for the purpose of putting the city's budget in order. Finally, I do not support any expansion, extension or creation of TIF districts in our ward or anywhere in the city and I certainly don't support the DePaul TIF all for the same reasons as above and in #1.

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.

I believe all 12 are worth championing, some more specific to our ward and I have added my thoughts where that was the case... 1. Revive recently closed public schools as community centers. The challenge was how to help kids learn, parents cope, people find jobs. Since our ward currently does not have any schools that have been closed, I would support any legislation in the council that advocated for this in other wards. 2. GED Chicago... The challenge was to help adults get a better education, thus luring employers to those increasingly skilled and literate workers. In our ward I would reach out to various businesses through our Chamber of Commerce and also reach out to Loyola University to sponsor GED 49. 3. Start a Sister Neighborhoods program ... The challenge is to harness the prodigious generosity and brainpower of neighborhoods to help each other. I have been a proponent of block clubs for over 25 years and it is a part of my platform to ensure that every block of our ward is covered by a block club, which would feed into a community-wide neighborhood council. From this base we could reach out to other wards and adjacent communities such as Evanston, Skokie and Lincolnwood. 4. Expand SAFE Children... The challenge is to provide more support for at-risk children — and at-risk parents. I have been working with the director of a program called the Tutor Mentor Institute in anticipation of applying their techniques to identifying where the need is greatest within our ward. First we have to identify the nature of the problem specific to our ward and then identify the resources that can be brought in to fill those needs. 5. Innovation Houses... The challenge is to revitalize struggling neighborhoods and I've said that we need to revisit our city-wide zoning laws to examine how we can open up more opportunities for housing. Two areas that I suggested we examine are revising the overbearing zoning laws on "garden apartments" and prohibiting the building of coach houses. Loosening the codes in both areas would open up an opportunity for more affordable housing units in the city. 6. Create extra tax incentives for those business owners who hire local workers or mentor other local businesses. The challenge is to create oases in the jobs desert. Our ward needs jobs right here in the ward. We have far too many empty storefronts. I would be a champion in working with our Chamber of Commerce and our Development Corporation to lure more businesses into our community and advocate in the council to create tax incentives to provide motivation to do so. This would also work to support the challenges of "kids and careers" and "hubs and stems". 7. Create a "social investment fund"... The challenge is to create a neighborhood version of the Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund. I would fully support this idea in council as well as looking at the possibility of setting up a "public bank".

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.

Yes, I believe the office should eventually be abolished as long as there is a transition of current open cases. I have been an advocate from the beginning for expanding the authority of the executive inspector general. However, the devil is in the details. Without increased funding and staff and legislation that guarantees the proper level of funding, transferring this responsibility would be just so much Kabuki Theater. The IG needs to have a dedicated staff that can proactively pursue investigations of aldermen. I also believe that the IGO needs the expanded authority to work with IG's in other city/county/state departments in undertaking investigations and also needs to have more prosecutorial authority.

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?

Assessment? "F" I believe that privatizing our public school system (read: expansion of charter schools) is detrimental to improving our district run schools because it takes away students and resources and leaves us with less transparency and accountability. The key to improving public education is two-fold. First get the state to change how we finance public education in that we need to move away from a property tax base method to a more equitable approach such as through sales taxes or some other general state funding so that all schools are funded equally. Second, is to apply a greater amount of social capital to improving our neighborhood schools and it is here that an alderman can have a major impact. A common denominator for successful schools across the country is where everyone – administrators, teachers, parents, students and community members – come together to support their local school. It truly takes a neighborhood to raise a successful school and an alderman has the leverage to encourage this. In fact, I believe that one the most important responsibilities of any elected official – and aldermen in particular – is to drive civic engagement. In fact, I believe it is the primary responsibility of an alderman and by doing so, relative to a ward's schools, will provide the social capital necessary to make those schools successful. Finally, I fully support an elected school board and I believe we should not only stop creating more charter schools, we should begin to shut down those as their contracts come up, review the lessons learned from creative teaching practices and where and when possible roll those practices into our public school system. As for extending the longer school day – yes. Extending the longer year – no. However, with a caveat on the longer day. I believe it's in the best interests of students to keep them occupied in physical and intellectual endeavors that keep them off the streets once the school day is done. This is what I mean by a longer school day. I believe our teachers should not be required to participate in these after-school activities unless they choose to do so and are compensated. As a lecturer/teacher myself, I know that only a fraction of one's time is spent in the class room. So much more of a teacher's time is spent in preparation and grading.

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?

As an alderman I would be personally involved with both our Chamber of Commerce as well as with our Development Corporation (Rogers Park Business Alliance) in meeting with prospective business owners or local entrepreneurs looking to open businesses in the community. I believe it's essential in our ward that the alderman be a key resource for both to attract new business. We have far too many empty storefronts and we desperately need more jobs in the community for an alderman to be hands-off or to simply rely on the Chamber or RPBA to do the work without his direct involvement. We need an inventory of those in the community looking for employment opportunities along with a resume of their job/education skills. I believe the ward office can be a clearing house for this in the community and in turn use this information to encourage incoming businesses to tap into our resources. For over 30 years I have been a community activist in Rogers Park and have been on a number of committees that impact business development from the early 90's and a Morse Avenue plan to more recently for a Sheridan Road plan.

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 only support it in that it's better than nothing. However, I believe the implementation is far too long and it doesn't go far enough. I fully support $15/hour, though we really need to assess further how we can help small businesses implement this.

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

Absolutely not! The lakefront should remain forever open and clear. The design as well is abominable and should be opened to more public input. In my opinion the location should be moved west of the Drive over the current rail tracks and a pedestrian connector (similar to the walkway at Millennium Park) to both the museum and to McCormick Place should be created.

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?

First let me answer the last part of the question. I have been involved off and on in CAPS since we were one of the 5 pilot communities that launched CAPS back in the early 90's. I believe CAPS along with pervasive block clubs (mentioned above in my answer to #4-3) are key to neighborhood residents helping to mitigate crime. However, I also believe that we need an alderman who will be aggressive in going after problem building owners/managers. It's not good enough to simply wait for tenants to complain. An alderman needs to work with his Commander to identify a recurring list of problem buildings and then call in the owners/property managers to offer his help in cleaning up the building or coming down with the force of the city if they are reluctant to do so. I see this as a key strategy in addressing crime in a community along with drying up gang recruitment and drying up the business of gangs. Please see my website for further details on those and on my approach in dealing with problem buildings. We have had a relatively frequent turnover of Commanders in our 24th district and I would advocate with CPD to reverse that trend. We currently have a great Commander and I'd like to see him stay a while. Our officers do a good job in reacting to crime in the community, but I also believe we need to improve CAPS outreach into the community far beyond what we have today in order to provide better input to the District as well as to work on further improving community relations with our officers. It doesn't appear that CPD is going to be instrumental in doing this so I believe this needs to emanate out of the ward office.

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

Absolutely not. It's apparent now that the red light and speed camera programs are more about revenue generation than safety. Until we have much more transparency and public input I believe both should be shut down.

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

Absolutely not! The budget for 50 wards – alderman, staff and expenses is a fraction of the city budget and the savings accrued from cutting the number in half would be minor. The downside would be far less citizen responsiveness since most wards would double in size without additional staff to support this. Also, I believe this would concentrate even more power into the hands of entrenched aldermen and make it even more difficult to unseat them.

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

Improved public safety. Better schools. Development of our retail districts and the jobs that this would produce. A far better run ward office. Not one of these can be ignored and all must be the full-time focus of the alderman. Though crime over the past couple years had been peaking again and gangs are a major contributor to that increase, all of these issues affect each other.

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

Since running in 2007 for alderman here in the ward, I have spent the past 6 years teaching courses on political science as well as the history of Chicago politics at Northwestern University as an adjunct lecturer. I have also authored two books... "Piss 'em All Off: and other practices of the effective citizen".And, most importantly... I am taking no campaign contributions and have pledged to spend less than $2,500 of my own funds during this campaign. This is both an idealistic and practical approach for which I will be more than glad to discuss during our interview. Just an fyi... it's working quite well!

City Council, 49th Ward