Candidate for City Council, 37th Ward
Education: Central State University B.A. Communications Concordia MA. Curriculum and Instruction Americavn College of Education M.A. Educational Leadership
Occupation: Chicago Public School Teacher
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.
In most of these cases the borrowing was not only unjustified but extremely imprudent. Under both Mayor Daley and now Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the City has consistently pursued risky financial transactions, indefensible privatizations of public services, and regressive fees and fines to cover its expenses for the simple reason that both Mayors have been ideologically opposed to asking the City's wealthiest citizens to contribute any more to the provision of public goods. In order to disrupt this pattern the City first needs to do its best to renegotiate any exceptionally costly or toxic financial contract, especially if it can demonstrate wrongdoing on behalf its financial counterparties. Secondly, the City Council should pass legislation adding greater oversight of decisions to enter into these schemes. Finally and most importantly, the Mayor and City Council must unite to pursue the authority to implement sustainable progressive tax reforms to both meet its current obligations and make critical investments towards improving opportunity and quality of life for all of its residents. These reforms include a financial transactions tax, often called the LaSalle street tax, a commuter's tax, a progressive city income tax and finally returning a percentage of TIF surpluses to taxing bodies. Chicago's elected leadership must also lead a statewide coalition to add progressivity to Illinois' state income tax which currently advantages the wealthy. Implementation of just two of these proposals has the potential to bring billions of additional revenues to the City of Chicago, eliminating the need to make short-sighted cuts to critical social services like public education, public safety, mental health, and others, none of which Chicago's working families can afford. The fat has already been cut. Any more would lacerate the bones of this City.
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.
My position is that the City of Chicago has both a moral and legal responsibility to meet its pension obligations. Not only did the city's firefighters, police officers, and teachers accept lower pay relative to the private sector for years in exchange for the security of a defined benefit pension, but these retirees make up a critical dimension of the City's economic base. Their pension income, which comes in lieu of social security, creates jobs and supports businesses in many neighborhoods that are already economically depressed. Reducing their modest pension income would cause some retirees to lose their homes or to relocate voluntarily, further depressing these neighborhoods and their local economies. I have stated elsewhere in this survey that the answer to meeting these challenges cannot be more cuts. Chicago's working families cannot afford any more reductions to vital social services that they depend on for survival and opportunity. The City has no choice but to find additional revenues to satisfy its pension obligations and fund the critical and quality services Chicago's citizens deserve. Additional revenues should come through a combination of a financial transactions tax, often called the LaSalle street tax, a commuter's tax, a progressive city income tax and finally returning a percentage of TIF surpluses to taxing bodies. Chicago's elected leadership must also lead a statewide coalition to add progressivity to Illinois' state income tax which currently advantages the wealthy. Though detractors attempt to scare the public with predictions of capital flight, economic collapse, and the specter of Detroit if these reforms are implemented, the reality is that Chicago has a GDP greater than $500 billion. If the City's leadership can find a way to raise an additional half percent of that GDP in revenues on an annual basis, it will be able to solve its pension crisis, fill its budget holes, and improve services across the board. Chicago has many wonderful attributes that make it a World Class city, but Chicago won't realize its full potential until it makes a real commitment to serving the needs of every resident and every neighborhood. To make that happen, we need visionary leadership that actually believes in a Chicago that has something to offer businesses and affluent citizens other than subsidies and tax breaks. Because if we do, then we shouldn't feel ashamed to ask those individuals and corporations that benefit the most to contribute a little more to the public good so that we can ensure all our seniors retire with dignity, all our children are educated, all our streets are safe, and all our neighborhoods
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.
The city's TIF program has become increasingly unaccountable over the years. Contrary to its promise as a source of development dollars for blighted neighborhoods, recent empirical and anecdotal evidence clearly demonstrate that TIF funds have disproportionately flowed downtown to subsidize development projects; many of which arguably would have been built without the subsidies. For example, between 2004 and 2008 $1.56 Billion out of $2.45 Billion TIF dollars went to the Loop, Near North Side, Near South Side, and Near West Side. Currently over $500 million a year paid to taxing bodies that fund public services like parks and schools are funneled into TIF districts. This is occurring at the same time park and library hours are being cut and schools are being closed. All of this might not be so troubling if there was evidence that TIF projects created equitable employment opportunities. But a recent study by the Grassroots Collaborative suggests that employment gains are also concentrated amongst white downtown dwellers and suburbanites and that the city's Black and Brown citizens have largely missed out on any TIF related job growth. Today there is an estimated $1.4 billion sitting in TIF districts and the City of Chicago needs those resources to provide adequate public services to communities across the City. Therefore to reform the TIF program, I join others in proposing that a fixed formula be used to declare a portion of all downtown TIF money a surplus to be returned to the local taxing bodies and that a "Robin-Hood Porting" measure be created to divert TIF dollars in prosperous neighborhoods to ones truly suffering from urban blight. Most of the money needs to return to the taxing bodies but to the extent TIF dollars are deployed, it should be within the spirit of the original intent; to serve blighted neighborhoods wanting for private investment. The Marriot Hotel and DePaul basketball arena are both projects that subvert the original intent of TIF districts. I oppose both projects.
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 would absolutely champion turning shuttered schools into community centers. As an experienced classroom teacher, I know firsthand that strong neighborhood schools are the beating heart of safe and stable communities—which is why I am proud to have fought successfully to keep Jenner Elementary, where I work, off the closing list. A recent investigation by NBC showed that CPS not only inflated its projected savings from school closings, but has allowed the buildings' value to severely depreciate through vandalism and crime while still paying utility—and now security—bills. Put simply, the school closings have had a devastating impact on the communities of color that they targeted, and we have good reason to be skeptical of CPS' selective accounting of the "savings" generated by these closures. Ensuring that these buildings become vibrant and welcoming community hubs, not derelict monuments to a cruel and failed policy, is essential. I support ideas such as the "social investment fund" and "Innovation Houses" that leverage private sector resources to spur meaningful economic opportunity for the young people of the 37th Ward. I would also welcome expanding urban agriculture within the 37th Ward as part of a broader strategy to improve the health, wellness, and civic pride of our neighborhoods. I absolutely believe that the City of Chicago must truly care for and invest in its people, which is why I support bringing social-emotional supports such as SAFE Chicago to scale. In terms of additional ideas, I believe it is crucial that public officials champion the problem-solving capacities of their constituents in order to restore trust, foster a shared sense of responsibility, and make a real difference in everyday life. I have already heard from 37th Ward families about the powerful potential of restorative justice as an alternative to criminalization and participatory budgeting as a way to bring trust and transparency to the process of setting spending priorities. As alderman, I would encourage robust public engagement with the issues to advance these and other creative and collective solutions.
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.
The City Council should keep the office of legislative inspector general and give it authority to investigate aldermen and their staff. This authority must be resistant to aldermanic coercion. Recently the Executive Director of the Board of Ethics, to whom the OLIG reports, reported to City Council that the OLIG had only closed 18 investigations during 2014. However this number excludes preliminary or informal investigations of the rest of the 101 complaints that never received formal authorized investigation status from the Board of Ethics. More transparency is required to know why these other complaints never received formal status and whether aldermen improperly influenced either OLIG's actions or the Board of Ethic's decision-making. To further improve government ethics in Chicago, the City Council and the city's voters should implement a public campaign finance program modeled on the one currently in place in New York City. New York City's Campaign Finance Program makes public funding directly available to candidates for the offices of mayor, City Council president, comptroller, borough president, and City Council member. Candidates who agree to join New York's voluntary Campaign Finance Program, in addition to limiting their campaign contributions and spending, must file detailed financial disclosure statements and submit themselves to audit. After the candidate has reached a certain threshold of contributions and contributors, New York's program matches the first $175 of each eligible contribution at a $6-to-$1 rate, up to a maximum of $1,050 per contributor. Overall New York's program has reduced the relative importance of special interests, improved the breadth and diversity of campaign donors, and broadened the range of viable candidates. In Chicago, such a program would improve government ethics by facilitating the election of independent aldermen less reliant on the same well-heeled insiders and entrenched political organizations. The matching program would also reduce pressure on aldermen to combine official duties with fundraising, weakening the link between public policy and the preferences of the city's largest donors.
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?
As a veteran classroom teacher with a strong record of helping low-income students achieve reading and math proficiency, I have deep appreciation for the dedicated teachers, students, and parents that have worked together to improve CPS graduation rates. Yet my experience still tells me that the City's current education policy is failing too many Chicago families. CPS's financial challenges are well-documented, however the public narrative has ignored the poor choices that are responsible. Despite having the fifth largest GDP in the United States, the state's leadership chooses for Illinois to be 33rd in terms of public education expenditures. Instead of spending every available local property tax dollar on public education, the City's leadership chooses to funnel millions of dollars through unaccountable TIF districts right into the hands of downtown developers. Instead of being fiscally responsible by meeting yearly pension obligations and prudently managing its public debt, the City's leadership chooses to punt its obligations down the road and fund operations with risky loans and costly toxic swaps. And instead of investing in strong neighborhood schools with quality wraparound services, the Mayor chooses to throw money at charter schools which are less accountable, often corrupt and according to recent studies, lower-performing than traditional public schools . During the CTU strike, teachers argued that if the Mayor wanted a longer day, he needed to provide the resources for a better day. Despite promises to the contrary, teachers, students, and parents woke up to a doomsday scenario of school closings, turnarounds, teacher lay-offs, budget cuts, and privatized charter scandals. 37th Ward schools saw their budgets cut by $3.3 million in FY 2015; cuts on top of the previous year's which left the 37th Ward with 4 schools with no art teachers, 10 schools with no librarian, and 13 schools with no one to teach computer education. That's why at my school, Cabrini Green's Jenner Elementary, we successfully organized against the Mayor's proposal to shut us down. We knew closing buildings never taught a kid to read or put food in their belly at night. Creating strong neighborhood schools, which the majority of Chicago parents favor, isn't rocket science. It requires controlling class sizes, providing rich extracurricular activities and robust wraparound services like counselors, social workers, and nurses, directing more resources to most disadvantaged students, quality and universal early education, respecting and developing teachers as professionals and partners, kept facilities, parental involvement, and most critically, full funding. Since CPS is moving in the opposite direction of these common sense proposals it is time for an Elected Representative School Board to return accountability to education policy in this City. We need a moratorium on charter schools until we can add enough accountability measures to prevent the next UNO or FBI raid of a Concept School. And we need to move forward on the revenue proposals that will allow us to do right by Chicago's future, our students and Chicago's present, the thousands of dedicated education professionals and hardworking parents that are Chicago's backbone.
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?
The 37th Ward is comprised of three economically depressed neighborhoods, Austin, West Garfield Park and West Humboldt Park. In Austin unemployment is 26% and the poverty rate is 36%. These numbers are reminiscent of the Great Depression. However unlike the Great Depression, the political responses to the conditions in these communities have been at best ineffective and at worst, non-existent. What the residents of the 37th Ward need first and foremost are good jobs with good wages. The first step is turning low-paying jobs into well-paying jobs by raising the minimum wage to a living wage. Given the relative growth in low-wage jobs in health care, food service, and retail, overnight this would bring millions of dollars of disposable income into the 37th Ward, attracting more private businesses to the Ward. In practice this would mean advocating for a living wage ordinance and supporting labor's efforts to organize these industries. The second component of bringing more economic development to the 37th Ward is reducing its persistently high unemployment rate. This would require a city-wide policy anchored by the restoration of public services like public education and public safety to pre-austerity levels and a public works programs targeting other critical community needs such as childcare services, community beautification, and green restoration. Assuming an appropriate revenue base, these public works programs could be designed to rapidly reduce unemployment in the City's most disadvantaged zip codes, including the 37th Ward. By producing residents with disposable income, this program also incentivizes private investment in the Ward. To help 37th Ward residents take advantage, I would support efforts to eliminate red tape and provide support services and access to capital for local entrepreneurs seeking to satisfy the new consumer demand. In terms of private sector incentives, I would advocate that any public-assisted private development be required to meet local hiring benchmarks in the construction and post-construction phase, and I would only support public subsidization of industries or events that could provide good jobs for broad cross-sections of the City's residents. I would also work with 37th Ward community organizations to draft Community Benefits Agreements to hold private developers accountable for bringing good jobs and other resources to communities in exchange for public assistance. By focusing on jobs first and then private development, I would reduce the possibility of today's 37th Ward residents being forced out of the community by development-driven gentrification, which has been the norm. To date I have helped spur economic development in the 37th Ward, by first teaching in the Ward at Leslie Lewis Elementary and helping my students acquire skills necessary to compete in the local economy and secondly by purchasing a home in the Ward and consistently patronizing businesses in my community including those of some of my former students at Lewis. As a rank and file activist with the Chicago Teachers Union I have also been on the frontlines of the Fight for Fifteen and to restore funding for Career and Technical Education programs to CPS.
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 believe that it will be better for workers to make $13/hour in 2019 than $8.25/hour in 2019. However, because of increases in the cost of living, the value of $13 in 2019 will be far from a living wage—and will continue to keep those who earn a minimum wage at or below the poverty line. This is not good enough for the families of the 37th Ward. I believe at a very basic level that if you work full-time, you should be able to support yourself. That is why I support a living wage, defined by MIT as the approximate income needed to meet a family's basic needs, that is automatically indexed to inflation. The lack of a living wage creates a strain on our public systems to provide the food, housing, and basic needs that you should be able to pay for yourself if you work full-time. As long as working families are trapped in poverty wages, the taxpayer dollars spent on public assistance effectively act as a handout to corporations, keeping their labor costs artificially low.
Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.
In a city plagued by massive economic disparities, concentrated gun violence, and an underfunded and inequitable public school system, I personally don't believe the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art should rank very highly on the priority list. That said, I think several principles should guide the development of any such public-assisted project. First, the decision-making process should be exhaustive, transparent, and inclusive. Too often the current Mayor's administration and his "rubber stamp" aldermen, including 37th Ward incumbent Emma Mitts, have greenlighted development projects without sufficient public debate or input from various city-wide stakeholders. With any development, there are important economic, quality of life, and environmental issues to be considered, and this is even more true for lakefront developments. These issues need to be debated in open forums and any final decisions should incorporate community input. Secondly, preservation of the lakefront for public use must be a priority. The lakefront is one of the city's greatest natural treasures and an enjoyable low-cost recreation amenity for Chicago's working families. Any project that restricts or reduces access to that amenity should be closely scrutinized and also broadly popular in its own right to justify the loss. Finally, the project must deliver economic gains equitably throughout the city, not just during the construction phase, but also afterwards, by creating sustainable living wage employment for those that need it the most. This might be achieved through a variety of mechanisms including implementation of Community Benefit Agreements. In my estimation, there is still time for the development process for the Lucas Museum to meet these criteria, but I withhold my support until it does.
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 and foremost, I believe that we must invest in comprehensive solutions to violence that deal with the root causes of criminal activity. It is no coincidence that the city's most violent neighborhoods—including parts of the 37th Ward—are also those hit hardest by disinvestment. I support public investment in good jobs and increasing year-round access to wrap-around services for at-risk youth, particularly in the neighborhoods hit hardest by blight and unemployment. I support measures that break the cycle of violence and incarceration, including job training and re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated people, increasing access to juvenile expungement, and expanding restorative justice approaches within our education and criminal justice systems. Regarding the Chicago Police Department, I believe that the Mayor's policies have damaged relationships between police and the communities they serve. Mayor Emanuel's focus on "Broken Windows" policing, which disproportionately targets Black and Latino men for minor offenses, has made it more difficult for police to build the relationships necessary to acquire information on major criminal activity. His decriminalization policies have failed to make a dent in real and perceived racial disproportionality in drug arrests. An overreliance on police overtime has put exhausted and traumatized officers on the streets. Lingering questions about how the city reports homicides, how to address the legacy and continued effects of police torture, and the CPD's defense of a commander facing multiple brutality complaints have further eroded trust. The failures of these policies are particularly pressing in this moment, with cases of police violence against unarmed Black men in Missouri and New York drawing national attention. We must prioritize comprehensive, community-based solutions to violence that foster trust and collective responsibility, and do not contribute to a cycle of disinvestment and criminalization. In my own community, I have worked to build greater safety in several ways. First, as an elementary school teacher, I have dedicated my life to supporting and nurturing at-risk youth both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities. Additionally, I am providing for my adoptive brother, who is formerly incarcerated, and I am working with him to make sure he can find a job, get back on his feet, and become the part of the fabric of the community once more. I also sat on the Board of the Near North Health Service Corporation for ten years, which has locations in both the near north and west side communities, and where I supported their programming to care for families, including those affected by community violence.
Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.
No. Chicago's traffic light camera program is just one example of backwards thinking on revenues and services. Faced with real fiscal challenges, Mayor Emanuel, who touts his record as a tough decision-maker, has consistently made the cowardly decision; to cut services and raise costs for the city's most economically vulnerable residents while rejecting sustainable and progressive revenue sources that might impact the affluent. While one would expect the alderman of a ward with upwards of 25% unemployment and 35% poverty rates to lead the fight against these regressive taxes, 37th Ward Alderman Emma Mitts happily supported both Mayor Daley's red light camera policy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's speed light camera policy. Both policies have been mired in scandal and lawsuits since their inception, and Mayor Emanuel's recent decision to not refund close to $8 million dollars suctioned from Chicago's motorists by abbreviated yellow lights only re-enforces the predatory aspect of the program. When combined with the perception that cameras have disproportionately targeted Black and Brown neighborhoods, this latest decision not only hurts Chicagoans but further erodes faith in civic institutions. What we need are not conspiracy theories and show hearings, but real legislation to eliminate these cameras and replace them with less exploitive and more effective traffic safety measures. Finally, City Council must use this opportunity to advance real revenue reform so that these nickel and dime tactics become a thing of the past.
Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?
I don't think Chicago should reduce the number of aldermen, because I tend to think more democracy is a good thing all else being equal. I am not familiar with any evidence that suggests eliminating wards and reducing representation will increase the influence of everyday Chicagoans in City Hall. In fact the real problem is not too many aldermen, but too little aldermanic dissent to the Mayor's regressive policies. Therefore structural reforms should focus on making it easier for independent-thinking non-incumbents to wage viable campaigns challenging the "rubber-stamp" orthodoxy that dominates the City Council today. Such reforms would include the aforementioned public campaign finance program.
Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?
My highest priorities for improving the 37th Ward are the same priorities I have for improving Chicago: finding comprehensive solutions for public safety, spurring job creation and equitable economic development, and promoting strong neighborhood schools that provide a full range of wraparound services to students and the communities. Beyond these three main issues, I find that residents of the 37th Ward are fed up with the continued nickel and diming of city residents, the unequal and biased delivery of city services from the current Alderman's office, and a lack of basic amenities like restaurants, pharmacies and grocery stores in the Ward.
Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.
In my spare time, I love to sing, act, and direct. I am the founding director of In the Company of Sisters, a theater company dedicated to lifting up the voices of African-American women. Also I am called to public service because of my mother, Marion Stamps, who was a fierce Civil Rights activist who first started organizing with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. After moving to Chicago as a teenager, she fought tirelessly for the families of Cabrini Green through direct actions as well as her involvement in electoral politics. She got me involved in politics and activism at an early age—the first action that I can remember took place when I was nine years old, stomping out cookies on Governor Thompson's desk with my sisters!