Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Zerlina Smith

Zerlina Smith

Candidate for City Council, 29th Ward

Zerlina Smith

Candidate for City Council, 29th Ward

Portrait of Zerlina Smith

Education: GED and certifications as a cosmetologist and certified nursing assistant

Occupation: Cosmetologist

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


Candidates running for City Council, 29th 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.

This form of borrowing was totally unjustified. General obligation bonds are supposed to be for capital projects, not paying off previous bond issues or for covering pension contributions or lawsuits against the city. Refinancing old debts by pushing the principle payoff into the future only increases the amount of interest that must eventually be paid. For too long city government policy has been dominated by the very banks and financial institutions that will most benefit by these shady deals. The City should immediately begin hard-nosed negotiations to restructure these deals so as to do the least amount of harm to the city's finances and to the city's many social needs. Holding out the possibility of default should be an option. That will obviously take a major change in city government. It won't happen if the voters of Chicago cling to the status quo. But the real problem is how Chicago and the State of Illinois generate revenue. Instead of raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, they pile up debt. Under our system of regressive taxation, that puts an unfair burden on working class people who have to shoulder these obligations. For example a very modest financial transaction tax on trades at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) could by some estimates generate as much as $10-12 billion a year. The CME and the CBOE could easily afford that and make a major contribution to the state's economy. Changing the tax system to put the burden on those most able to pay will take a powerful political movement to change the Illinois Constitution, Illinois tax law and the entire political culture of the state.

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.

The really is no pension crisis. There is a revenue crisis.To meet its obligations, the City needs to get behind an idea CTU President Karen Lewis suggested last spring. A modest a financial transactions tax on trades at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board Options Exchange could make the wealthy men and women who work on LaSalle St. "heroes" for coming to the rescue of the public workers who keep the city running. Her proposal would require a change in state law and faces political opposition from the usual suspects. Yet paying the full pension obligation should be seen as an important investment in Chicago neighborhoods where many of the retirees live. Money spent in the neighborhoods will help keep businesses and other institutions running while further stabilizing those communities. Finally a recent court decision on state employee pensions suggests that the City has a legal obligation to pay their pension costs. Does anyone seriously think that schemes like piling up more debt to the banks or shortening the intervals on the red light cameras is the best way to pay off pension obligations?

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.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) was originally supposed to be a method of revitalizing distressed communities facing disinvestment. And while some TIF's have been used for that purpose, much of the money has served as slush fund for politicians. There was even a serious proposal to use TIF money to revitalize the wealthy LaSalle St. financial district. That was shelved after public outcry. Public outcry stopped the use of TIF money for the DePaul basketball arena, but then the funds were shifted to the Marriott Hotel project. Clearly more outcry is needed and I will add my voice. I support a moratorium on new TIF's and a thorough investigation of existing ones.

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.

To heal Chicago will require empowering the city's diverse working class. Under the present system, the city is dominated by powerful financial interests, many with global connections. There is great wealth concentrated in Chicago's gleaming office towers while homeless people eke out a meager living under their shadows. Backed by these financial interests, the Mayor's Office has been able to close schools, privatize schools, close mental health clinics, attack pensions and retiree health benefits—— all while lavishing subsidies and tax breaks upon the wealthy. Then to top it off, the Mayor's Office has borrowed vast sums of money from some of the same financial institutions who will then reap profits stretching out for decades. Chicago's working class needs to come together in unity and overcome decades of racial segregation, ethnic hostility and neighborhood rivalries to change the political culture of Chicago. That way more of the city's wealth could go where it is most needed: creating more jobs, raising wages, fixing up neighborhoods, improving schools, expanding recreational opportunities, delivering better health care ——-in short, raising the standard of living for the working class majority, not just the select few. Yes, we have unions doing good work for their members. Yes, we have neighborhood organizations doing good work for their communities. Yes we have fair-minded ethical businesspeople providing good jobs as well as useful products and services. Yes, we have many social service and non-profit groups making their important contributions. All of these diverse elements share many common needs. Yet where is the citywide organization with the vision to challenge the dominance of the financial elite? A wealthy few can foist such unpopular policies as the school closings and the parking meter deal upon the city because they have the power of money as their weapon. To counter the power of organized money requires the power of organized people. Chicago's working class is at present a sleeping giant with vast untapped creative powers to remake this city into one that works for all of its people. The giant has begun to awaken as can be seen by the large number of progressive candidates running in City Council races and the low polling numbers for Mayor Emanuel. Let's hope that a complete awakening comes soon.

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 should definitely keep the legislative inspector general's office. That person should have wide investigative powers to make sure that City Council members and their staffs follow the law and behave in an ethical manner. The media has an important role to play in reducing corruption. But it must have access to City records to do its job and while Mayor Emanuel has been more forthcoming than the previous mayor, he is still overly secretive. Finally Chicago's election laws should be overhauled so that money plays less of a role. Elections should be moved from the dead of winter to improve voter turnout; the petition process needs to be fixed so that expensive frivolous challenges are eliminated; the campaign season should be shortened; free mass media should be available to candidates; and some form of public campaign financing introduced. There will always be some corruption in large city like Chicago, but measures that increase government transparency and democratic participation can help reduce it.

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?

The basis for improving Chicago education may be found in the pages of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) report "The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve", still available for free on the union's website. Almost completely ignored by the media, it describes genuine educational reform. It calls of such changes as: *Smaller class sizes with wraparound social and psychological support services and a commitment to allocate school resources on a racially equally basis. *A rich curriculum for all students that includes physical education equipment, healthy food offerings, as well as classes in art, theater, dance, world languages, music, science and a wide variety of subject choices in every school. Every school should have a library and a professional librarian. *Respect for the education professionals whose working conditions are the student's learning conditions. This means more than just good pay. It means autonomy and shared decision-making to encourage the use of professional judgment. It also means allowing education professionals more preparation time to plan lessons for students and strategy with colleagues. In addition to what is contained in "The Schools Chicago's Children Deserve", CPS should immediately end the standardized testing abuse that is so damaging to actual education. CPS must halt the creeping privatization of education through charters and "turnarounds". These are designed to weaken the CTU which represents teachers and other education workers and to weaken the Local School Councils which represent parents and the community. A study done by Designs for Change showed how a school with strong administration, strong parent involvement and strong teacher involvement can result in significant student gains. Yet CPS does exactly the opposite, stripping the important stakeholders of influence. Finally, Chicago needs an elected representative school board. The present school board, appointed by the mayor and representing Chicago's most powerful business interests, has consistently pursued policies detrimental to quality education. Board meetings are a caricature of democracy as Board members watch people try to cram complex issues into 2 minute presentations so has not to be hauled out by CPS security. Financing positive change in education will mean raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. It will also require an overhaul of the top heavy CPS bureaucracy. As an activist in Chicago's education justice movement I understand that our movement needs to grow in strength to make this a reality and I plan continue that work inside of the City Council.

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?

First of all I do not want just any business to come into our community. Corporations like Walmart with their exploitative and unethical business practices would not be an asset to the 29th Ward as they displace local businesses and pay poverty wages. We need businesses who provide quality goods and services, treat their employees well, make local hiring a priority and are willing to work with our community and business organizations to solve the many problems the 29th Ward faces. I feel we need a good mix of economic types including family owned businesses, locally owned private businesses, worker co-ops, consumer co-ops, b-corp social enterprises and non-profit organizations. I would like to see more businesses that are environmentally sustainable and do not contribute to pollution and climate change. We need solar panels on the roofs of apartment houses, local businesses and private homes so we can cut our energy bills while generating jobs for local residents. A dream of mine is to establish a West Side technical institute that will educate people for 21st century jobs in hi-tech manufacturing and equipment maintenance so that we can generate jobs with a future. One of the Institute's programs would include a thorough grounding in the latest in green technology so West Siders can either create their own green businesses or seek jobs from existing green employers. The 29th Ward has suffered from massive disinvestment. We need massive reinvestment, but reinvestment that is made with the participation of people in the community so people are not priced out of their own neighborhoods as has happened in Lincoln Park and Lakeview. One reason that I supported the $15 an hour minimum wage was to get more money circulating within our community to stimulate economic development. That's why I am a strong union supporter and why I fight to defend pensions and retirement benefits. I will offer assistance to my constituents as we lobby for public investment and tax incentives from city, state and federal sources. We will talk to nonprofit groups about grants and to banks who are willing to offer low interest loans with favorable terms. Community participation in economic planning is the key to success.

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.

As a member of Action Now I campaigned for the $15 an hour minimum wage that would take effect in a timely manner, not a $13 an hour minimum wage that will not take effect until 2019. Even $15 an hour is barely a family supporting wage, but it is a good start in the right direction. We cannot revitalize our neighborhoods and improve family life on the poverty wages that many Chicago employers pay.

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

The site chosen for the Lucas Museum is in an area already crowded with large structures like Soldier Field and the Field Museum. At least it will not take up space along a part of the lakefront which are still open shoreline.

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?

Public safety is major concern for people in my ward and in wards across the city. People are worried about violent crime because it is s serious problem, particularly in economically distressed sections of the Chicago. More and more I am hearing the phrase, "Nothing stops a bullet more than a job." There is much truth in that statement which is why I fight for investment in job creation, job training and better educational opportunities. We have many ex-offenders in my community who want to get back on the right track and these programs would help them .We also need more social services and recreational programs, especially for our youth. It's far better to prevent a violent crime than to have to investigate one. The money that Chicago would spend to put more police on the street would be better spent on preventing crime in the first place. The Chicago Police Department (CPD) which deals with the issue of crime on a daily basis, has some fine police officers who work with the community and are conscientious in their efforts to treat people with respect. However their work is seriously undermined by the Department's long history of institutional racism, violence and political corruption. The city has paid out millions to settle lawsuits resulting from police brutality. The CPD has even been cited by the UN Committee Against Torture. There are residents of my community who fear both the police and the criminals. There are crime victims who feel that even calling the police is useless as they may not show up, or if they do, no effective action will be taken. For this reason I support the the idea of a democratically chosen police-civilian review board to replace the ineffective Independent Police Review Authority. That would be a first step in the right direction. However reforming the CPD will not be easy and must be seen as part of democratizing the authoritarian political culture of the city power structure.

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

From the beginning the red light cameras were designed to raise revenues rather than raise taxes on those who can afford to pay. The program has been mismanaged and comes with a 2 million dollar bribery scandal. Its purported safety benefits were largely debunked in a recent Chicago Tribune study. In some traffic situations the program actually increased the number of accidents. It's time to end this hi-tech scam.

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

It is long past time to reduce the size of the Chicago City Council. A report from the Better Government Association published in December of 2010 revealed that Chicago City Council members each represented about 57,000 people whereas New York's represented 164,000 people and LA's represented 250,000 people. Reducing the number of Chicago City Council members would save approximately $350,000 each for operating expenses alone. It would also reduce election costs to the city. It might even cut corruption with fewer City Council members to get into trouble over bribes and kickbacks. The large number of City Council members makes it difficult for organize effective opposition to mayoral rule, ceding entirely too much power to one individual. Throughout most of Chicago history, the City Council has served as a rubber stamp for the Mayor's Office. That is certainly true today.

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 job creation and job training. We need to raise incomes in our community so we can reduce the stress of financial insecurity while addressing related social problems. Even among residents who are employed, there is anxiety about losing their jobs in the future. Job training should be more than simply learning new skills. There should also be education on how to improve working conditions on the job, both as an individual and through collective action with co-workers. Residents of my ward have so many concerns that it hard to say which is the number one priority. From listening to people from across the 29th Ward I would say one big concern is the inadequacy of social services. We have seniors, young people, disabled people, ex-offenders, domestic abuse victims, AIDS patients, and others who need material assistance and counseling, yet help can be hard to find.

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

I am an award winning master hair stylist who has practiced my art in such places as JCPenney and Elizabeth Arden.