These are Jeff Smith’s unedited answers to questions submitted to all candidates for Mayor by the RoundTable.
Question: Please provide information on your educational background; employment/professional background; volunteer and civic activities; and other attributes that qualify you for the position of Mayor.
Education/personal: Public primary education (in same K-12 as Hillary); first in family to get a college degree. B.A., Northwestern; J.D., Harvard. Stayed in Evanston after college, operated a forklift, drove a bus, counseled campers, etc. Went to law school concentrating in civil rights, environmental, and government law. Internships: studying police discretion, litigating racial gerrymandering. Since return, have lived last 35 years within 2 miles of Fountain Square, 26 years as taxpayer in current home. Nancy and I raised two children here, graduates of the Evanston public schools.
Professional: Broad legal experience enhanced by 35 years of policy work, activism, and volunteering. With downtown firms, advised suburban governments and officials; was a Senior Attorney in Chicago Department of Law, practicing municipal law exclusively after teaching in Loyola’s low-income legal clinic. Evanston-area general practice since 1991. Served 2013-2015 as chief general counsel to IL Dept. of Natural Resources, a $250M/yr., 1,400-employee agency. 2016: Lecturer, Loyola Institute of Environmental Sustainability. Presenter at 2012 American Wind Energy Ass’n national conference, 2016 Climate Change Conference in Chicago, and on energy and natural resources issues to bar associations, continuing legal education and community groups.
Civic: Attended first Evanston City Council meeting over 25 years ago. Since attended (and often spoke at) approx. 300 council, school board, plan commission, zoning board, economic development, human services, library board, and other meetings, starting long before this race. Contributed to five City planning processes incl. deep involvement in Central Street plan and rezoning, and Climate Change Action plan; analyzed downtown plan; participant, Evanston150. Appointed by Mayor Tisdahl to Wind Farm Committee; subsequent service on state offshore wind energy council, then work with Rep. Robyn Gabel on successful legislation. Life member, Sierra Club. Founding president, Central Street Neighbors. A founding director of Citizens’ Greener Evanston; CGE representative to Illinois Environmental Council legislative group. Democratic Party of Evanston board, 1991-94, 2010-2016. Other board memberships include SANE/PeaceAction (10 yr. state/national); state board, Independent Voters of Illinois/IPO; Skokie Indians Little League (5+ yr.); Evanston Citizens’ Lighthouse Community Land Trust; Evanston Lakehouse & Gardens. Assisted Friends of the Civic Center, Evanston Committee for Responsible Development, Evanston Public Library Friends. Multiple citizen lobbying trips to Washington and Springfield, incl. “Evanston Day.” Volunteer on 40+ progressive political campaigns, consultant/attorney to 5; went to 5 states for Obama. Over 10 seasons coaching in baseball, softball, soccer. Eight years as a Scout leader. Coached Haven chess team. PTSA parent; tech and skit director, Haven Help Us! (3 yr.).
Chief distinguishing qualifier is having been fortunate to hear and absorb the different concerns, ideas, and viewpoints of thousands of citizens during all of the above and while petitioning and knocking on doors in every ward in Evanston, living in multiple Evanston neighborhoods (and in Rogers Park just off Howard Street), while learning, from the governing side, how to effect change. I know Evanston well, respect history, see value in small things, bounce back from adversity, and maintain a sense of humor.
Question: What would be your top three priorities as Mayor? What would you do to advance your priorities?
First would be fighting to preserve and enhance what makes Evanston unique. That large basket has multiple dimensions: housing affordability, diversity, human-scale development, leveraging proximity to lake and transit, and support for the arts, letters and humanities. Affordability tops my website issues, jeff4evanston.org; see #6 below. Meanwhile, if diversity is a plus that we truly value, the City needs to proactively and strategically market, in partnership with the real estate community, to leverage that strength. Our intellectual, artistic, and even spiritual capital is also underutilized; I’ll work to brand Evanston as a destination for those who appreciate and enrich culture. Northwestern, our museums, our growing galleries, and even quiet but vital groups such as our communities of gardeners and knitters have a special part to play in building a future more dependent on quality of life than on quantity of stuff.
Second is to have Evanston set a national standard in environmental leadership and resource stewardship. The ascent of climate deniers to the White House and Cabinet demands that environmentalism and dedication to the commons can no longer be an afterthought, a siloed “nice to have” where we give so-so candidates a pass; our planet needs champions at every level to combat irresponsible neglect of problems that will challenge our grandchildren. In Evanston, though we’ve made strides in greenhouse gas reduction, we have the potential to aim for carbon neutrality and true all-renewable electricity, to transform priorities from pouring cement to restoring habitat. We also have the duty to stop turning a blind eye to piecemeal privatization of our treasured lakefront.
Finally, although other issues would be more fun, any responsible Evanston mayor must dive headfirst into our fiscal challenges, ranging from loss of state/federal funds to our own pensions. Our bond ratings have now slipped twice. Several TIF districts are underwater. Every goal we have, from preserving what we cherish to innovating for the future, takes funding. If fiscal stability isn’t a top three priority, a candidate isn’t serious about serving.
Question: What role, if any, do you think the Mayor should play in developing a vision for the City and in promoting or implementing that vision?
The mayor is the only Council member elected by and to serve the entire city, so her or his unique role brings unique potential and responsibility to help shape and implement the community’s vision. That’s a key reason I’m running. A mayor needs to be “out there” every week if not daily, as I’ve been for years, constantly listening to all corners of the community so as to help craft a future that reflects our values. Change by government mustn’t be top-down decree, especially in Evanston. Brilliant ideas change nothing without buy-in, and even “buy-in” has a discomforting subtext of “selling” the public on something. Better is a process where government first hears and listens, then attempts to weave solutions that spring from the hopes and dreams of those government serves.
The mayor’s role in that, on a macro level, isn’t dictator or bureaucrat but facilitator or advocate, and even poet or painter. That role will morph on a project by project basis; sometimes, I’m sure I’ll take an active part in trying to recruit and lead (at least initially) a posse of the talented and the representative; my profile in other ventures will be less, depending on the degree to which implementation is technical, what value I can add, whether stakeholders are ready and able to take charge, or, really, whether folks even want the mayor involved. Sometimes the most effective leadership is simply letting those who can, do. We’ve got a ton of talent in Evanston, too much of it untapped, some of it discouraged by too frequently being dismissed, stifled, or superficially appeased; one of my goals is to engage and unleash the power of the people that make Evanston awesome.
Question: What should the City do to address youth violence? Is it doing enough, should it do things differently?
Any violence is too much, but in America we’ve made great strides in violent crime reduction since my youth; this statistical fact is at odds with the perception fanned by a click-driven Internet, understaffed mainstream media, and demagoguery. As with many issues, some factors are beyond local control, so one important task is to identify what a city can do best.
No one can argue that Evanston underspends on violence, if policing is included; a legitimate question is whether resources allocated differently could deliver more results. I believe in community policing, and constant effort to humanize our officers to the public, and vice versa. I oppose militarization of American police, in tactics or equipment, as a trend that dehumanizes and has inherent danger of escalating situations.
Evanston needs more support from the State’s Attorney, which office in the past hasn’t prosecuted some shootings where police believe they know the shooter; Kim Foxx’s election offers opportunity for a stronger partnership between City and County. Prosecutors, note, would say that they need more witness support, so we need to instill a culture of courage to confront gang violence.
The why of youth violence needs more attention. Not everyone here knows the significance of Liz Tisdahl’s efforts on jobs. Youth unemployment and violence are directly correlated in cities. This effort deserves recognition, continuation, and funding.
Activity as alternative pays huge dividends. Not just sports: scouting, chess, and endeavors that let youths create and build while sharpening mind and spirit are invaluable. I’ve spent thousands of hours working with boys. If we stifle all risk-taking, the gangs have a monopoly on supplying it. The City can promote existing opportunities at little to no cost.
Evanston institutions can do more on the human level. Imagine if each city, school, and Northwestern staffer — thousands of smart people — gave a few hours’ support per year. Imagine if all families and at-risk youth who want to could be matched with NU students who’ve grown up with a culture of service and might welcome greater engagement.
Finally, we need to foster a culture of peace. I’m unafraid of values education. We shouldn’t be so fearful of “judging” that we fail to teach kids judgment. We need to recognize and empower elders who know that reckless violence is unacceptable. Kids aren’t dumb and every child can learn. A culture of peace also means that Evanston should reclaim leadership opposing war, weaponry, and military spending. How can we teach peace on our own streets while mental health centers close so that we can spend billions on bombs?
Question: What should the City do to promote economic development? Is it doing enough; should it do things differently?
The City has achieved some positive results attracting business but historic methods, often little more than handouts, lacked imagination, sometimes with lack of transparency or competition, other times with insufficient realistic evaluation of strategy. I was thrilled when we got Valli to come to Dempster Plaza; less so when I found it cost us a million dollars.
The City in the past has been reactive rather than proactive, and has simply urged what developers propose on an often unwilling neighborhood, rather than seeking out players who would help fill in gaps in what we’ve envisioned. Too many “visioning” processes have resulted in binders that then gather dust on shelves. Conversely, some economic development has followed no public plan, only dealmaking opaque to residents.
A focus on residential units has contributed to higher land prices and gentrification while producing, at best, a wash for taxpayers. Increasing occupancy and value of commercial property should be a priority. Ask residents and shoppers what a district needs; they’ll tell you.
Some commercial landlords fail to adjust to the market, and let space sit empty rather than meet what tenants can bear; this inhibits new small business formation and deadens streets. I’d explore all means in the regulatory toolkit, from information and persuasion to consideration of vacancy disincentives, to foster livelier districts and greater choices for entrepreneurs.
Years ago I urged branding Evanston as a “green” city not just for altruism and environmental consciousness, but because it would prove an attractor, especially in siting by younger entrepreneurs. When Walgreen’s chose Evanston for its first LEED-Platinum store in the US, their explanation proved my point. More brand building as “green and smart” will produce more of that. Organic, localized production, repurposive and innovative businesses will locate here as much for the Evanston cachet as for the well-matched consumer and labor force.
Evanston has deep untapped economic potential in the arts and humanities. One legacy of the nasty town-gown years is a deficit of the vibrancy you can find visiting many other college communities. The arts conference we hosted was fantastic; similar events should be a regular. Evanston should have multiple known, identifiable arts districts, and more spaces in which artists can create and cross-pollinate. We continue to need more live music venues, and another museum. Creative production should intersect with cultural, historic, and environmental tourism; this is one splendid potential use for the Harley Clarke site.
Question: Name some things the City should do to preserve or create additional affordable housing.
Evanston lost over 3,000 units of affordable housing over the past 10 years, with corresponding adverse effect on diversity; we also lost 1/5 of our African-American population over a decade. Market, policy, and taxes all play a part. We will lose critical character if we price our children and neighbors out of town, and we can’t generate needed jobs and economic activity if Evanston has a tax disincentive against businesses or employees locating here. Past affordable housing measures produced too few units, and this year’s ordinance, a baby step forward, may do more for density than for affordability.
One key is candor on gentrification. Housing loss wasn’t a fluke. I spoke out about that when few in the city wanted to use the “g-word,” because of what I saw representing tenants and homeowners. There’s a fundamental economic connection between subsidizing development and luxury housing, and the impact on neighborhoods, that some won’t acknowledge. At the mayor’s last town meeting I called for an affordability impact analysis to be part of the process of approving any planned development so that our eyes are open to what we do, and how it affects the texture of our community. I’d consult existing CHDOs on their perspectives.
The NSP2 program was incorrectly perceived by some as affordable housing but was really more of a price support program. The City needs to put as much energy into creating housing for ETHS grads who want to return here while still paying off college loans, as for well-heeled professionals moving north. If Evanston can afford to fix up patios for bars, it can afford to fix up abandoned houses that blight neighborhoods and attract criminals and rats; I applaud the City’s recent efforts to condemn and rehab, and urge that we utilize local workforce to the greatest degree possible on those projects. We should also revisit the land trust model that has worked successfully for many other communities.
I would consider a means to designate and shelter currently affordable units. We landmark or district large, grand old houses; creativity can find a way to protect modest homes also a part of our heritage.
Not to be forgotten is fiscal responsibility. The City is hardly the biggest contributor toward high property taxes, but still must exercise restraint. I’m open to exploring partnerships with neighboring communities that could bring efficiencies in utilization. The City must also use its influence with the schools to hold down the spiraling burden on property owners.
Finally, I’ve long felt that many Evanston neighborhoods are over-assessed relative to other properties in Cook County of comparable market value. As mayor I will pursue this and, if facts bear it out, will urge the Council and Law Department to seek relief on taxpayers’ behalf.
Question: Do you support Evanston’s Cradle to Career initiative and partnering with community organizations to increase opportunities for youth? Please explain.
Everyone, I hope, supports increased opportunities for youth. The road to success starts early. Note, C2C is an “Evanston” program but not a City program per se. I agree strongly with the expressed aspirations of C2C and in particular with the emphasis on literacy identified early as a strategy, and my wife and I have supported many of the partners engaged in the project. I also strongly believe that holistic approaches can often have more comprehensive impact, and to the extent that C2C embodies this principle, I am again supportive. As with many programs in the public or nonprofit sector, general support does not mean endorsement of every detail or nuance, nor every philosophical expression, but initiatives must be free to experiment, and a project such as C2C by definition will need some time to demonstrate results.
Note that City financial participation pales relative to, say, the levy for City debt.
One flip side of multipartner efforts is potential diffusion of accountability. A good partner remains engaged to provide not just funding but knowledge, data, and experience. Partners also should keep tabs on metrics, priorities, and messaging.
Another caution on City involvement from birth is that government is not, and except in the extreme should not be, a substitute for parents or family. In the ideal, a successful Evanston program not only works in Evanston but also is replicable in other communities that are less comfortable with collectivism. Thus, both method and rhetoric should be inclusive and sensitive to diverse viewpoints.
Question: How should the City promote equity?
Even more so than with violence and housing, problems of fairness in an America that is now more economically unequal than in many decades predate, originate, and resonate well beyond Evanston. An Oxfam study this week concluded that eight people now own as much as the poorest 50% of the planet. The U.S. has seen the proportion of wealth held by the top 1% double since the 1970s, although in Europe and Japan that figure has been relatively stable. Trying to create equality in one small US city amidst that tide has some resemblance to mopping in one room on the Titanic.
Historically, equity applied more to process than outcomes. Critical theory, principally in education but more so in other fields, now posits inequitable causative factors for nearly all unequal outcomes.
I oppose both simplistic explanations and regressive taxes and policies. It’s self-defeating to claim to support economic diversity while committing to ever-higher revenue extraction (including fees and fines) that, on the whole, operates regressively.
The City already recognizes need for equity in programs and assets. I strongly support a network of public parks and facilities throughout Evanston to which all have access. I have long supported an additional library facility in west or southwest Evanston. The City should explore the pricing and waiver of beach fees so that residents are not excluded by income, but historically our beaches provide both summer jobs and a rare positive revenue for other programs. The City needs to work with the transit agencies to expand services that have been cut back, and with both the private and nonprofit sectors to make bicycles feasible as transportation, not just recreation, for more.
One caution is that new amenities can also increase prices that, in turn, make an area less affordable. Actions have reactions. Attempts at social engineering need to guard against unforeseen consequences. If the City is to have an equity coordinator as proposed, she or he should have as much grounding in economics and consumer psychology as in social theory.
Question: The City has taken steps toward becoming a sustainable City. What will you do as Mayor to promote sustainability in ways that will be affordable for all residents?
The question needs to be flipped, to the extent it suggests the hoary premise of jobs/cost v. environment. The stark reality is that our multiple environmental crises need to confronted at all levels with the resources and commitment with which America responded to totalitarian armies in WWII, and if we do not, as with war the least well-off will suffer first, and most, from disruption and dislocation. It is also the status quo, and acceptance of an agenda of consolidation, mechanization, and outsourcing that disproportionately benefits the few, that will deprive millions of the dignity and benefit of honest work.
Movement toward true sustainability – which also includes a sustainable economy – will put more money in average folks’ pockets and create far more jobs than current trends. California’s energy efficiency standards are one of the reasons Californians have more disposable income. Low-income households lose a far greater portion of their household budget to inefficiency and lost energy than do high-income households. Improving mass transit and supporting localized business most helps those who can’t afford a car. And so on. The myth that we can’t afford to be green “because jobs” needs to be shredded and composted.
As discussed in the first question, green branding will increase local economic opportunities. Many environmental initiatives, such as habitat restoration, weatherization, or solar installation, by definition can’t be outsourced to India or China, or performed by robot, but can be accomplished programmatically in ways that provide not just work, but skills and education. Evanston should be positioning itself to take advantage of the jobs creation opportunities contained within the recent landmark energy bill passed by the Illinois legislature.
Of course, environmental justice needs constant attention. Where costs are higher for some greener products or services, or studies are needed, Evanston should look at ways to capture that higher cost through local sourcing. But investment in local workforce and truly sustainable measures provides returns in multiples through everything from greater circulation of money in the local economy to improved physical and mental health of the populace.
Question: What do you think about privatizing public spaces, such as the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, the Recycling Center, the Library parking lot, and the Harley Clarke Mansion?
I instinctively am skeptical of such ideas for multiple reasons. First, Illinois is near the bottom nationally in public land ownership; the fraction that we collectively share ought to be expanded, not shrunk, especially in high density areas where many may not enjoy their own yard or family room. Second, the smartest urban planning builds conceptually around public places, the activity generators that both draw visitors and give citizens a sense of ownership and civic pride. Third, the commons is at the essence of equity.
Sometimes outsourcing aspects of a public space makes sense. Government does some things well but others, not so much. Few states directly operate lodging or food concessions, for example, at state parks.
Evanston should have its own recycling center, either by itself or in partnership with neighboring communities.
The library parking lot is a challenge. Elimination of surface parking has helped revitalize downtown since the 1970s. Yet that lot serves particularized needs, like the Women’s Club, and poses contextual problems. I don’t want a colossus looming over the Frances Willard House. If a project addressing those concerns can’t be built at the price bid out, the Council was too hasty.
The Harley Clarke house is not the City’s top issue but typifies nagging systemic issues. The lakefront landmark is a literally irreplaceable public treasure. The idea of privatizing it for quick cash was an affront to the public that shouldn’t have seen daylight. Possible sale was first rolled out as part of a threat to multiple City facilities, including the Noyes and Chandler centers. Lack of candor with the public followed. Casualties of the fumbled process included Col. Pritzker, a respected preservationist, and public trust in the City. The City then bungled a partnership with the State, offering a deal the City knew would not be accepted, and followed up that fiasco with a time-wasting, inconclusive committee process. The City now appears to be on a sounder track, but perhaps only due to citizen pressure and a looming election in which a shuttered facility with no plan and no progress would have been a black eye for political establishment candidates. Not a top issue, but should be a top definer.
A final “public space” not listed in the question is the lakefront itself. The City has neglected much of its role in guardianship of the public trust, weighing in more on its dog beach than on major riparian development by Northwestern or the many proposed private shoreline projects that interrupt sand flow and watercraft. We should be envisioning and working toward naturalization and a water trail. The lakefront is an enormous piece of what makes Evanston special.
Question: How will you interact with State officials, given the stalemate in Springfield and the potential loss of funding for the City?
I already have good relationships and credibility on policy with many State elected officials. Naturally, I would work with our five Evanston legislators as a team; I’ve been welcomed by each of them in Springfield. Thanks to years of activity that includes working with statewide groups, as well as extensive time in Springfield itself, I would hit the ground running with an ability to collaborate not only with confirmed liberals, but also with those outside the Evanston bubble. My years in Chicago and work with downstate communities and constituencies give me confidence in my ability to forge coalitions with other mayors, a number of whom I already know. At some point, all those who see firsthand the damage that is being done statewide need to coordinate to press the message.
As to partisanship, I’m not among those who demonize our suburban and rural brothers and sisters; I was kept on temporarily after Gov. Rauner’s inauguration and was thanked by officials after I left for effectuating a smooth transition. Several initiatives important to agency mission that I worked hard to explain were continued on a professional, nonpartisan basis. I’m a hopeless rationalist who believes that common ground can often be found through exchange of viewpoints and fact, as opposed to the framing, blaming, and shaming that fires up a base but makes solutions more distant. Evanston has several sister cities abroad; I have proposed that we enter into similar relationships with towns in neighboring states and even downstate Illinois. We all benefit by walking in another’s shoes.