Twelve candidates and an emcee took the stage in the theater in the Family Focus building on Jan. 19, for the first of many debates in a campaign season that began with scrambling over the proper filing dates and ended with a field of more than 30 candidates for City and School Board positions.
The candidates answered questions about affordable housing, taxes, and the $14.5 million referendum placed on the April 4 ballot by School District 65.
Although this was a Fifth Ward meeting, Alderman Delores Holmes asked Karen Chavers to moderate the discussion. Ms. Chavers guided the candidates – five for Mayor, five for Fifth Ward Alderman, and two for City Clerk – through introductions, questions from the audience, and a final pitch for votes. The candidates’ answers are given in the order in which each candidate spoke.
Candidates for Alderman
Candidates for Fifth Ward Alderman are Dan Featherson, Carolyn Murray, Robin Rue, Carlis Sutton, and Misty Witenberg.
Ms. Rue works for Sunshine Enterprises, which offers workshops to budding and home-based entrepreneurs, primarily in low-income areas. She was also a contractor and a sub-contractor on homes that were rehabbed under the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program. “Three thousand black Evanston residents had to leave their homes because of lack of affordable housing,” she said. “I want to work to engage the community. I want to be your voice on City Council.”
“I grew up in Evanston and went to Walker and Chute schools,” said Mr. Featherson. “I played basketball at Evanston Township High School and moved back to Evanston because of the opportunities in education and sports.” He is a real estate broker. “I started in real estate flipping houses in the south suburbs. I have purchased homes here, putting guys to work.” He says he feels he can bring quality homes to Evanston. He also is the owner and operator of Evanston Youth Athletic Association. “I am a mentor and a tutor. What I love about it is the spirit of the kids – it gives a lot of hope for the future,” he said.
A Navy veteran, Carolyn Murray lost her son, Justin, to gun violence in 2012. She has helped organize the annual National Night Out observances at the Church/Dodge parking lot as well as several police gun-buybacks. She has helped Ald. Holmes at her ward meetings for nearly 12 years. “Strong families make a strong community,” she said. She is committed to equity, she said, and would like to “re-examine the City budget to see how we can fairly use City money for all residents.”
Misty Witenberg, who was a teen mother, said she understands the challenges and limited opportunities in employment, safety, education, and health care that many low-income residents face. She said she would like to help provide “strength and support for those who are vulnerable to upcoming State budget cuts.”
“My whole life has been one of service,” said Carlis Sutton, who voluinteered in the Peace Corps and taught school in Chicago. “I know most of you, and you know me,” he said to the audience of nearly 200, many of them Fifth Ward residents. “Service to you is of main importance for me. You don’t call the president at night when something happens. You don’t call the mayor. You call your alderman. … This is not a beauty contest – it’s a duty contest.”
Question: What is your plan to address affordable housing?
“The best way to have affordable housing is to have affordable jobs,” said Mr. Sutton. “We’re under-employed.” He also said he would like for older people to have access to loans so they can repair their houses and remain in them.
Ms. Witenberg said she would “set up protections that are going to protect homeowners from high property taxes and protect tenants if their landlord goes broke.” She would like to see more paths to home ownership, she said, such as assistance with down payments.
Ms. Murray said she would like to see the first-time homebuyers program return. She would also “look at programs that will help seniors remain in their homes,” she said.
“There are affordable houses in the Fifth Ward and in Evanston,” Mr. Featherson said. “We have to make sure people know about City programs. We have a lot of things set up,” he said, adding he would work with the Mayor on the issues.
Ms. Rue as Mr. Sutton said, a livable wage is the key to affordable housing. “We need opportunities so we can afford to stay in Evanston,” she said. She said she would use HOME funds and Emergency Shelter Grants [both federal programs] for “handyman programs, to keep seniors and others in their homes longer. … More opportunities for affordable housing is definitely urgent. I will work to develop outside funds.”
The Pitch: Why should voters choose you?
“I’m running because I want to make the Fifth Ward as livable as the City of Evanston,” Ms. Rue said. “It’s important that we grow our own business districts. It’s important that we make them as attractive as the other business districts in town. I’m running because I care about the Fifth Ward.”
“For 11 years, I’ve hosted Ward meetings. I have heard your concerns; we have addressed them,” Ms. Murray said. “The only and the most appropriate thing I can do for the Ward is to be the alderman. I need to motivate you to understand that all of us together can make a difference.”
Ms. Witenberg said she was running because of the election of Donald Trump. She said the day after the election her son, who is transgendered, was attacked at his school, and two of his African American friends were grabbed by older men. “I have fears,” she said. “We all have to work together to see that these really awful things aren’t going to happen in our community.” She added that her being a newcomer has no bearing on her commitment.”
Mr. Sutton said, “If you want service, vote for Sutton.”
“I’m running for my children, for you, for all the children in our youth program,” Mr. Featherson said. “We look slightly impoverished, but we are not impoverished. There’s a lot of talent in the Fifth Ward. I believe I can get people who don’t come to meetings to be involved.”
Candidates for Mayor
Gary Gaspard, Steve Hagerty, Brian Miller, Jeff Smith, and Alderman Mark Tendam are all candidates for Mayor. Mr. Gaspard is an instructor of social work and policy at Northeastern Illinois University. Mr. Hagerty is a local businessman whose company deals in risk and disaster management. Mr. Miller is Chief of Staff for Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin and Alderman of the Ninth Ward. Mr. Smith is a local lawyer and activist and former General Counsel for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Mr. Tendam is a graphic artist and Alderman of the Sixth Ward.
“The most important thing we can have in a mayor is someone with an independent voice,” said Ald. Miller. He said in the two years he has been alderman, he has pressed for de-escalation of police tactics and strategies.
Mr. Smith said, “This is a great town, and I want to make it an amazing town. “He said he opposes gentrification because it can diminish Evanston’s diversity. He said there has been concern about “drive-by diversity” but he feels gentrification will mean “bye-bye, diversity.”
“I am committed to diversity and inclusion, equal rights for all, and improving police-community relations,” said Mr. Gaspard.
Ald. Tendam referred to his past work with BeHIV, an organization that offered support for persons with HIV/AIDS. He also said he learned from his colleague Ald. Holmes that it is necessary to be open and have an honest dialogue, particularly on tough subjects.
Referring to his work in communities that have suffered disasters – such as New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina – Mr. Hagerty said, “I have learned that the communities that recover from disaster are those that have a strong social fabric. I want to help us build a social fabric to focus on problems and get people to work on solutions.”
Question: “What do you plan to do to address the need for affordable housing?”
Mr. Gaspard said he would propose a “local tax for high-earners.”
“Affordable housing is really a big issue,” said Mr. Hagerty. “One thing we can control is property taxes. We can have smart and sensible economic development throughout the entire City.” He also said that Illinois has the highest rate in the country of unemployment for blacks and that he would work with Northwestern University, Evanston Hospital, and Presence St. Francis Hospital to help develop apprenticeships and jobs. Finally, he would monitor how the City uses the money in its Affordable Housing Fund and would work to help secure federal grants.
Ald. Tendam is the City Council’s representative on the City’s Housing and Homelessness Commission. “We really need to take care of Evanstonians first with our own resources,” he said. The Affordable Housing Fund now has enough money “to have real teeth in it, so we can talk to developers about creating affordable units.” He also said he feels Community Partners for Affordable Housing is “a powerful entity that works really well.” Finally, “the key is jobs that can give you the ability to afford the housing.”
Affordable housing is not necessarily a property-tax issue, said Ald. Miller, because two-thirds of the property-tax dollars go to the two public school districts. “We need to make Evanston more affordable to live here by giving rebates that offset the property taxes.” He also said, “We should look at our spending. The City of Evanston spends a lot of money on things that look good – bike lanes, Divvy bikes – but don’t really benefit the citizens every day. With TIF [tax-increment financing] districts, we have mortgaged our most precious property.”
Mr. Smith said he thinks high property taxes affect affordability and that the City has contributed to the problem. He said looking at City spending is “looking at the crumbs. Gentrification is the problem. The City throws money at developers in the form of zoning breaks and other incentives. Land values go up. … The main thing is to get a hold on policies. The City has to own its role in skewing the housing market in Evanston. … We have to take charge and own up to our own responsibility.”
Question: What can be done about the District 65 referendum?”
Ald. Miller said he is in favor of the referendum. He added, “As a City, we don’t have a direct role with the schools.”
“I have no final decision,” said Mr. Smith. He said over the past 10 years, the District has seen an additional 1,400 students “without the way to pay for it. District 65 spends a lot of money on capital improvements. I don’t’ know that the City has worked enough with District 65 or 202 [Evanston Township High School]. Everybody loves kids.”
“I favor the referendum,” Mr. Gaspard said. “We should invest in kids, give the power back to the people. We have to invest in our schools.”
“I support the District’s referendum,” said Ald. Tendam. “A city’s schools are a measure of just how great a community really is. I have a lot of faith in [Superintendent Paul] Goren.”
“This is an incredibly difficult issue, like so many that come before the Mayor and the City Council,” said Mr. Hagerty. He also said he disagreed with the comment that a third of property taxes go to the City and the County. “We need strong economic development.” He said he would support the referendum and added, “If we find ourselves in a position to sell City assets, we can take some of the money and give it to the schools.”
Candidates for City Clerk
Incumbent Rodney Greene is seeking a third term – he was appointed in 2008 and elected in 2009 and 2013. Devon Reid is challenging him for that position.
“The City Clerk’s office is one of the most important offices in Evanston,” said Mr. Reid. “The Clerk’s office is an office where you can come to get information about your City.” He said he was born in Evanston and raised in the Fifth Ward until family circumstances forced them to leave. He moved back here in 2103, he said.
Mr. Greene said he has lived in the Fifth Ward since 1988. While in office, he has made some improvements over his eight-plus years there, such as making passport-photo service available and posting real estate transfer taxes online. “All my work has been done for you, the people of Evanston,” he said.
“The Clerk’s office needs to be an active participant in the government,” Mr. Reid said.
“Right now, the Clerk’s office is transparent,” Mr. Greene said. “The Clerk cannot make policy or make resolutions. He can talk to neighbors. If I know something, you know it.”
Question: Why did you choose public service?
“I think what has been accomplished in the Clerk’s office can continue,” said Mr. Greene. “The City Clerk is the liaison between the community and the government.”
“I am running for policy,” said Mr. Reid. “The Clerk can change policy in his own office. The Clerk can save on the cost of responding to Freedom of Information Act requests by providing information.” He said he would like to create a “legislative tracker,” so residents can see how Council members voted on certain issues. Giving a nod to the confusion over filing dates, primary elections and a local referendum, he said, “I will make sure candidates know how to file.”