(RoundTable file photo)

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Evanston mayoral candidates Lori Keenan and Sebastian Nalls leveled criticism at the money their opponent, former State legislator Daniel Biss, has brought in in the City’s mayor’s race thus far.

Mr. Biss noted that many of the contributions came from individual contributors who liked his record as a legislator, “and I don’t know how to level the playing field,” he told Ms. Keenan and Mr. Nalls, first time candidates for public office, in the podcast.

Mr. Biss, a retired State legislator who now serves as a consultant with the Energy Foundation; Ms. Keenan, who owns her own public relations firm; and Mr. Nalls, a student at Purdue University, participated in the Evanston RoundTable’s first RoundCast of the election season.

Ms. Keenan noted that Mr. Biss had brought in more than $100,000 ($105,286) in campaign contributions, according to the first major campaign disclosure filing, which covered contributions made during the period running from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31.

By comparison, Ms.Keenan has brought in just under $3,000, and Mr. Nalls, under $100, according to their filings.

Discussing the issue on the RoundTable’s Jan. 22 podcast, Ms. Keenan noted that the City’s former mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and current mayor Stephen Hagerty are “both millionaires.”  She pointed out that Mr. Hagerty spent $150,000 in his race to narrowly win the office in 2017.
“In my mind,” Ms. Keenan said during the podcast, “what’s happening then is the community is not being fairly represented, because you know the average Joe cannot go out, unless you’re a professional politician, and raise $100,000 quickly or easily.

“And, in fact, if I could raise that money,” she said, “I think it would be foolish to spend it on a mayoral race in our town. I think there are a lot of places we could be spending that money more with better impact in our community.”

In his response, Mr. Biss noted his own role in trying to bring reform in the campaign finance system.

“I think that the situation of money and American politics is grotesque,” he said “There is definitely nobody in this race who has spent anywhere close to as much time and effort that is needed to reform our campaign finance system.”

In fact, Mr. Biss said he had spent some time previously trying to persuade the current Mayor and Council to adopt a Clean Election system.

The system, which has been used elsewhere, provides a government grant to candidates who agree to limit their spending and private fundraising.
Mr. Biss said that he was proud to support Ms. Tisdahl’s campaign for mayor enthusiastically in 2009, and, “I thought she did a great job. I do agree that it’s noteworthy that our previous two mayors were very wealthy individuals who spent a bunch of their own money on their races.

“I think that is a symptom of a problem,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”

As for his own candidacy, he said, “I’ve been fortunate to raise an enormous amount of money in this race through individual contributions from hundreds and hundreds of Evanstonians. And I understand that I have a certain good fortune – that I have a record in politics and, because of that, people know what kind of legislator I was. And so people who liked my record as a legislator wanted to support me in a campaign for mayor and made contributions. That’s an advantage that my experience gives me and I don’t know how to level that playing field,” he said.

But Mr. Nalls, a lifelong Evanston resident, said, “As far as I know, there are two candidates in this race that are running grassroots campaigns where they are, they’re taking these individual contributions,” referring to himself and Ms. Keenan.

To Mr. Biss’s assertion about the broad-based nature of the contributions, Mr. Nalls noted that $58,000 came from 27 contributions.

 “The average resident in the Fifth Ward cannot give $5,800 to a candidate, let alone $1,000,” he said about some of the contributions in Mr. Biss’s report from individuals. 

“So, when I look at my contributions, I look at the contributions I received – five dollars from a single mother with two kids. And I look at that I’m, like, ‘Thank you so much for that contribution. That means so much and they say, ‘I wish I could give more.’ I say, ‘Please don’t give me anymore because I know that you need that.’”

In the past two election cycles, he maintained, a lot of the money came “from individuals with very deep pockets,” he said.

“And that’s what worries me when we talk about politics in Evanston, that we become beholden to individuals who donate large sums of money,” Mr. Nalls said, “and it’s quite frankly not the will of the people.”

Mr. Biss, at one time an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, responded, noting that “of the three candidates in this race, I have by far the most small contributions – by far the most individual donors – by far the most people giving $5 and $10 and $25 – and you can just read that directly off the campaign finance reports and I’m proud of that.  I think that’s really, really significant.”

“And, you know, let’s just be real here,” he continued. “I don’t have significant wealth of my own. I don’t run in particularly wealthy circles. What I did do was serve eight years in the legislature and establish a record; and it’s a record that you can see; you can like; you cannot like,” he said of the support.

Elected, Not Appointed, Library Board?

The candidates agreed in general on a number of points during the one- and- a half hour podcast. But they showed differences on one issue, Evanston Public Library Board members.

At a previous candidate forum, Ms. Keenan had called for an elected Library Board. Members of the Board are currently appointed by the Mayor. As a result, she argued, the members don’t face the accountability of an elected official, referring to the Board’s recent decision to close the Library’s North and Chicago Avenue/ Main Street (CAMS) branches.

The Board decided on the matter in a chaotic meeting last August where some residents felt they were shut off from public input.

 “Because the mayor makes these appointments to the Library Board, the Board is really beholden to the mayor, and really fulfills many of the mayor’s wishes, whether we like it or not,” Ms. Keenan argued.

With the Library Board now in control of its tax levy, “I believe that as a taxing body that they should be an elected body,” she said, “and it should not be a body that’s appointed by the mayor or beholden to anyone. They should be accountable to the community that elects them, and the decisions that they make.”

As a result, a decision such as the Board’s recent move to close the branch libraries “should affect their tenure,” she argued. “If the community doesn’t like the decisions that they’re making, they can vote them out. As it sits now, the mayor has that power, and I don’t think that that’s right, and even if I were mayor, I still would go to this model because I think it’s what other communities use when the library is a taxing body.”

Mr. Nalls, acknowledging he didn’t have Ms. Keenan’s extensive experience dealing with the library system, said he agreed completely with that line of reasoning, drawing a comparison with local school boards.
“The mayor has no appointments to the school board. They have their own elections. They deal with their own agenda,” he said. “We can advocate for certain positions and stress that this is what Evanston residents would like to see done with their school system, but ultimately it is up to the school board to make whatever decisions that they feel necessary.

“And I feel if the Library Board is going to be a taxing body, they should be elected as such, so that Evanston residents can have input as to who’s actually appointed; and then where those tax dollars are going, instead of the mayor influencing that power significantly, and ultimately having a great deal of control over the system as a whole.”

Mr. Biss, while also acknowledging he had not spent as much time with the library system as Ms. Keenan has, said, at first blush, at least, he saw the issue differently.

“For one thing, we certainly have other taxing bodies that don’t have elected representatives,” he said. “We pay taxes to the Mosquito Abatement District, for instance, and we don’t elect their board. One could really almost argue that the Fire and Police Pension boards are effectively taxing bodies because their decisions have very direct impact on our levy and we certainly don’t elect like those trustees, either.”

He noted that when he last served in the legislature, he represented 11 communities, most of them with their own elected library and parks boards.
“And I’ll tell you what I saw,” he said. “What I saw was a bunch of elections where sometimes it was really hard to get even enough candidates. They were often, uncontested, or even literally not enough people on the ballot for the slots. And I also saw a lot of voters, including educated, engaged voters who care, who showed up to vote for school board or village trustee and realized, ‘Holy cow, what am I supposed to do about the library race, or the park race?’”

He said he was skeptical, then, “of adding new elected offices for roles where I’m not confident there would be a real active community discussion.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.