Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss with his wife, Karin Steinbrueck, and their two children Arya and Theodore, at the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield. (Photo via Daniel Biss)

Ask him or his old friends, and they will all tell you that Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss was never supposed to work in politics. 

Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, Biss spent his early years surrounded by a family of professional musicians. His mother Miriam Fried grew up in Israel, while his father Paul Biss was raised in DeKalb, Illinois. The two met at Indiana University in Bloomington, where they both went to study the violin, and they later joined the music faculty at the university when Daniel was young. His paternal grandmother, Raya Garbousova, was born in Russia and later became a well-known cellist.  

Meanwhile, Biss’ younger brother Jonathan also went on to study music at Indiana, and is a renowned pianist who now lives in Philadelphia. 

“It was an unusual childhood in some respects. I had parents who had this kind of interesting global community they were a part of, and I could tell relatively early that wasn’t the path I would want to take,” Biss said. “And I fell in love with mathematics as a kid and sort of threw myself into that, much to the confusion of my parents. They were like ‘What is this bizarre hobby?’”

As an avid young learner who quickly grew attached to math as his favorite subject, Biss went on to become a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search as a high school senior. The competition is one of the oldest and most prestigious science and math contests for high school students in the nation, and Biss ended up developing a close relationship with a fellow finalist from Washington, D.C., named Samit Dasgupta. The two later lived together as Harvard students and have remained close friends. 

In college, Biss was known as a fun, quirky person with long hair who talked fast and could debate practically any academic topic with any other student, Dasgupta said. He was eccentric, interesting and ever self-conscious about choosing a path different from the musical careers of his family members. 

“I remember that phrase very clearly, that he’d call himself a black sheep, and it was just hilarious being like, this superstar math genius that’s taking graduate classes at IU when he’s a high school student thinking that he’s somehow out of what he’s supposed to be doing,” Dasgupta said. “I thought it was just really interesting.”

Daniel Biss in the early days of his mathematics career. (Photo via Daniel Biss)

During their time at Harvard, Biss and Dasgupta found themselves spending time debating the latest political news or listening to classic rock while working on math problem sets. Biss was a Bob Dylan fan, but Dasgupta preferred the Rolling Stones. After college, Biss stayed in Boston to pursue a doctorate in math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dasgupta would often visit from Providence, Rhode Island, and catch up over beers and live music. 

Biss finished his doctorate in 2002 and moved to the Chicago area to start a job as an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago. 

The journey into politics

In the early years of his work as a professor, Biss said, he grew increasingly concerned about the state of the nation during the Iraq War and the political direction that the country was moving in under the George W. Bush administration, to the point that he became involved in Democrat John Kerry’s campaign to challenge Bush in the 2004 presidential election.

Biss said his transition into civic life occurred when he started to feel a moral responsibility to act on his beliefs, and he started going to volunteer campaign meetings and knocking on doors. 

“I think he thought that doing math was just not significant enough given what was happening in the world,” Dasgupta said. “And it was very clear that … more and more of his time and more and more of his energy was just being spent on volunteering for John Kerry, to the point where he was doing a lot of the groundwork and organization of volunteers.”

Given how much effort he put into the Kerry campaign, Biss was devastated when the Democratic candidate lost to the incumbent Bush. At that point, it was only a matter of time until Biss ran for public office, according to Dasgupta.

Biss and his wife, Karin Steinbrueck, moved to Evanston in 2006, and two years later he left his teaching job to run for the Illinois House of Representatives, ultimately losing to Republican Elizabeth Coulson in the state’s 17th District. After a short stint advising Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, he won the same state House seat in 2010 and moved to the state Senate two years later. 

One of Biss’ closest colleagues in the Statehouse, Representative Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said she remembers spending long nights together in Springfield, talking about wonky policy issues as well as the Cubs. In 2015, the two lawmakers partnered on a bill to ban therapies that attempt to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, legislation encompassing what Cassidy called some of the most meaningful work in her political career, because they used their platform to give a voice to survivors. 

“We happened to be the people who had the power to introduce the bill and to make a speech on the floor and to push the green button to vote yes, but none of that was based on what we wanted,” Cassidy said. “It was entirely based on the experiences of folks who had endured that torment, and it was really important to us that that be very clear as we worked on it.” 

A few years later, Biss decided to run for governor in the 2018 election cycle, challenging frontrunner and billionaire J.B. Pritzker in the Democratic primary. Pritzker went on to win the primary and defeat incumbent Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, but the race for the Democratic nomination gave Biss more attention as a public figure. 

Biss said Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election was the main impetus for his running for governor. But he said he had many long and hard conversations with his wife about what to do and the potential impact that a campaign for governor would have on their family, especially their two young children.

“I remember Karin at some point saying ‘You know, if eight years from now the situation’s gotten worse and worse, and you look back and we can’t tell ourselves we did everything we could to make things better, I’m never going to forgive myself,’” Biss said. “And that was fundamentally the impulse to deciding to run for governor.”

The new mayor of Evanston

After former Mayor Steve Hagerty decided not to run again this past year, Biss emerged once again from the political woodwork to win the mayoral election after living in Evanston with his wife and two kids for over a decade. 

After going through several campaigns and holding multiple public positions, Biss said he typically chooses offices to run for based on where he feels he can make the biggest impact and what he finds most interesting at the time. Serving as mayor initially intrigued him because local government really drives grassroots change in the country, he said.

But when comparing his Illinois Legislature job to being mayor, he also noted that lawmakers in Springfield have the luxury of pursuing their own interests and leaving other efforts to other members, but the mayor has to take a side and gather knowledge on every single issue.

“That’s a solemn responsibility, and it’s very, very motivating because it means that when the stakes for the community are high, I have a responsibility to get it right and to be engaged,” Biss said. “There’s no passing the buck. It’s positive in a different way. You feel like you’re there with an opportunity to make a difference every time it counts.”

When it comes to this term as the mayor of Evanston, Biss said his priorities are ensuring that the city stays committed to things like housing affordability, climate action, reimagining what public safety looks like and investing in underserved communities. 

Evanston has not been immune to gun violence. Just this week, a shooting near Green Bay Road left a 17-year-old boy dead and four other teens injured. In response to the shooting, Biss called the violence “unacceptable” and said “we simply have to do better.”

Beyond concerns about public safety, another elephant in the room remains the city’s investigation into an alleged culture of sexual harassment and abuse among lifeguards and supervisors at the Evanston lakefront. Former City Manager Erika Storlie and former Human Resources Chief Jennifer Lin have left their posts amid controversy over their handling of the allegations, which were first brought to city officials in a July 2020 petition signed by 56 female lifeguards. 

“The first thing that people need to demand, and I think should know, is that not only me, but the whole City Council, the interim City Manager, take this enormously seriously,” Biss said regarding the allegations. “We’ve retained a top-notch firm populated with former federal prosecutors who’ve done similar work in bigger, more politically charged environments, to do a complete investigation. And we’re not guiding them, we’re not directing them, they have total independence.”

When it comes to other issues in Evanston that he wants to tackle early in his time as mayor, Biss said one of his major challenges is that the city staff is stretched thin, especially during the pandemic, thanks to more than a decade of job cuts. He said one of his main goals is to help everyone working in City Hall be in a position to succeed and have a manageable workload, as opposed to giving the work of multiple jobs to the same person. 

But critics of Biss and the current city staff have argued that Evanston is devoting too much time and money to what they say are unpopular projects like possibly moving the Civic Center, creating a Fifth Ward TIF District and approving luxury high-rise housing developments. Biss, who can only vote when the City Council is tied, has said that the projects connected to the Fifth Ward TIF are critical infrastructure investments, but he’s indifferent on how those projects are funded. 

In an email to the RoundTable, former mayoral candidate Lori Keenan was critical of the city’s direction. “It is disappointing to see a continuation of city staff pushing an agenda that is largely opposed by residents, and this seems especially true as we head into budget season,” Keenan wrote.

Biss agreed that basic affordability, either for housing or any other essential resources, is a problem right now in Evanston. Being a community that attracts new renters and homeowners is a great asset, he said, but the city cannot let people get priced out of town.

“We’ve done a lot around housing, but do we have a truly integrated and ambitious housing plan? I would argue that we don’t, and that we need one,” Biss said.

Jeff Smith, a longtime Evanston advocate involved with local community organizations who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2017, said he believes in Biss’ political savvy and commitment to support residents, but he also criticized the city’s passage of a Fifth Ward TIF District. He argued that TIF districts in Evanston have largely proved to be ineffective over the years, and he added that the city often seems to find money for unpopular projects, while delaying action on things like the Climate Action and Resilience Plan that have widespread support.

“I would like to see not just Daniel, but the entire city government, take more of an approach that begins with ‘What do people want?’ and then asks ‘How do we deliver it to them most efficiently and most fairly?'” Smith said. “Rather than, ‘Here’s what some developer wants or what some small group wanted, and we’re going to now figure out how we can ram it through and bully the residents into accepting it.’ You shouldn’t have as much dissent as we see in Evanston.”

Smith also echoed Biss’ concerns about sufficient staffing at City Hall. The new budget passed by the Council in November adds back 29 positions held vacant during the pandemic and funds 11 new jobs as well.

Meanwhile, Biss remains excited about the new members of the City Council, arguing that in the past, a strong coalition of six members tended to dominate discussions and votes, but now, the council chambers at the Civic Center feature much more back-and-forth between different perspectives. 

“The coalitions are much more fluid, and if you try and count to five [votes] on one issue, you find a different answer than if you try to count to five on another issue,” Biss said. “In the long term, that’s great for the city. I think that’s the right way for us to go, not to have blocks that are at each other’s throats and at odds.” 

Longtime friend Dasgupta praised Biss for his honesty. “You’re getting what you see,” Dasgupta said. “He doesn’t have anything secretly behind him that’s causing him to make decisions. He’s really doing what he thinks is right.”

Dasgupta and Cassidy both said Biss really listens to what constituents and colleagues have to say, and takes those thoughts into account no matter how much they may clash with his own views.

“One thing you become when you go into academia is you become obsessive about lifelong learning,” Biss said. “So one fundamental aspect of my philosophy is that I’ve got a lot to learn from everybody, and I try my very, very best to do that, to take every point of view seriously, even if I disagree profoundly with something.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

2 replies on “‘I’ve got a lot to learn from everybody’: Daniel Biss and his journey to Evanston City Hall”

  1. Daniel Biss’s first run for the House involved my first and so far only face-to-face encounter, and nothing I have since seen from afar has significantly diluted that generally favorable first impression. He was campaigning on a shoestring, trying to reach out widely, and thus a Roosevelt University marketing communications class was doing a project focused on reaching the Hispanic population of the district. As journalism faculty in the adjoining office, I got called in on short notice to do some photos (of modestly semi-pro quality) and we chatted briefly. I have watched his other public roles from afar in media. Nobody’s perfect, especially in a central role like mayor of a smart, diverse and cantankerous town like Evanston, but so far, so good, I think. Thanks, Rooundtable, for the backgrounder.

  2. Great article – exactly what is needed.
    He has an enormous amount to learn.
    The council is thoroughly incompetent.
    The dissenting views are off base too.
    It is not what people want – it is what is necessary for our corner of society. It takes rigorous unbiased leadership to craft and lead and adjust that journey.

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