The Evanston City Council voted 5-3 on March 28 to hire a city lobbyist. (Image via City of Evanston YouTube Channel)

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Evanston has employed a lobbyist representing the city’s legislative interests off and on for more than four decades.

The lobbyist has been the city’s point person in Springfield, and occasionally in Washington, advocating for the city’s needs and securing some major grants.

One of those, funding the Clark Street CTA underpass and extension between Benson and Maple avenues, was critical to the development of Evanston’s downtown. The project was built in 1989 for $3 million.

Larry Suffredin, Evanston’s first lobbyist, working with local legislators, helped to secure that grant.

Larry Suffredin (Cook County photo)

“I think the wisest thing the city can do is hiring someone and keeping the focus on Washington and Springfield,” said Suffredin, who went on to become a Cook County Commissioner, asked about the value of the position.

Echoing the “show me the money”  line from the film Jerry Maguire, Suffredin said, “You’ve got to go to the feds and the state because you’ve got to follow the money.”

But the lobbyist position went largely unfilled from 2016 to 2021. A former city intern filled the job that year, serving four months, before moving on to a policy position with the Illinois House of Representatives.

At the March 28 City Council meeting, city staff recommended hiring Drexwood Partners LLC to fill the lobbyist role, at pay not to exceed $70,000 a year.

Council members approved the position in a 5-3 vote, with Council members Clare Kelly, 1st Ward; Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; and Devon Reid, 8th Ward, voting against the measure. A city Evaluation Committee had recommended in favor of bringing on Drexwood after evaluating that firm’s proposal along with four others.

“With critical legislation being passed at both the state and federal level, particularly with the potential for municipal grants and financial assistance,” wrote Tasheik Kerr, Assistant to the City Manager, in a memo from staff, “it is essential that someone is charged with monitoring legislation, particularly around new funding, and advocating on Evanston’s behalf. The City of Evanston had previously contracted with a lobbyist to support and promote Evanston residential and business stakeholders’ interests by formulating, promoting, monitoring, and reporting on the state legislative initiatives and priorities.”

Questions about a lobbyist’s role

in discussions at the March 14 and 28 meetings, both Braithwaite and Reid raised questions about the lobbyist’s role.

At the March 14 meeting, Reid raised concern about moving forward on the issue when the city as of yet does not have a permanent City Manager in place, “and this body hasn’t even decided its goals yet.”

“I’ve gone through a long sort of internal journey on this very issue,” he said at that meeting. “I think for a number of reasons, most importantly from a standpoint of advocacy, I don’t think we really want a lobbyist in Springfield out there advocating on policy and trying to affect roll calls on bills on a regular basis. I think there’s a lot of that that goes on and that really doesn’t have much of an effect.”

He said he did think we “need someone to advocate for us as we’re trying to access state and federal funds that flow through the state.”

He qualified that view, however, noting, “If this role is purely to help us find grant opportunities, I would think each department would have within their department, or some collective source within the city, the ability to follow the grants related to their own field and be able to pull grants and how to access the funds.”

At the March 28 meeting, Reid said: “Maybe it’s a misnomer to call this person a lobbyist, because as was described by the City Manager, they [the person in that role] really wouldn’t be lobbying.

“As the City Manager describes, they do more connecting the city with existing resources or advocating – I guess, partial lobbying. But I’d really love to see … I’d really like a detailed report of what services were rendered for the $70,000.”

Braithwaite said he wished council members had spent more time discussing the need for the position.

“I think we have two members of our City Council and one member of our staff who have had a significant amount of experience working downstate, and I just don’t know, for a new position like this, where the value is in it – particularly how it’s going to benefit our tax base,” he said. “The one thing that I couldn’t figure out is, is this just a straight paid salary to an individual that we have not seen, will [not] have an opportunity to meet.”

‘Leaving money on the table’: Biss

Some other council members, including the two with the experience on legislative issues that Braithwaite had mentioned – Mayor Daniel Biss, a state legislator for eight years, and Council member Thomas Suffredin, an attorney whose practice includes lobbying – spoke to the need for the position.

Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, first elected to the Council in 1997, noted that Evanston had an intergovernmental affairs person on staff in the past, “and it made an enormous difference with how the city interacted with transit agencies, the state government … someone out there scanning the landscape in terms of things that need to be turned into grants.”

Biss and Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, pointed to initiatives the city is spearheading in mental health as well a lead pipe replacement program, for which officials will be looking for outside funding assistance.

“It is very clear to me that we are right now leaving money on the table,” Biss said. “And I don’t think anybody who looks at our budget would argue that we can afford to do that.’’

Along those lines, Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, said if the city brings on someone who can ask the right questions about where the money can be found “I have full confidence that the $70,000 will pay for itself.”

Reid stressed that he had no disagreement there. “Of course, I want us to have the capacity to look for all kinds of funds from the state, the federal – [if] there’s money in Venezuela, I’m looking for us to take it,” he said. “But I just want to see that it’s very clear what this firm is going to do.”

For instance, he envisioned pursuing legislation decriminalizing certain drug offenses, adopting a restorative model.

“Can I go to the city manager and say, ‘Hey, City Manager, I’d like this lobbyist to talk to the state about changing the home rule authority of a municipality [regarding] drug crime in the city?’ And is that something that would be taken up? Or what is the process? If one council member has something that they want to lobby at the state level, how do we move that forward?”

He also stressed that the council should have a say on what the lobbyist was lobbying for. “I’d really hate to see a lobbyist lobbying for something that is counter to the values of the majority of this Council, and, by extension, a majority of our community,” he said.

To Reid’s example of decriminalization, Suffredin said, the city already has an organization it could turn to in that case – the Illinois Municipal League, “which lobbies on behalf of all municipal governments, including us.”

He said the city lobbyist position would be “something Evanston-specific.” The person in that position would be interested in things that would affect the city of Evanston specifically, largely as it pertains to the funding and grants, he said.

Biss recalled working with the city’s Intergovernmental Affairs Director and mayor at the time, on several issues – the dissolution of the township, and changes allowing a business, F.E.W. Spirits, to produce alcohol within city limits.

“In the case of F.E.W. Spirits, there was clarity that there was agreement, there was no potential dissent,” he said. “And in the case of the township, the city ran an advisory referendum first to show me their support. I wouldn’t imagine that if a single council member went to the City Manager in this circumstance and said, ‘Hey, let’s go work on this thing,’ the decision tree would be, ‘Is this something that we know the whole community is for? If so, you know, go ahead. And if not, let’s bring it to council.’”

In such instances, he said. “I don’t think we’re talking about things that live anywhere close to a gray area of ‘Is there actually community support for it?’” he said.

City’s first lobbyist was given an immediate mission

The city brought in Larry Suffredin, Council member Thomas Suffredin’s father, as its first lobbyist in May 1986. Before that time, officials, acting informally, or local legislators filled that role.

The late Woods Bowman (D-4), the State Representative for Evanston at the time, recommended the city consider hiring a registered lobbyist to represent its interests in Springfield.

At the time, the city had believed, through talks with the state Capital Development Board, that $2.25 million in Build Illinois funds would be included in the governor’s budget.

When the budget book was dropped on Bowman’s desk several weeks later, though, the one item omitted was the money the city was relying on for viaduct work.

Suffredin’s first contract was for $10,000 and was intended to cover six weeks of intense work to convince legislators to place the $2.25 million back in the final $20 billion state budget.

Suffredin – with help from legislators like then-state Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-16) and state Senator Art Berman (D-9), a force in school funding – was successful helping the city secure funding on three viaducts at roughly $3 million apiece, including the new Clark Street viaduct.

He also traveled to Washington to lobby then-U.S. Representative Dan Rostenkowski, who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, on changes to the tax code to help make the Northwestern University/Evanston Research Park more viable.

“He was more intrigued with Northwestern football than Northwestern University,” Suffredin said.

Suffredin enlisted the help of Rostenkowski’s friend, longtime U.S. Representative Sidney Yates, whose 9th District included a portion of Evanston, to help. Rostenkowski found a spot for the change in the large tax bill his office was drafting, Suffredin recalled.

Suffredin, who would go on to become Evanston’s Democratic Committeeman, was not averse to working with legislators on the other side of the aisle.

He was still representing Evanston when Republicans Kathleen “Kathy” Parker and Elizabeth “Beth” Coulson were elected to the state Senate and House, respectively, and worked with them.

He brought in former Evanston Mayor Joan Barr, a Republican, to help lobby on the city’s behalf after Republicans under James “Pate” Phillip gained a majority in the Senate in the 1990s.

During that time, he also advised the city’s Electric Franchise Negotiating team, which refused to sign a “model agreement” with Commonwealth Edison. Other communities had signed a franchise agreement with the utility, locking them in for 35 years and longer.

In 2004, several years after Suffredin had left his role as lobbyist to serve as County Commissioner, the city agreed to an extension of its original agreement with ComEd, specifying stronger monitoring and improvements to the system that would not have been possible under the “model” agreement.

Suffredin stressed he was not acting alone. “I would meet on a weekly basis with the City Manager and other staff – [Corporation Counsel] Herb Hill would be at those meetings, [Assistant City Manager] Judy Aiello and we would go over the bills that were in Springfield and what was coming up the next week.”

Chicago has its own Department of Intergovernmental Affairs. Many of the suburbs, including ones much smaller than Evanston, have representatives in Springfield. Larry Suffredin serves as chair of the County’s Department of Intergovernmental Committee, and “We have seven outside lobbyists to go with five full-time people,” he said.

In his role as lobbyist, he said, he would adhere to a simple philosophy: “Educate, advocate, and solve the problem.”

To interest downstate legislators in legislation the city needed, he recalled, “I used to say, ‘Let’s try this in Evanston. If it works, it will be good for the state.’”

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.

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  1. It frosts me why we need a lobbyist to do our bidding for us? As a retiree from the MWRD, they’ve done the same thing (I even knew him). We are governments, not private enterprises trying to drink from the public trough. We’ve a state rep & state senator, so why can’t they convey our needs directly to Springfield?
    The defense rests your honor!