5th Ward Aldermanic Re-Election (Leslie Hairston)
She Votes Illinois Questions
1. Tell us about yourself
A Chicago native, I have been a fierce community advocate with deep roots in the South Shore and Hyde Park neighborhoods I have represented as alderman since 1999. In the City Council, I sit on six committees, chair the Black Caucus Sub-committee on Business and am a member of the Progressive Reform Coalition. I previously served as assistant attorney general for the state of Illinois and staff attorney and special prosecutor for the State’s Attorney’s Appellate Prosecutor’s Office, where I argued before the Illinois State Supreme Court.
My long tenure as alderman gives me a uniquely knowledgeable, comprehensive and in-depth perspective on the ward’s stakeholders, needs, assets, issues and challenges. I am particularly proud of the 5th Ward’s reputation for independent, progressive politics; diversity on every level; notable cultural and lakefront assets; and partnerships I have built between the community, business and government to develop, preserve and refurbish several local institutions. My office collaborated with local organizations to do extensive market research on the ward, which I used successfully in going directly to desired businesses and attending trade events — instrumental in attracting the first drive-thru Starbucks in Chicago despite City Hall’s obsession with downtown projects.
I have created an extensive record of ward improvements and national reputation for my opposition to the privatization of City assets and services. I’m running again because I’d like to steer to completion on-going projects and those still on the drawing board. Several require the strong relationships I have developed with city agencies, educational institutions, community organizations and businesses that service the ward. I’ve learned to navigate through the many points of power that enable me to take “can’t” to creative ways to “can.”
2. Tell us about the women in your life
My mother had the greatest impact on me, for being strong, challenging the status quo. As a child, I marched with her and other teachers in Springfield. I watched her go to school part-time, while working and raising a family, to become a principal. I learned that “can do spirit,” “if it’s not right, fight” from her and that you can change things.
Barbara Flynn Curry was our state rep for 40 years, the longest tenure of any woman to serve in the Illinois General Assembly. She taught me how to navigate and advocate for women in a male-dominated political environment. Sue Purrington wasn’t an elective official, but I admired her passion and whole-hearted involvement in women’s groups and issues. She stood up at times when it wasn’t popular to do so, whether for black, civil, women’s or a variety of other rights.
The “old boys network” alive and well, still dismissive of women and doubly so for women of color. They back and write checks for each other based on relationship. There’s also a double standard where men are taken for their word, while women have to work for that, prove they can do something.
I have supported women’s right to choose, self-defense classes, a whistle stop and mentoring programs. My strong advocacy for affirmative action, a living wage, nonunion rights and benefits particularly help working mothers and female dominated service employees. I have been a member or supporter with Planned Parenthood, League of Women Voters, several black women’s political/civic organizations, and AKA sorority.
3. Tell us about your Ward
I think the most unique aspect is the ward’s diversity on every level. It encompasses Woodlawn, Greater Grand Crossing, South Shore and Hyde Park. There’s a lot of history here. Some of it is tied to well — known remnants of the World’s Fair, like the Museum of Science and Industry. I also remember when locally owned businesses lined 63rd Street, including my own family’s Avenue Lounge. The “vibe” is “be you, do you.” It’s a place where people want to be, whatever their interests or mood.
On the Lakefront you could experience an old school music picnic, half marathon or seniors hosted at one of our harbors. We have venues with music and art spanning nearly every genre. There’s food from a wide variety of cultures, choices from high-end restaurants, fast-food vegetarian, to gourmet burgers, fried fare and specialty desserts. The most popular hangouts include The Point, the beaches and Woodlawn Tap on 55th St. My favorites are Starbuck’s on 71st & Stony Island Ave. and the eastern most point of the nature sanctuary behind the South Shore Cultural Center, a great vantage to see the sun rise and the city skyline.
Our women-oriented organizations include League of Women Voters, Older Women’s League, Affinity Community Services, Polished Pebbles mentoring program, and the national headquarters for AKA sorority. As to challenges, jobs/economic development and housing are all tied together as the most concerning issue.
4. Platform Questions
We know Chicago has lost a lot of its African American population. We need to improve existing neighborhood schools, which is a major attraction for families with school-age children. That has been one of my focuses during my term. Residents fight for enrollment in several Hyde Park neighborhood schools, but we have been improving the levels of others elsewhere, some dramatically. We also now have Gary Comer College Prep and South Shore School of Fine Arts.
The city council has potential legislation languishing in the Finance Committee that calls for investigating the various aspects of taking action. I fully support measures that result in proper testing and remediation, after thorough review of the best way to fund them. It’s unconscionable that we would continue to tolerate the proven negative impact of lead, especially on low-income children vulnerable to a multitude of other physical and mental health threats.
C. Women-Owned Businesses
I have authored/supported legislation to include affirmative action criteria for all city contracts, for both personnel of contractors and using minority/women owned businesses, and am currently advocating for such goals with regards to the Obama Presidential Center. I advocated for a CBA with Wal-Mart. Cong. Bobby Rush and I convinced the University of Chicago, which employs more people than the city, to open its bidding process to minorities and women, which had never been done before and has been very successful. Given that women entrepreneurs make up a large percentage of businesspeople, we should be increasing current participation goals significantly.
Whatever the problems or negative perceptions, we need to keep and use directories to women-owned businesses. Unfortunately, what we have now does not reflect anecdotal information or encourage relationships. The city could do a much better job of providing opportunities for women-owned companies to meet with majority companies before or during the RFP process. This could give both sides an opportunity to explore each others’ credibility and suitability for partnership.
D. Community Safety
Obviously, this is a complex issue that must be addressed by partnerships on several fronts — schools, the police department, mental health services, youth/community groups, job development. I meet routinely with all on quality of life and criminal behavior. My office, together with CPD and neighborhood organizations hold events and conduct activities to provide safe alternatives for young people, as well as dialogue opportunities with representatives of the justice system.
I rely on several local organizations for best practices, such as the Comer Foundation for youth homelessness and domestic violence. The University of Chicago has a wrap-around program for gun violence victims and their families to reduce the chances of again becoming patients at the trauma center. Other resources include Lawrence Hall, Black United Fund, ABJ, South Shore Works, I Am My Brothers Keeper, Nation of Islam, Leave No Veteran Behind, the Park District and schools.
I believe the civilian review board I proposed in city council is critical to reforming a system that disproportionately ensnares black and brown residents. It incorporates critical recommendations from GAPA and CPAC. Without that first step, history has shown nothing will change. Sadly, we cannot at this point control one of the biggest factors — easy access to weapons that contribute to so much violence, trauma and lost lives. Law enforcement officials say 40 percent of guns confiscated on the streets of Chicago come from suburban Cook County and nearby suburbs and 60 percent from Indiana, Wisconsin and Mississippi. We must lobby our state government to restore the teeth they eliminated from Chicago’s previously strong municipal regulations.
5. Closing Comments
The Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency’s 2018 study of economic disparities detailed the historical, systemic and devastating racism that has resulted in decades of disinvestment in majority black communities. It concludes that only a comprehensive, regional approach can revitalize and stem the mass exodus from those areas, none of which has the resources to do on its own. I know from long experience that trying to do so is like pushing a boulder up a hill. You make progress with one strategy, only to find yourself slipping because of another.
Thankfully, with that vision, I have also seen a way to push to the top — the South Suburban Airport. In fact, CMAP back in 2007 did a report on SSA that predicted its benefits for nearly all the problems we face 10 years later. The FAA foresaw its need over 40 years ago, accurately figuring that O’Hare and Midway would have reached capacity by now. Beyond re-establishing Chicago as the transportation hub of the Midwest, SSA will mean thousands of jobs and revenue dollars, as well as countless business opportunities for constituents like mine.
No amount of the traditional “remedies” of social programs, cannibalistic gambling or big box enterprises and regressive taxes, fees or fines can equal the economic engine of the SSA. Four governors — two Republicans, two democrats — brought the SSA to 90 percent ready for completion. Chicago’s last two mayors fought it for parochial, political reasons, choosing instead to throw billions into “modernizing” the limitations of current nearby airports. Just south of University Park, SSA will be about a 20-minute METRA ride for folks who are used to the longest commute to work in the nation. I will consider that in my plans for the ward and will be advocating the support from our new governor and mayor.