Andrew Rowlas impressed, Zehra Quadri was nervous, and Debra Silverstein tried on Rahm’s 2015 sweater at Thursday’s aldermanic forum. The format was time-efficient but did not permit the candidates to question or challenge one another’s statements. Audience members submitted written questions before and during the forum.
The West Ridge Community Organization sponsored the event and did an excellent job hosting about 50-60 residents on a cold, blustery night.
The candidates’ statements clearly reflected their worldview, life / work experiences, and problem-solving approaches.
Quadri’s nerves got the better of her in the early part of the evening, but she made some important observations about the ward based on her nearly two decades of community service work through the organization she founded, Zam’s Hope. Quadri identifies problems, defines solutions, and seeks funding for programs to relieve suffering and improve people’s lives. She has worked extensively with small business owners and knows firsthand the difficulties involved in starting up and nurturing a new enterprise.
Rowlas, who has a PhD in education, emerged as a reflective and pragmatic thinker who takes a holistic approach to solving problems. He connect the dots and believes that systemic change is necessary if we are to return to more democratic ways of accomplishing our goals.
Silverstein bought a lot of professional help this time around and was accompanied by Ira, several staff members from both her office and her campaign, and a videography team. She debuted a new, gentler persona that reminded me of the 2015 election and Rahm’s campaign sweater. Immediately after the election the sweater was tossed and it was–and will be– business as usual. She had nothing new to say– streetscape, public safety, new library, blah blah blah.
Opening statements. Andrew Rowlas said that among the reasons he is running for alderman is his concern that “we have lost our deliberative democracy,” noting that while Chicago is one of the largest cities in the United States, it no longer functions well. He believes we can and must do better. Zehra Quadri detailed nearly two decades of community service work. Debra Silverstein stated and restated her three key talking points–the Devon streetscape, the new library, and public safety.
The streetscape has created a traffic nightmare that leaves the area choking on vehicle emissions. The new library is no longer “state-of-the-art” but has been surpassed by the South Shore branch, which is larger, will contain a recording studio for teens and young adults, and will have a teacher on staff after school.
Silverstein’s obsession with police work is beginning to worry me. West Ridge consistently ranks as one of the safest areas in the City, and not because of anything Silverstein has done. Middle class communities tend to have lower crime rates overall, and most of the crimes in this neighborhood are property crimes–stolen bikes, graffiti, garage break-ins. There is occasional violence, and sometimes residents are the victims of violent crime elsewhere, but it’s the officers of the 24th and 19th police districts who keep the neighborhood safe, not Silverstein. They don’t need her advice on how to do it, either.
Aldermanic priorities. Quadri cited education, youth and senior services, economic opportunity, and availability to the community. Her legislative priorities would include funding community programs and participatory budgeting. Rowlas would focus on encouraging civic participation through initiatives such as participatory budgeting and community councils to guide zoning and economic and community development. Silverstein would continue to emphasize public safety, education–specifically her “work” with school principals, and said she hopes to “continue” her work on economic development. Continue? When did she start? Judging by her own newsletter, her “work” with principals consists of the annual paper-plate pizza lunch.
Participatory budgeting. Rowlas and Quadri are for it, Silverstein against, saying she has “concerns” that, if only 2,000 residents take part in the process, it isn’t “reflective” of the ward’s 59,000 residents who didn’t participate. Yes, that’s what she said. She was re-elected in 2015 by roughly 20% of the ward’s registered voters, which is not “reflective” of all the ward’s residents, either. Not all eligible residents are registered voters, and in that election fewer than 30% of registered voters went to the polls. Her argument is nonsense. She doesn’t intend to give up one iota of power and doesn’t want the community involved in public business.
Zoning. Rowlas and Quadri support residential input into zoning matters. Silverstein said she always meets with residents before every zoning change, sometimes with the community as a whole, sometimes only with those affected by the change. Yes, that’s what she said. I’ve never been invited to any zoning change meetings, have you? And how does Silverstein know who’s “affected”?
Corruption. Rowlas sees this as a structural problem in City government, and noted that there’s a code of silence among aldermen, with most not challenging the corruption they encounter. Silverstein said she voted for more oversight of the City Council in 2016, and stated that with a new mayor and changes in the City Council, there would be more independence for the aldermen, adding that she wants a more independent council. Yes, that’s what she said. Never mind that she was one of Rahm’s most reliable allies, voting with him 98% of the time in the last two years. Never mind that she rarely speaks at Council meetings and simply goes along with whatever the mayor wants.
New Revenue. Rowlas pointed out that all current revenue sources are negative–taxes, fees, and fines. Quadri would seek government grants and other funding. Silverstein thinks that a casino is a possible source of new revenue and that it would also help the hospitality industry–hotels and restaurants. According to recent reports, lack of interest by millennials and market saturation are seriously affecting the gambling industry, and gambling income in Illinois has been consistently shrinking.
Aldermanic Communication. Both Rowlas and Quadri would make better use of technology to communicate with residents. Rowlas would hold more frequent meetings with the community, use his newsletter to discuss business pending before the City Council, and get community input before making decisions. Silverstein touted her weekly two-hour ward night, her weekly newsletter, and her frequent contacts with the community through “her” flu shot clinic, annual movie night, and job fairs. She noted that residents frequently approach her in the “neighborhood” Jewel and Target. The events she cited are City-sponsored, paid for with tax dollars; that she takes credit for bringing to the ward . In fact, every ward in the city is included in these programs . The “neighborhood stores” she mentioned are both in Evanston. Even the alderman has to leave the ward to do her shopping.
Economic Development. Quadri would invite the community to participate in economic development and planning via community meetings. She would also develop special projects and work to ensure there is more variety and less duplicative retailing. Rowlas also noted that the neighborhood does not have a wide variety of stores and only one coffee shop. He would create a community development board to find out what kind of retailing residents want and work to bring those businesses in, noting that celebrating the occasional store opening is not an economic plan. Silverstein stated that “there is no zoning change that happens without a community meeting.” That’s what she said, but it’s a lie, as demonstrated by her stealth zoning change for the parcel that would have become the medical marijuana clinic. After the City’s zoning board granted Silverstein’s wishes and voted against the clinic, Silverstein changed the zoning to “residential” without any public notice.
Affordable Housing and Rent Control. Quadri noted that affordable housing brings funds into a community and there is a need for rental assistance programs. Such measures also bring jobs. Rowlas noted that “affordable” is defined as no more than 30% of one’s income, and stated that people are entitled to housing they can afford, and that it should be “decent and clean.” Silverstein bragged that in the past eight years she has brought 44 units of affordable housing to the community–44!–all of them located in the new library. She added that rent control would have to be “greenlighted” by Springfield, and was concerned that rent control could affect housing availability. She said she wants to keep the neighborhood affordable for families, but didn’t define “affordable.” The alderman has never attempted to create affordable housing in the 50th Ward. The new housing development she authorized on Western Avenue consists of condos and townhouses in the $400,000-$500,000 range, well out of reach for working-class families.
Public Safety. Silverstein bragged about “organizing” police roll call meetings, voting for the municipal ID card and against ICE activities. She cited attacks on Sikhs and last October’s synagogue shooting as reasons for concern, and even referenced the 2012 mass shooting of Sikhs. These events happened, respectively, in Oregon, California, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. There is no credible threat in Chicago.
I think that Silverstein’s obsessive focus on public safety results from (1) the understandable fears of the Orthodox community that it might come under attack at any moment, and (2) the fear felt by new immigrants, strangers in a new land whose language and culture they often do not understand.
The recent shooting of Eliyahu Moscowitz in Rogers Park magnified Jewish fears, though he was one of two victims and there is no evidence he was targeted because he was a Jew. Anti-Semitism is a powerful force, and it crosses all racial, ethnic, religious, and class lines. The threat is real. What I object to is the alderman’s constant stoking of that fear for political gain.
Many new immigrants often perceive common American behaviors as threatening because of their own life experiences in their countries of origin. This is especially true when their children begin to cast off traditional ways and enjoy the new freedoms they have found in America.
But I think Silverstein’s obsessive focus on crime does not reflect the community viewpoint and can instead instill the belief that one lives surrounded by criminals. That’s just not so. Silverstein’s obsession with police and police activities is beginning to be a bit creepy.
Quadri, who serves on the CAPS Board, also believes the ward is not safe, saying that people are afraid to be out after dark. Rowlas pointed out that crime is reduced by economic development, good jobs, good schools, forming block clubs so neighbors get to know one another, and community empowerment. He recommends building police-community trust by having beat cops that neighbors can get to know.
Police Reform. Rowlas favors CPAC (Civilian Police Accountability Council). He believes there is too much power in the Mayor’s office and too much “yielding” in the City Council. Silverstein favors the consent decree negotiated between the Obama Justice Department and the Chicago Police. Quadri would give more power to the police and “let them do their job.”
Public Bank – Yes or No? Quadri – No. Rowlas – Yes. Silverstein – Undecided. But if the new mayor’s for it, Silverstein will be too.
Who are you endorsing for Mayor? Quadri – No one. Rowlas – Lori Lightfoot. Silverstein – Undecided. No surprises here. Quadri has no money so she is of no interest to mayoral candidates. Lightfoot endorsed Rowlas. Silverstein will not risk offending the next boss but will find plenty of nice things to say once she knows who it is.
Climate Change. All three candidates favor renewable energy.
CTA (specifically, extending the route of the 49B Western bus to Howard). Quadri would meet with the community. Rowlas would move the end of the route to Howard, and review needs on each transit line. Silverstein claimed “constant conversations with the CTA” but said transit depends on ridership levels.
The “ridership levels” argument is typical of the old way of thinking about city services. Residents need to travel to work and shopping. Public transit–an essential service–must be available regardless of ridership level.
Retaining Chicago Residents. Silverstein said the 50th Ward is “flourishing.” She noted that the SSA promotes Devon Avenue and that people are flocking here from all over the City and beyond to shop in our unique stores.
This is the standard Silverstein line on Devon Avenue, in use since the 2015 election. It isn’t true. In fact, there’s been a huge drop in retailing revenue in the 50th Ward during Silverstein’s tenure as alderman. A “flourishing” Ward does not have blocks of vacant storefronts and empty commercial buildings. Why Silverstein thinks the streetscape will help retain residents is a mystery. But that’s what she said
Quadri believes that residents will remain in Chicago and new residents will be attracted to the city if they have options and feel comfortable here. Rowlas said that he saw community empowerment as key, citing the need to involve residents in community development, economic planning, and participatory budgeting. He would also improve communications between the alderman and the people.
Closing Statements. Rowlas talked about building a cultural and performing arts center that would serve local residents and bring tourists and residents from other communities to the 50th Ward. He noted that people would then spend money at restaurants and shops. Quadri discussed her community service work and the need to support families. Silverstein declared that she is honored to be the alderman, has brought major improvements to the ward, cited her work with the police and the schools, and continues to work on economic development.
Candidates remained available to any audience member with further questions.
The next 50th Ward candidate forum will take place on Sunday, February 10, at 2 p.m. at the Bernard Horwich Center. It will focus on economic development.