The City of Chicago is struggling to overcome decades of mismanagement and financial irresponsibility that have resulted in declining neighborhoods, violent crime, population loss, overwhelming debt, pension shortfalls, ruinous interest payments, corruption, and potential bankruptcy. The new mayor and City Council will have hard work to do and tough decisions to make. Finding solutions to Chicago’s most intractable problems requires electing a strong mayor and a stronger City Council.
The 50th Ward’s representative to that City Council must be an active, involved, community-oriented individual focused on neighborhood improvement through resident empowerment and community economic development. Our alderman must also serve the City as a thoughtful, informed, and independent legislator willing to establish cooperative relationships with other Council members to accomplish common goals, and be capable of offering creative, innovative, and practical solutions to help resolve our City’s dilemmas.
Debra Silverstein is not that person.
Silverstein’s eight years as alderman have worsened the 50th Ward’s economic depression. Every one of our major shopping corridors–California, Devon, Lincoln, Touhy, Western–has declined, with vacant storefronts sometimes covering entire blocks. Some storefronts have been empty for years, as have some commercial buildings. Most residents must travel outside the ward to shop for the goods they need and want. Silverstein is simply not interested in doing the hard work involved in restoring the vitality that once characterized our shopping districts. She has offered no vision for the ward, instead insisting that it is “flourishing” despite the demonstrable evidence otherwise–more than 100 empty storefronts, unoccupied commercial buildings, and vacant lots. The ward is still waiting for the “spirited economic development plan” she promised in 2011.
Silverstein blocks all attempts at empowering residents. In 2016, she hired an attorney to challenge the petition to place a non-binding referendum on the ballot to bring participatory budgeting (PB) to the 50th Ward. During a recent aldermanic forum, she declared that even if 2,000 Ward residents voted for PB, she would be concerned they didn’t represent the entire ward. She has withheld zoning change requests from the community, and refused to establish a resident Zoning Advisory Board or hold community meetings on zoning changes, despite her claims to the contrary.
Her lack of transparency is nothing short of appalling. She conducts public business using a private email address and a private website instead of the ones provided by the City. Silverstein conducts public business via secret committees whose members are not accountable to residents and whose deliberations and recommendations are never made public. Two years after it was formed, the names of the members of the alderman’s secret advisory committee on the new library are still unknown. Silverstein recently revealed that last year she created yet more secret committees to advise her on economic development. She never reports on business before the City Council, or tells constituents how she voted on major issues. This level of secrecy does not exist in other wards. And it begs the question of why Silverstein thinks it’s necessary here.
There are objective data supporting the contention that she is a lazy, disinterested alderman. A recent report from WBEZ and The Daily Line documented aldermanic attendance at Council and committee meetings from May 2015 through December 2018. Silverstein managed to get to 200 of 360 meetings for an attendance rate of 56%. In 2016 alone, she attended only 31% of hearings on the City budget. She holds open office hours only once a week, for 2 hours, no rescheduling if Monday falls on a holiday. Her office closes early on Friday (currently 3:30 p.m.) but she never holds weekend hours. Silverstein has, however, been observed campaigning on Sundays.
A reliable rubber-stamp for Mayor Emanuel, Silverstein fails to fulfill her responsibilities as a legislator. She votes as she’s told to vote in the Council. She never takes part in Council debates, such as they are. She is never interviewed by radio or TV reporters, never asked to join broadcast panel discussions. Nobody cares what she thinks. She is a cipher in the Council.
There is a particularly telling moment in the recent PB documentary. City residents are testifying about their experiences with PB before the City Council, and Silverstein can be seen in the background, ignoring the speakers while entranced by her cell phone. When she realizes she is within camera range, she puts the phone down, sits up, and puts on an attentive face. The only thing that brings her to life is a camera.
Silverstein avoids the normal give-and-take between alderman and constituents. When she holds a town hall meeting, her function is to introduce the other speakers. She never appears alone and is visibly uncomfortable if asked a direct question.
Silverstein babbles incessantly about the diversity of the 50th Ward, but has done nothing to bridge the divides between groups. Skokie has a Festival of Cultures celebrating its diversity, but the 50th Ward doesn’t. Other wards have community picnics and Fourth of July parades, but the 50th Ward doesn’t. Other wards have winter festivals, farmers markets, and a wealth of cultural activities, many co-sponsored by the alderman, but the 50th Ward doesn’t.
Her sharp elbows are legendary. Silverstein takes credit for the work of others, whether City departments, local community groups, or her fellow Council members. Her campaign literature is filled with silly statements about how she “directed” the cleaning of sewers and the trimming of trees. She portrays herself as “fighting” for the money spent by Chicago Public Schools on building upgrades, additions, and recreational opportunities for students, when these are line items in the CPS capital budget. Silverstein didn’t secure one dollar. She claims on her campaign website that it was her “leadership” that brought the neighborhood the new library, when it was actually the vision nd initiative of the LEARN Coalition. Silverstein’s campaign literature arrogantly states that she “passed” legislation in the City Council without mentioning the work, help, or support of her fellow Council members.
She spends much of her time annoying the police in her efforts to supervise and direct their work. One of her favorite public safety initiatives involves posing with the police at outdoor roll calls. In one particularly ridiculous photo-op, she is exchanging a salute with uniformed officers. Silverstein recently claimed she “arranged” to have Cook County Police patrol Devon Avenue in response to a recent spate of shootings that she refused to discuss with the community. If she is indeed bypassing police command structures and negotiating directly with another branch of local government for police protection, she needs to be reined in for the good of the community, not to mention the police.
A vote for Debra Silverstein is a vote for laziness, secrecy, and incompetence. She has failed to create economic opportunity in the Ward. She has failed to deliver on past campaign promises. She has failed to articulate an inclusive vision for the Ward and its residents. Most importantly, she has failed to create community–that vital energy and spirit that motivates and empowers residents to work together for the common good. These failures are inexcusable.
Silverstein has not met her obligations as a City legislator. She has not fulfilled her duty to bring a strong voice to the City Council, or to adequately represent the views of her constituents. How can she speak for us when she doesn’t speak with us?
The problems facing the City of Chicago and the 50th Ward are too perilous to re-elect Debra Silverstein.