By AARON GETTINGER
After 20 years in office, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) won reelection by a narrow margin last month. In an interview with the Herald, she explained her many-fronted priorities, from a new ordinance on police oversight to keeping local property tax rates in check to her much-anticipated facilitation of the Obama Presidential Center community benefits agreement (OPC CBA).
Asked what lessons she took from this year’s campaign, Hairston said that it is important to be constantly visible. “As an elected official, your word is important. It’s what you have, and I think it’s important for me for people to be able to trust what I say,” she said.
“And you have to toot your own horn, and I did not toot my own horn as much as I should have,” she added. “When you’re fighting, everything is a fight, and when you have an administration that you are working with in earnest, and they are not working with you the same way, it becomes frustrating. And that’s where the tenacity comes in and having to do stuff not because of them or with them, but in spite of them.”
She is reorganizing and retraining her personnel, adding a community outreach element with a new dedicated staffer. “We’ve been doing the work, but if people don’t know about it,” she said. “It’s important for us to increase our visibility, let people know all of the good things that we do.” Timing is still up in the air; she said she is shooting to announce the changes once the new City Council and Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot take office.
A longtime member of the Council’s progressive reform caucus — but not, however, a member of its upstart Democratic Socialists of America contingent, whose ranks grew by five after the runoffs — Hairston looks forward to working with Lightfoot, who entered the race to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s left but ran more moderately than her runoff opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, whom Hairston endorsed.
Nevertheless, “It’s refreshing to see someone on the Fifth Floor who shares similar values,” Hairston said. She has not yet met with the mayor-elect one-on-one, but she has a meeting scheduled this week. “There are a lot of things that can be changed or implemented that we’ve been trying to do for years.”
For her part, the OPC CBA that she endorsed during the campaign is high on Hairston’s priority list, as it is on Lightfoot’s and Ald.-elect Jeanette Taylor’s (20th), with whom Hairston said she looks forward to collaborating. Hairston’s position since the runoff campaign is that she would facilitate between the CBA Coalition and groups in Hyde Park and South Shore, notably that neighborhood’s Chamber of Commerce and South Shore Works.
Asked about the logistics of facilitating, Hairston said she might bring the groups together in her office. “We have to deal first with the people who are directly impacted and those who have not been included in the past couple years,” she said. Hairston said the South Shore business and development groups are concerned with a neighborhood stabilization component and “making dollars available for small businesses,” which she said creates a need to involve financial institutions as well.
“This is local, so local banks will be contacted to see if we can put something together,” she said.
Much has been made of the OPC’s expected impact on property values and taxes, and Hairston pledged to meet with County Assessor Fritz Kaegi to discuss options. While Illinois’ rent control ban is under the purview of the General Assembly that did not advance legislation lifting it this session, Hairston pledged that her advocacy for rent control would remain.
There is also police accountability reform. In 2016, Hairston introduced legislation that would have created an Independent Citizen Police Monitor to investigate police shootings and reports of excessive use of force, coercive threats of violence, sexual misconduct and domestic violence. Emanuel’s proposed Civilian Office of Police Accountability passed instead, and Hairston criticized him for not including a citizens’ oversight board with the legislation and for what she considered insufficient funding.
This time around, Hairston expects greater aldermanic support for her proposed reforms. She said she started drafting another bill last week and plans to seek University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman’s assistance again. “I’ve been at the forefront of this. This is not new to me, and it’s important to know where the land mines are,” she said.
Hairston expressed no expectations of her committee assignments, noting that seniority on the Council does not translate to preferential placement. She noted her interest in consumer protection — anti-fraud representatives from various government agencies are a typical presence at her monthly ward meetings — and said there is work the Council could do to address the issues. “When the weather gets nice, it’s rip-off season,” she said. “It’s important that I bring information to [constituents] and show them where to go if they have problems.”
Many of Hairston’s political opponents have doubted her effectiveness over the years, but Hairston took a victory lap Monday morning, when news of Trader Joe’s coming to the Hyde Park Shopping Center was forthcoming. “During the campaign, people questioned, but if we could snap our fingers and make it happen, who wouldn’t do that?” she asked. “But it takes actual work, and it takes hard work.”
As with the Shop & Save Market that is planned for South Shore this autumn, she recalled the relationships she built to attract four new grocery stores to the ward, cold-calling supermarket chains and their boards of directors. A contact introduced her to Shop & Save owners Eva and Cezary Jakubowski, and she lobbied them to come to the 5th Ward. “It wasn’t until towards the end that the city came in and finished the deal, but getting people to the table — getting the equity — that was all me,” Hairston said.
Hairston hopes this sort of deal-making will be easier under the Lightfoot mayoralty. “It is refreshing to have an administration that wants to develop the South Side, that wants parity,” Hairston said. “I will be holding her accountable to that.”