4th Ward alderman to step down after 12 years

Sara Peck

Evanston is one of those weird city-towns – just large enough for two school districts, but small enough that government officials probably know your business.

And if anyone knows your business, it’s Steve Bernstein, who will step down as 4th ward alderman May 11.

We mean the names and ages of your kids, your most recent jobs and your preferred brand of Ben and Jerry’s. There are only so many grocers in Evanston, after all.

“Jan Schakowsky doesn’t see her constituents at the grocery store,” the 63-year-old said. “(My family and I) literally have to go away to Wisconsin to get out of town. When you become an alderman, you serve 24-7.”

After serving 12 years as alderman and holding other city posts such as township assessor, Bernstein is a marked man in his last few weeks of office.

Not that he doesn’t love it. The way he talks about the city, you’d never want to leave. To Bernstein, the city is a proverbial Cheers, where everyone knows his name and politics, sometimes to his own destruction.

“I’ve found that I can’t meet him anywhere the least bit public because everyone knows him – we’ll keep getting interrupted,” said Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd), who has sat next to Bernstein for 12 years at Monday night meetings.

At those meetings, which start at 5:30 p.m. and sometimes go until midnight, citizens are allowed to present their concerns to the council: a local theater production, whining about city spending or someone complaining that no one picked up the garbage. Wynne said Bernstein often scribbles notes to her while people speak, giving her a mini-biography – what positions they’ve held, committees they’ve joined and the names of their kids.

THE PERSONA

“He has a terrific sense of humor,” Wynne said. “He can pick up the phone and call anyone.”

And pick up the phone he did, during a 3-hour trip to Springfield, Ill. for a conference, just after returning from Mexico, a marathon city council meeting and a day of work.

Bernstein grew up in Albany Park and moved to Skokie just before starting 8th grade. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1968, Bernstein attended law school at DePaul University, where he met his wife, whom he calls his “lady.” While an undergraduate, he was elected president of his fraternity, Phi Epsilon Phi.

Bernstein estimates that on a “hot” week, aldermanic duties consume about 50 hours. On some Thursdays, Bernstein would receive 1,000 pages of reading to do for a Monday meeting. The alderman said he tries to stay open-minded, drawing the line only for “reactionary crap chain e-mails” that sometimes end up in his inbox.

“I told (incoming alderman Don Wilson) this: ‘Don’t ever think that you know everything. Just because you have an opinion doesn’t make it right,'” he said.

But Bernstein hasn’t been afraid of criticism, whether receiving it or doling it out.

“I don’t want to prejudge, but you really can’t show me anything I haven’t heard or tried to argue before.” he said.

MEET THE BERNSTEINS

After 35 years of marriage, Bernstein is still a ladies’ man, although he has a lot of estrogen to deal with. He has three daughters, one granddaughter and has had several female cats.

Bernstein worked at his law firm with his wife for many years until she won a seat as a judge in Chicago. After the office became “a little lonely,” Bernstein worked in the public law arena for a few years. Now he says he’s planning to “join (his) lady on the bench.”

Bernstein said he’ll stay involved in Evanston while making time to sufficiently spoil his granddaughter.

“Evanston is a great city to grow up in,” he said. “It’s truly diverse, and diversity to me means that you’re not just living next to someone of a different skin color. You get to know them and love them. You know, we’re all miniscule specks of sand in the universe. Wow – how eloquent I’ve become in my old age.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily will profile all three retiring Evanston aldermen before they officially leave their posts on May 11.

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