Longtime advocate Jeff Smith prioritizing progressive aims


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Mayoral candidate Jeff Smith speaks at a city meeting. Smith is running on a progressive platform including environmental stewardship and affordable housing.

Nora Shelly, City Editor

When Jeff Smith was an undergraduate student at Northwestern, he saw Jimmy Carter speak in front of a sparse crowd on campus. Invigorated, he soon found himself volunteering at the local Democratic Party office.

Smith began knocking on doors throughout Evanston for candidates like Abner Mikva, a longtime Evanston congressman who died last year. More than 40 years later, Smith is still knocking on those same doors for his own campaign.

“There’s no one I know who has been more involved in almost every important issue in Evanston, whether it’s zoning or environmental or preserving the lakefront or bicycling,” said Richard Wright, a supporter of Smith’s campaign for mayor. “Jeff never gets tired out.”

Smith said he “honed his chops” working for the Democratic Party of Evanston. He said the experience spurred a lifetime of political involvement. After settling in Evanston in 1990, Smith began volunteering for school board campaigns and local environmental and neighborhood projects.

He said the years he’s spent listening to the the years he’s spent listening to the “concerns and fears and hopes and dreams of literally thousands of people” have made him fit to run for mayor.

“I have the unique experience of having been both in government … and on the other hand having spent most of my political existence fighting with underdogs, the marginalized, the left out or people who are perhaps hurting but feel unheard,” he said.

The last of the five candidates to announce his candidacy, Smith is focusing his campaign off a progressive platform, prioritizing environmental and affordability issues, a move he says comes from a lifetime of activism.

Along with several others, Smith helped start the Central Street Neighbors Association, which works to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

As mayor, Smith said he would continue to work to preserve the character of Evanston.

“I don’t mean quaint looking lampposts,” he said. “It’s more the mix of people and housing and lifestyles and the intellectual curiosity and artistic vibrancy that the town can offer.”

Part of preserving Evanston’s character is ensuring affordable housing and preserving diversity, Smith said.

Smith said he would factor affordability concerns into every major city decision as mayor. Although working for these issues would be difficult, Smith said it would be a priority.

“It’s widely accepted that Evanston values and cherishes its mix,” he said.

Another way to keep Evanston affordable — and diverse — would be to address regressive taxes, Smith said. The city should work with school districts to keep property tax increases low, and should readdress how it handles fees and fines, he said. Additionally, Smith said he would work to make city spending more efficient.

“I’m kind of a policy wonk,” he said. “There’s money to be saved in how Evanston does business … and it’s our obligation to provide services efficiently if it’s our own taxation that is part of what is making it hard to live here.”

Just as Smith is planning on factoring affordability issues into every major city decision, he is also putting environmental stewardship at the helm of his platform. Smith recently served as the general counsel for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Pat Quinn.

“The planet is in trouble right now because environmental issues are constantly getting pushed to the back of the bus,” Smith said. “Politics at every level needs more champions of the earth.”

Part of his plan is to preserve the Harley Clarke mansion and the surrounding parkland. Smith prioritizes lakefront preservation and advocates for environmental and sustainability job training programs. He also supports marketing the city for “green” businesses and for increasing use and ease of public transit.

Smith was one of the founding directors of Citizens’ Greener Evanston and helped form the Evanston Climate Change Action plan. Chris Wissemann, a Citizens’ Greener Evanston board member, said Smith is a “committed environmentalist.”

The two worked together on looking into putting a wind farm in Lake Michigan.

“His breadth and depth of knowledge on environmental law is unparallelled,” Wissemann said. “He is very aware of the tensions between commercial enterprise and use of the lake and keeping it pristine.”

Smith said Evanston could “set a national standard in leadership on environmental issues and stewardship of natural resources.”

Additionally, Smith said he felt the city could further become a leader in other issues that “contrast to what many sense the direction that America may be lurching.”

Greg Andrus (School of Professional Studies ’16), said he became politically active after the November election and was drawn to support Smith after a DPOE meeting last year. Smith was one of a few at the meeting who was willing to criticize the national Democratic party for the results of the presidential election, Andrus said.

“He’s not going to toe the line for establishment politicians,” Andrus said. “He’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers. We need that.”

Smith said he identifies with politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in his political beliefs, but has a faith in “collective action from ordinary people.” Such action from Evanston would be needed over the next four years, he said.

“Government done right is hard work,” he said. “To me, a place with the political capital, the intellectual capital and the just plain capital like Evanston ought to be exerting a leadership force on the political landscape.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Jeff Smith. He said a place with “intellectual capital” like Evanston should exert leadership on the political landscape. The Daily regrets the error.

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Twitter: @noracshelly