Elizabeth Tisdahl reflects on mayoral legacy


Daniel Tian/Daily Senior Staffer

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl speaks at the Refugee Freedom Seder in Parkes Hall on Wednesday. Tisdahl will be finishing her term as mayor in May, after serving in the position since 2009.

Rishika Dugyala, Reporter

Lorraine Morton first met Elizabeth Tisdahl about 30 years ago, before either of them had any mayoral ambitions.

Morton was on the way to pick up her youngest granddaughter — then in fifth grade — from softball practice when she found the team playing with a woman she’d never seen before.

“It was Liz Tisdahl,” Morton recalled. “And I was so much impressed with her doing that because she didn’t have a child on that softball team. She was just doing it for other people.”

Even after Morton began her tenure as the city’s longest-serving mayor in 1993, she continued to cross paths with Tisdahl. Ten years later, when Morton had to appoint a new 7th Ward alderman, she turned to Tisdahl. After some arm-twisting, Tisdahl agreed to serve.

Fast-forward five years to the end of Morton’s fourth mayoral term.

“When I knew that I was not going to run for office as mayor again, my thoughts were, ‘Hmm, who should replace me?’” Morton said. “Honestly, and this is the truth, I didn’t think of any other name except Liz Tisdahl.”

When Morton asked her to run for office, Tisdahl said her immediate reaction was, “Absolutely not.” But eight years later, reflecting on her time as Evanston’s mayor, she said the job turned out to be “wonderful” and “absolutely fun.”

Becoming the ‘face of Evanston’

Tisdahl said she decided to run for mayor after noticing that many of the city’s minority residents were leaving because they could no longer afford to live in Evanston.

When she first took office, Tisdahl said people told her she was now the “face of Evanston.” However, Tisdahl said she didn’t appreciate the meaning until she flew to Washington, D.C. in mid-2009 to lobby state officials for money to expand affordable housing.

At the time, many middle- and low-income residents in the 2nd, 5th and 8th Wards were losing their homes to foreclosure as they struggled to pay for housing, Ald. Delores Holmes (5th) said. Holmes, whose ward was hit the hardest, said she worked with Tisdahl to write a federal grant application. Any money the city received would be used to repurchase and sell previously foreclosed properties as well as create new affordable units, Holmes said.

The city ended up receiving an $18 million grant.

“The day Sen. Dick Durbin called to say we’d gotten funding was the day that I realized that there really was something to this ‘being a mayor’ thing,” Tisdahl said.

Tisdahl soon realized she would be making frequent trips to the nation’s capital on behalf of the city. In 2012, she returned to Washington to lobby federal officials on another issue: health care.

A few years before Tisdahl was elected, the city had stopped providing direct health services due to budget concerns, city manager Wally Bobkiewicz said. To fill the gap, Tisdahl secured a designation for a federally qualified health center in Evanston.

Shortly after receiving funding, the Erie Family Health Center opened a temporary location in the city before establishing a permanent Evanston/Skokie branch a year later. The center allowed individuals with no or low coverage to get the services they needed, Bobkiewicz said.

Since 2012, Erie Evanston/Skokie has seen almost 12,000 patients, said Rachel Krause, a spokeswoman for the health center.

“It used to take three months for someone to get into the clinic at Evanston Hospital,” Tisdahl said. “Now you could get health care immediately.”

Milestone initiatives

Over the years, Tisdahl has continued her efforts to make Evanston a more affordable and sustainable city.

When she entered office, Tisdahl’s main focus was job creation, particularly with the intention of increasing employment to decrease criminal activity. The city hired outreach workers who accompanied Tisdahl as she walked around Evanston on summer nights, talking to people “hanging out on the streets,” Tisdahl said. They all told her the same thing: They wanted jobs, but had no resume or the right skills.

Tisdahl set out to increase employment. First, she said, she expanded the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which only had 167 jobs set up in 2009. Johanna Leonard, the city’s economic development manager, said the program grew by at least 100 jobs each year since 2012, employing 750 youth in 2016.

Next, Tisdahl said the city partnered with Northwestern, NorthShore University HealthSystem and other businesses to establish apprenticeship programs and job training for adults.

Following national trends, Evanston’s unemployment rate dropped from around 8 percent in 2009 to 4.1 percent this February.

The mayor’s tenure also brought about changes to the city’s sustainability efforts. According to a 2015 emissions report, Evanston reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 18.6 percent between 2005 and 2015.

Bobkiewicz said although the city had focused on climate and energy issues before Tisdahl, the mayor helped officials broaden their understanding of sustainability to include transportation, mobility, equity and empowerment.

In 2014, Evanston became one of America’s first two cities to receive a four-star rating from the Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating Communities initiative, a comprehensive self-reporting system on sustainability that awards cities for their statistics, services and engagement of citizens.

Mending town-gown relations

Back when she was campaigning for mayor, Tisdahl said people would ask her what she would do to improve the city’s relationship with Northwestern.

“All the other candidates said we ‘need better communication,’” Tisdahl said. “I said, ‘I’m going to throw a party.’ And they all thought that was the dumbest idea in the world.”

But with a new University president coming into office around the same time as a new mayor, Tisdahl said she was determined to break down barriers.

Tisdahl said the feud between the University and the city had many facets: Northwestern doesn’t pay property taxes, which upset aldermen who blamed the University when there wasn’t enough funding to address issues in the city. Additionally, the nighttime schedules of the roughly 3,000 off-campus students rankled Evanston residents living near Northwestern.

However, when University President Morton Schapiro moved to Evanston months after the new mayor’s election, Tisdahl delivered on a campaign promise: She threw a party and baked him cookies.

“She’s always reaching out, always trying to say, ‘What can we do to improve the relationship?’” Schapiro said. “She’s got a great attitude about everything. I just watch her and I see how she listens to people, how she cares about people, and she’s a great role model and mentor to me.”

Schapiro said because the University has an enormous budget — $2.2 billion annually — it gives millions of dollars to the city each year through building permits, taxes and other grants. NU has invested in the Robert Crown Community Center, established a more visible presence in Evanston Township High School and provided the mayor with a five-year annual discretionary fund of about $1 million.

More importantly, Schapiro said, NU students are “blessed” to be part of a vibrant community with a diverse downtown.

“I don’t expect the undergraduate students at Northwestern to realize what this woman has done to make their lives better,” Schapiro said. “But if they really knew the history and they really knew that woman, they would just thank her.”

Tisdahl said in the future, the new mayor would be well-served in doing more to bridge the gap between various city departments and NU professors.

“And,” she noted, “I hope everyone will forget that I closed the Keg at some point. Just remember the new mayor is not the mayor who closed the Keg, so be nice to the new mayor.”

A future in politics

Although she loved being mayor, Tisdahl said she decided against a third term because she had accomplished all her policy goals.

Fifth Ward business owner Nathan Haliburton said though he was sad to see her go, Tisdahl had effectively given the public a voice during her time in office. In 2011, for example, she pushed for more responsive customer service in the city and helped establish Evanston’s 311 system.

Haliburton also praised the mayor’s efforts to increase public awareness around police procedures after people expressed concerns about unjust arrests.

“She would always listen to both sides and not immediately say the police and aldermen were right,” Haliburton said. “She would bring it to a committee to investigate.”

Going forward, Tisdahl said she’d like to see both less crime and better police-community relations. She said she expects the new mayor to lead community-wide discussions about policing and closely examine the city’s targeted stop-and-frisk policy.

Tisdahl said she considered numerous qualifications before endorsing her successor. Ultimately, she said, she chose businessman Steve Hagerty because of his focus on economic development and job creation — both of which she said would help stem violence and sustain the city through a historic state budget impasse.

As of Wednesday evening, Hagerty held a 159-vote lead in the mayoral race. Hagerty said though he is “potentially more extroverted” than Tisdahl, he will take many cues from the mayor, including her ability to interact with much of the community.

“In the process of campaigning, people have said, ‘I really am impressed that Mayor Tisdahl has endorsed you, that means a lot to me,’” Hagerty said. “I hope that I can continue to provide a steady hand in the leadership of the city.”

Though Tisdahl’s mayoral career is almost over, she said her work in politics is not quite done. After spending her summer traveling, she will join the finance committee for State Sen. Daniel Biss’s (D-Evanston) gubernatorial campaign to raise money, make phone calls and organize events.

“I was going to work for Hillary, but that didn’t work out too well,” Tisdahl said. “So I’m going to work for Daniel, and I certainly will work for a presidential candidate to defeat Trump. The city’s in pretty good shape, (but) I can’t say the same for the state or the nation.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated the location of the Refugee Freedom Seder in a photo caption. It was held in Parkes Hall. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @rdugyala822