The Weekly: Week Seven Recap

Alex Chun and Yiming Fu

On Tuesday Feb. 23, former Illinois state Sen. Daniel Biss was elected Evanston’s next mayor after gaining over 70 percent of votes. This concludes a campaign trail that started in Sept. when Biss publicly announced his candidacy. We sat down with the city reporters who covered Daniel Biss’ mayoral campaign. What did Biss’ campaign trail look like? What can we expect from Biss as Evanston’s next mayor? Listen to The Weekly: Week Seven Recap for answers.

YIMING FU: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Yiming Fu. 

ALEX CHUN: And I’m Alex Chun. This is The Weekly: a podcast that breaks down our top headlines each week. 

YIMING FU: On Tuesday Feb. 23, former Illinois state Sen. Daniel Biss was elected Evanston’s next mayor after gaining over 70 percent of votes. This concludes a campaign trail that started in Sept. when Biss publicly announced his candidacy. Biss’ win comes after facing off against Purdue junior Sebastian Nalls and local activist Lori Keenan. Nalls finished with nearly 9 percent of the vote and Keenan finished with just over 17 percent.

ALEX CHUN: So today, we’re doing something a bit different from what we usually do at the Weekly. Instead of diving into our top headlines, Yiming and I are sitting down with City Editor Maia Spoto and City reporters Will Clark, Alex Harrison and Jacob Fulton to chat about Biss’ campaign trail and what we can expect from him as the mayoral elect.

ALEX CHUN: Maia, Will, Alex and Jacob, thank you so much for joining Yiming and I today. Jacob and Maia, let’s first start with what we can expect from Biss between now and when he’s sworn in as mayor. 

JACOB FULTON: So between now and his swearing in, in May, Biss is going to sort of take a look at his policy plans that he’s shared throughout the course of the campaign. And he’s going to really, with his team, get to work on preparing how to implement them. Looking at the city framework, things along those lines. He said his biggest priority when he becomes mayor officially is to immediately hit the ground running with the city’s COVID response and sort of assess where things are, figure out next steps and work to see how he can best support residents and work to return the local economy to where it formerly was. 

YIMING FU: Let’s discuss Biss’ stances on some major issues such as housing. How does Biss plan to approach Evanston’s housing problems? 

MAIA SPOTO: Sure. So Biss spoke a lot during the forum about connecting the city with local nonprofits to address housing problems. And one significant challenge that’s arisen over the past year or so has been an impending eviction crisis. So right now, Illinois is experiencing an eviction moratorium, where residents cannot legally be evicted from their units post, like mid-March, and there have been rent assistance programs within the city to help residents with rent backlogs and help them pay that off. But residents are saying that it’s not enough support, and that people are still going to have a wave of evictions once courts open back up because people have no way to pay back the rent that they’ve missed. And so Biss is saying that the city should partner with nonprofits, like he specifically named Open Communities, which is a housing nonprofit. And he said that we should provide eviction counseling and financial assistance to both residents and landlords. With the landlord side, he would like to counsel landlords away from going to a place of eviction, and help them understand that the eviction process is really pricey and that there is another route, perhaps alternate payment plans to mitigate the problem on both sides of the relationship between landlord and tenant.

ALEX CHUN: Maia, it’s also notable that Biss didn’t commit to ending the Brothel Law. Can you explain a bit about what the Brothel Law is and its implications? 

MAIA SPOTO: Sure! So the Brothel Law is formally called the Three Unrelated Rule. And the rule basically states that you cannot have more than three unrelated people living in one housing unit. It’s been a topic of lots of conversation on campus. And essentially, residents and aldermen have raised concerns about it because they say that it puts students at a difficult position in terms of susceptibility to landlord abuse and contributes to the affordable housing shortage in Evanston. So people have been pushing back and challenging it. But it’s never really fully been repealed. So during the forum that we hosted, the two candidates, Keenan and Nalls, both said that they would repeal the Brothel Law flat out. And Biss said that the Brothel Law is part of a larger housing code that he would like community members to re-examine. And the fruits of that reexamination might include a repeal of the Brothel Law, but perhaps the Brothel Law will stay on the record, and he just wants to bring this conversation to the community. And I have a quote here, where he’s saying mostly unenforced laws are the worst of both worlds, if we’re going to have it, we ought to enforce it. 

ALEX CHUN: Also here with us today is reporter William Clark who’s been following Biss’ stance on climate and environmental policy. William, what are Biss’ specific plans to address environmental injustice in Evanston?

WILLIAM CLARK: Yeah. So I mean, I think that the main issue would be actually putting the Environmental Justice Resolution, which was passed in September, into a solid city ordinance, because right now, it’s just a resolution. And it hasn’t actually been applied to like any of the specific issues that people are concerned about. When I spoke to him, he kind of highlighted the three kind of important issues to him, which were lead, testing and making sure that there is lead testing that is done equitably throughout all the wards, and especially in the 5th Ward, because lead testing was not being done consistently in the 5th Ward in the past. And he also actually said that he wanted to replace the lead piping infrastructure throughout Evanston. The other kind of important pieces that he spoke to me about were lakefront access. He doesn’t think that there should be a token system, which there currently is, and he kind of thinks that we shouldn’t be rationing access to the lakefront or other natural resources in Evanston. And then the other big piece was kind of the Church Street waste transfer station, which has been kind of a subject of controversy for a long time. He’s basically said that the Environmental Justice Resolution needs to be applied to that, or at least it needs to be investigated to see if it complies with the standards at the Environmental Justice Resolution.

YIMING FU: Can you tell us a bit about the Environmental Justice Resolution?

WILLIAM CLARK: It was passed in September of 2020. And it basically states that every resident in Evanston should experience the same degree of environmental protection from hazards and also access to environmental assets. That’s kind of like the broad idea of it. And kind of in practice, I think that that means that regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, everybody in Evanston should have should should have the same amount of like exposure to environmental risks, and should have the same kind of access to different resources like the lakefront or like, you know, any other kind of utilities.

YIMING FU: How might Biss move forward with the resolutions goals? Does he have any specific plans?

WILLIAM CLARK: I think the big ones are definitely, like, replacing lead service pipes. That was kind of somewhere where he stood out, the other candidates had said that they supported equal testing across the wards, but they didn’t really highlight that they wanted to replace all of the lead pipes, because I do think that’s a  fairly expensive , or at least that’s what they said that would be an expensive kind of program. But Biss did say that that was something that he would want to prioritize. 

ALEX CHUN: City reporter Alex Harrison has been following Biss’ campaign, paying special attention to Biss’ stances on issues regarding visibility and accountability. Northwestern University, as a private institution, is exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests. Alex, what are Biss’ plans on addressing Northwestern’s exemption from these public records requests? 

ALEX HARRISON: Yeah. So in my conversations with Mayor-elect Biss, I got the impression that he’s really tuned in to the various kinds of reforms to the Freedom of Information Act and how it operates with Evanston in mind, and Northwestern being exempt from FOIA is a big one. He talked with me about how, in his time at the state legislature, he had either proposed or considered proposing legislation that would hold private universities to at least some kind of standard as opposed to now where the only standard that they’re held to is the Federal Clery act. So I think that his strategy is likely going to be going to Northwestern and negotiating with them. Like, we need to have some level of transparency with you. And we can talk back and forth about what that can look like. But the option of mandating in some way that you’re subject to FOIA requests, whether by residents or by the city, is always on the table. 

ALEX CHUN: What specifically does Biss want to make more transparent?

ALEX HARRISON: I think that, you know, given the subject of student protests, the role and size and otherwise capacity of the University Police Department will definitely be a big sticking point, you know, as well as what kind of finances probably go into the University. And something that he touched on, not directly related to FOIA, but just in the broader issue of town-University relations is you know contributions from the University, or the lack thereof, versus the amount of property in Evanston that they’ve been buying up. Because, you know, Northwestern is not paying property tax, once they buy that land, it is now off the city’s tax rolls, and it pushes a larger share of the tax burden onto other residents. And so I think that having a more transparent relationship about things like that will be a priority. I think that with things like that it probably won’t fall to a FOIA request kind of system, it’ll probably just be an expanded kind of report that the University gives to the city and to the public. And it’ll be more the University Police that are subject to FOIA requests, much like the Evanston police are.

ALEX CHUN: Speaking of the EPD, let’s chat a bit about funding. What are Biss’ plans for the future of the EPD budget?

ALEX HARRISON: I think he definitely holds a progressive position on police funding. When I spoke to him, he supported the idea. He said qualitatively of reducing the police budget and the capacity of the police department. One of his biggest things once he takes office is that he wants to complete a full audit of the Evanston Police Department’s budget and really dig into it. “Okay, we may need to absolutely spend what we’re spending here. But do we need to be spending what we’re spending over here?” And really trying to tie back our priorities on what role do we want the police to serve and what dollars are we giving them. He’s also a supporter of the alternate emergency response plans, and, you know, involving social workers more and psychiatrists more in situations like drug use and other non-threatening situations that interest would result in dollars being taken out of the police budget and into something else. But yeah, he’s really being cautious about not making too many promises with hard numbers or this or that. But, like, he said qualitatively he would support the idea of reducing the police budget. 

ALEX CHUN: Alex, thanks so much. I’d love to wrap this up by talking a bit about both Nalls’ and Keenan’s response to Biss’ campaign.

MAIA SPOTO: Sure. So I’m actually going to take us back to the moment when Daniel Biss received the governor J.B. Pritzker’s endorsement. And that was a pretty contentious day between the three candidates because Pritzker announced the endorsement on Twitter, and then Sebastian Nalls and Lori Keenan raised the point that Pritzker had not even endorsed a mayoral candidate in the Chicago mayoral race. And so they were questioning why Pritzker endorsed him and said that Biss’ record, in their words, is not consistent with his platform of bold progressive change. Particularly, Sebastian Nalls and Lori Keenan were citing (Biss’) giving corporations tax breaks and cutting health care funding, and supporting cuts that could have taken a substantial amount of money from Evanston’s schools and they were saying that these policy records do not align with his campaign. In response Daniel Biss said that his legacy in the state legislature is actually aligning with progressive values. And he said that he has worked on eliminating tax loopholes for hedge funds, and finding other quote, in his words, “fair ways” to tax people who are wealthy. And he says that his track record shows that he’s worked to get things done in the progressive arena, and that at least he has a legislative record.

ALEX CHUN: Jacob, how did Keenan and Nalls react to Biss’ win?

JACOB FULTON: So I talked to Sebastian Nalls on election night, and he ended up coming in third place in the election. And he said that he was really thankful for the sort of discussions that his campaign prompted. He was really proud of all the work that he had put forward. And he was really grateful for his supporters. And he was hoping to sort of see some continued conversations about some of the topics that he brought up, including the role of policing in Evanston, throughout the campaign. I did not get the chance to talk to Lori Keenan on election night. She ended up only putting out a statement for the press. But in the statement, she said that she was really thankful for all the work of her supporters. And she said that she would continue the activist work that she’s been contributing to Evanston over the past two decades, and that she wants to continue to see more accountability and transparency and public government and she hoped that Daniel Biss would implement that moving forward.

ALEX CHUN: Jacob, thank you so much for chatting with us.

YIMING FU: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Yiming Fu. 

ALEX CHUN: And I’m Alex Chun. Thanks so much for listening to another episode of The Weekly. This episode was reported on by Yiming Fu, Jacob Fulton, Maia Spoto, William Clark, Alex Harrison and myself. This episode was produced by both Yiming Fu and myself. The audio editor of The Daily is me. The digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Olivia Yarvis, and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

Email: [email protected] and [email protected]

Twitter: @apchun01 and @yimingfuu

Stories Referenced:

Daniel Biss to become Evanston’s next mayor

Gov. Pritzker endorses mayoral candidate Daniel Biss; opponents respond

Mayoral candidates Lori Keenan and Sebastian Nalls grill Daniel Biss’ legislative record in debate

Former State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) announces planned 2021 mayoral run