With eight of nine aldermanic seats on ballot, challengers aim to flip City Council

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Daily File photo by Colin Boyle

The Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center. A collection of local organizers hope Tuesday’s election will allow them to flip a City Council they feel is no longer responsive to their demands.

Joshua Irvine, Senior Staffer

After months of controversy and conflict, Evanston’s most crowded election in nearly three decades will come to a close on Tuesday as a new City Council is named. 

The city’s April 6 municipal election will be one of the most contentious local elections since nine aldermen comprised City Council. Eight ward seats are up for grabs, more than at any point since the council adopted its current structure in 1993.

And a collection of political upstarts and longtime activists hope to flip most of them. For them, the forthcoming election is an opportunity to take charge on the city’s most pressing issues, including racial equity, and remove a council that organizers feel has become increasingly insulated from residents’ demands.

On the ballot, challengers include 1st Ward candidate Clare Kelly, 2nd Ward candidate Darlene Cannon, 3rd Ward candidate Nick Korzeniowski, 7th Ward candidate Mary Rosinski and 8th Ward candidate and current city clerk Devon Reid. 

Organizers across a collection of aligned groups have supported newcomer candidates through canvassing and phone banking. The Community Alliance for Better Government, the Organization for Positive Action & Leadership and Reclaim Evanston, all of which are progressive groups, have overwhelmingly endorsed challengers.

While there are signs of resistance to the new coalition, like the recently-formed political action committee Evanston Together LLC, organizers feel they have the momentum to force a real change.

“I see this as a moment of turning around,” Kelly said. “People are fed up and frustrated from an unresponsive city government.”

A racial reckoning makes it to the polls

At the forefront of the challengers’ priorities is racial equity. Both OPAL, a Black-led organization focused on racial equity, and the youth-led Evanston Fight for Black Lives endorsed challengers in every race except the 6th Ward, where both groups endorsed incumbent Ald. Tom Suffredin, and the 9th Ward, where Ald. Cicely Fleming ran for re-election unopposed. This election also marks OPAL’s first endorsements for aldermanic candidates. 

“The people who we endorsed, in my opinion, had a deeper understanding of racial equity and racial injustice,” said Kevin Brown, one of OPAL’s founding members.

While Evanston has made national news for its reparations program, many local residents have been disappointed with the results. Earlier this year, Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations called for City Council to delay a vote on the Restorative Housing Reparations program until a new council took office. City Council approved the program in an 8-1 vote in March.   

Former mayoral candidate Sebastian Nalls, who helped organize E3R, began working for Reid’s campaign after losing the Feb. 23 primary to mayor-elect Daniel Biss. Nalls said in most races, the challengers are more receptive to hearing from marginalized residents and incorporating their concerns into addressing issues like racial equity.  

“We’ve seen a focus shift in Evanston,” Nalls said. “This current slate of candidates is really willing to listen to [marginalized] residents in a way they haven’t before.”  

Unheard and unsatisfied

Rick Marsh, a cofounder of Community Alliance for Better Government, said a failure to address broader issues in the community drove its organizers to take on the current council.

The group formed out of a collection of residents who repeatedly challenged City Council from public comment. In 2019, more than 40 residents spoke out to protest what they viewed as the unfair firing of a city employee. Despite the breadth of support, they were unable to persuade the city to reverse its decision.

“I started to see a trend,” Marsh said. “We would come to City Council with grievances, and we would feel like we weren’t being heard.”

Rosinski, who’s been involved in Evanston politics for more than a decade, said the activists’ feeling of exclusion was part of a systemic issue in Evanston.  

She argued the mayor and City Council did not consider all voices equally and were resistant toward grassroot groups who did not already have established relationships with the city.  

Reid articulated a similar criticism of the current council, with whom he often clashed, and at times openly criticized, during his tenure as city clerk. He’s called for greater citizen participation in the decision-making process both as clerk and in his campaign.

For Reid, the breadth of challengers in this election as well as the ousting of incumbents in the 4th and 8th Ward primaries is a validation of his principles.  

“People want to start having a government that’s more collaborative, that’s more engaging with its residents, that understands we’re here to serve and not dictate,” he said. 

Impacting incumbents

Incumbents who spoke to The Daily didn’t share a common message in the same way many challengers did.

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) said she had noticed this year’s slate of challengers has been more unified than in previous years.  

Revelle said she is aware many residents have been discontent with recent City Council decisions, and said the current council needed to do a better job including residents in the decision-making process.

“The whole election has heightened my awareness of the need for City Council to make it clearer to our residents that we are indeed listening to them,” she said.  

Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) said she had not focused on the race outside of her own election.  She was sure some residents were frustrated with the council’s decisions, she said, but didn’t think they represented how most residents felt.  

“I think that’s a very small number of people, I do,” she said.  

Mayor Steve Hagerty, who leaves office in May, donated $5,000 to a political action committee, Evanston Together LLC, that has launched attacks against several of the challengers. He also donated directly to Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd) and Fiske’s campaigns, as well as Suffredin’s challenger Katie Trippi.  

He said he was glad to see more people running in aldermanic contests, but criticized challengers Reid, Rosinski, Kelly and Cannon, as well as the incumbent Suffredin.

“I have found these candidates to come up short when it comes to working effectively with others, exercising good judgment, putting the City ahead of their own personal agenda, and exhibiting the kind of temperament best suited for public service,” he wrote in an email to The Daily.

A piece of the bigger puzzle

Among those who wish to flip the council, many feel they’re part of a greater shift in Evanston’s political landscape.  

Nalls said he’s seen people he had never expected to be involved in politics begin to participate while canvassing and working with E3R. He and Brown both suggested last summer’s protests had spurred greater activism.  

Gail Schecter, an organizer with CABG who also ran what is now Open Communities, said she’s seen similar calls for change in Wilmette, Glenview, Park Ridge and Northbrook. 

Marsh said there was a change in the city’s political climate, which prompted an increased understanding for many residents that they should be involved with their local government.  

“You think Evanston is at that point where it’s all hunky-dory, but there’s issues here like there is everywhere else,” Marsh said.  “And you have to be an active participant so you can have the city you want.”

 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @joshuajirvine

Related stories: 

Mayor Steve Hagerty contributes $5,000 to Evanston Together, LLC

Evanston Together LLC prompt controversy about Evanston governing style ahead of April 6 election

City Council passes the country’s first reparations program for Black residents

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