The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the candidates running for 46th Ward alderman a list of questions to find out their views on a range of issues facing the city and their ward. Jon-Robert McDowell submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):
Who is Jon-Robert McDowell?
He’s running for: 46th Ward alderman His political/civic background: I have been involved in politics, government, and community service for the majority of my adult life. I was raised in Upstate New York by a very politically-minded single mother who had rather strong opinions on the politics of the day. In fact, one of my first memories (I was three) was sitting with my mother while watching New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic Convention speech. After college, I began my political career as an intern for US Congressman Elliot Engel of the Bronx, focusing on social welfare and environmental policies. After DC, I decided I wanted to work more with my community back home. I signed on with an environmental development company that, among many things, worked to design, implement, and educate neighborhoods and individuals about how to utilize and maintain organic vegetable gardens for either public or personal use. Over the past decade here in Chicago I have had the privilege of managing numerous state representative and aldermanic campaigns for progressive candidates challenging entrenched incumbents. I was an elected Steering Committee member for the grassroots political organization Northside Democracy for America (NDFA) and was also the recipient of their Volunteer of Year award in 2014. His occupation: Project Manager His education: BA in United States History from the State University of New York at Albany Campaign website: jonrobertfor46.com/ Twitter: @jrfor46 Facebook: facebook.com/jrfor46/
What are the top three priorities for your ward?
Jon-Robert McDowell: The 46th Ward faces many challenges not being addressed by the current administration. We face challenges with poverty, crime and homelessness, increasing need for mental health services, dramatic rises in property taxes, over development, increased congestion, and the complete neglect of our neighborhood schools.
The first issue that will need to be addressed however, is our massive debt crisis and poorly managed finances. Every year we watch as our taxes go up, and our services get cut. The growing burden caused by the pension and debt crisis is dragging our city and my Ward to its knees. Without proper funding, and ensuring we prioritize our tax dollars to support the community, and not developers or corporations, we will continue to struggle to improve the lives our families, our neighbors and friends. Next, we need to address the continued neglect that has been shown to our neighborhood schools. Schools that are equally and adequately funded, teachers who are respected as professionals, and curriculum that is progressive allows children the freedom to think, grow and learn. And finally we must start to seriously address the needs of the our homeless and mentally ill population who have been removed from their shelters and left to wander our ward with no support in site.
Recent civic work
Please tell us what you have done in the last two years to serve the city, your neighborhood or a civic organization. Please be specific.
Jon-Robert McDowell: Obviously over that time frame, this campaign has taken a good portion of it, however in addition to the work being done within the Ward, over the last two years I have continued to remain active with various grassroots organizations, such as the NDFA, supporting progressive candidates at all levels of government.
Chicago is on the hook for $42 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, which works out to $35,000 for every household. Those pensions, in the language of the Illinois Constitution, “shall not be diminished or impaired.” Should the state Constitution be amended to allow a reduction in pension benefits for current city employees or retirees? How about reducing pension benefits for new employees? Please explain.
Jon-Robert McDowell: No. Amending the State Constitution to reduce the pension benefits for current and workers would not only disrespect and violate the trust in government, it would also shift the financial burdens created by this to the residents that worked their lifetime believing they were being dealt with in good faith. Those pushing for pension reductions are the same people who have been mismanaging the pension fund for decades, and I will not allow our public employees to pay the price for our legislature’s failure to act responsibly.
Along with the many of the proposals listed in the upcoming questions, I also believe we as a city council need to start using our influence as the 3rd largest city in the nation, and the single largest economic engine in our state, to push for a bold progressive agenda that restores power to the majority of the people, and not the 1%. I believe it’s time we stood for a $15 dollar minimum wage, progressive tax reform and universal healthcare coverage, all of which increase revenue and drive growth.
Rather than punishing our public employees for their dedication to our city, instead, I believe it is time we also push our legislator to look to the federal government for assistance in meeting current pension requirements. As it would appear, at least in private sector pension funds, that this issue has finally taken hold in congress. With the new incoming Democratic majority set to take control of the House in 2019, it is time we began to make our needs known. While federal assistance is a hard and unfortunate choice, it will be necessary to continue to ensure solvency.
Of the following often proposed sources of new revenue for Chicago, which of the following do you favor, and why? A Chicago casino, legalized and taxed recreational marijuana, a LaSalle Street tax, a commuter tax, a property tax increase, a municipal sales tax increase, a real estate transfer tax increase, video gambling.
Jon-Robert McDowell: I support the legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana. Not only has it proven to be an excellent revenue source in other states across the country, it also provides relief to a criminal justice system overburdened by unpopular and out of date laws. I also support a finical transaction tax. I do not support any further property tax increases, or a municipal sales tax as that is a regressive tax that targets the working class.
What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?
Jon-Robert McDowell: I believe it is time looked to the green energy technology sector as the next phase in our city’s financial growth and development. With the impacts of climate change becoming more and more apparent every day, the time is right for Chicago to take the necessary steps to become a leader in this much needed area. We should be incentivizing renewable energy companies to move or open here. And we should be working with our public schools and city collages to develop science and engineering curriculum to train the future leaders of this industry. This, I truly believe is next modern day “Industrial Revolution”, and the city that leads the way in clean renewable energy and its technology, will one day lead the global economy. Chicago can be that city, we have the strength, the people and the will to make it a reality, so I see no reason why we shouldn’t.
Tax-increment financing districts are a primary economic development tool for Chicago. In a TIF district, taxes from the growth of property values are set aside for 23 years to be used to support public projects and private development. What changes do you favor, if any, in Chicago’s TIF program?
Jon-Robert McDowell: Our community thrives when we are all working, when we are able to shop within our neighborhood, and when we have affordable housing. TIF was supposed to be the answer to that. However, like so many states before us, cronyism, gross mismanagement, and quid-pro-quo have become common. I believe it is time we made serious reforms to our TIF’s to ensure they are being used explicitly for their designed purpose. It is time we create a specific and unalterable definition of what constitutes a “blighted” neighborhood so that no more money is erroneously filtered to wealthy areas. TIF recipients need to provide a community improvement plan that outlines the developmental benefits to a ward. And we must remove loopholes that allow businesses from using TIF funds to buy their way out of restrictions intended to maintain the character of our community. Finally, we must demand full transparency from the city regarding the appropriation of all funds: the taxpayers deserve a regular accounting of tax dollars spent versus revenue generated from all TIF projects.
What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?
Jon-Robert McDowell: Speaking frankly, when discussing aldermanic prerogative, what we are really asking about is affordable housing, which everyone has a right to. The issue is, should affordable housing be built in your neighborhood? To which the answer: Yes, It should. We are a community of diverse socioeconomic people. We share a pride in our city and a belief that we all come together to make it a better place to live. Isolation and segregation build fear, and fear creates prejudice. I believe we are better than that. Affordable housing should be distributed equally across the city, and if aldermanic prerogative is stopping that, then its time has come to an end.
The City of Chicago has entered into a federally monitored consent decree to overhaul the training and practices of the Chicago Police Department. Civil libertarians say it is long overdue, but others say it is unnecessary and could make it tougher for the police to do their job. What’s your view?
Jon-Robert McDowell: An overhaul of the training and practices of the Chicago Police Department is long overdue. The report from the U.S. Justice Department pretty much says it all: “poor training, too quick to use excessive and often deadly force, lax discipline, and lack of consequences for excess attacks on blacks and Latinos.” The result is an overwhelming lack of trust in our police force by all members in our communities. However, what the report also explicitly says is that our police force has, in fact, lost faith and trust in our community and it’s leadership. It is this very lack of trust, it is this disconnect between the police and the people, that should be at the heart of the reform we need to initiate if we are going to finally solve this important issue.
It is time we rebuilt the trust between our communities and the police. When we empower and reward effective and law-abiding officers through proper funding, educational resources, and multicultural encouragement, we become our own protectors. Law enforcement must be part of the community, invested in the result of their hard and difficult work.
I believe in creating greater beat integrity, urging officers to build relationships within their community. Officers are charged with public safety and that can only be achieved if they’re familiar with the community they serve and understand it’s needs. We must reward officers for community engagement and reduction in crime rates, focusing on the protection of their neighborhood instead of generating revenue through superfluous ticketing. Finally, all CPD officers should be given monthly paid time off to engage with the community and participate in neighborhood gatherings, improvement projects, or attend neighbored school functions during class. It is time to bring the police back into the fold of our community and remind them that at the end of the day our goals are the same. Together we can ensure that no citizen ever feels unsafe in their homes, on their streets or in their lives.
What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?
Jon-Robert McDowell: The gun violence in our city is out of control, and it is time we took serious measures to curb illegal guns from getting into the hands of criminals. I am a strong supporter of background checks and stricter regulations on who can own a firearm. I am adamantly opposed to concealed carry and believe guns have absolutely no place in schools.
What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?
Jon-Robert McDowell: There is no appropriate role for charter schools within the Chicago Public School system. Our emphasis should be on focusing our resources on providing high quality, fully funded public education. Charter schools are for profit entities with no proven track record of success. They also lack the proper oversight our children and our families deserve. By continuing to syphon funds and resources away from our public schools, we are simply diminishing the wholesale quality of the education offered to the city’s children. There are wonderful innovative models for public education out there, successful programs that give opportunity to all children with the support and involvement of the entire community. This is where we should be looking. Not allowing large corporations to profit off of one of our most important public institutions.
Should the Chicago Board of Education be solely appointed by the mayor, as is now the case? Or should Chicago switch to an elected school board or some hybrid?
Jon-Robert McDowell: The Chicago School Board must be removed from the influence of the mayor. A fully elected school board reflects the voices of the residents whose children are being taught in their schools. Yes, an elected board can be difficult to manage, with many different ideas and concerns often in conflict with one another. But it is with this debate and community involvement that innovation and progress can emerge. The residents of Chicago have the right to elect their representatives to the Chicago School Board.
Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain.
Jon-Robert McDowell: The 46th Ward is home to a large amount of affordable housing units compared to some other neighboring Northside Wards, however is it enough? No, it is not, and we are losing more and more of it every day. The 46th has been overrun by TIF development that have opted out of their housing requirements by paying the token fee to the city. Now we see our homeless population being displaced, with no support in site. We need to stop allowing developers from buying out of low-cost housing requirements, or at the very least, raise the fee dramatically.
Chicago, by ordinance, is an official “welcoming city.” This means the Chicago police are generally prohibited from detaining undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal immigration authorities. What’s your position on this policy? What more — or less — should be done with respect to undocumented immigrants who live in Chicago?
Jon-Robert McDowell: Despite all the misnomers regarding undocumented immigration, most people who come to Chicago are not criminals and would very much like to step out of the city’s shadows to achieve full citizenship. And we, as a nation of immigrants, owe it to them to provide that pathway, just as our families were before us. We must remain a welcoming city, and not fall victim to the falsehoods, and lies that are affecting so much of the nation’s discourse on the matter. Chicago is, and should remain, a leader in the fight against such blind prejudice.
Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not?
Jon-Robert McDowell: Yes, they should, and they should be able to provide a full report to the public on all actions, decisions or outcomes from any public entity. The time of back-room deals, corruption needs to end in this city, once and for all. Full transparency and accountability is the only way a government can function for the people it is intended to serve.
Would you employ, or have you employed, staff in your office who have outside jobs or contracts with entities that do business with the city? If so, please explain.
Jon-Robert McDowell: No, I would not hire staff members who had outside jobs or contracts for the city.
Is there a past or current alderman whom you model yourself after, or would model yourself after, or take inspiration from? Please explain.
Jon-Robert McDowell: Are there some good Alderman with good ideas? Certainly yes. Absolutely. Are there any I would want to emulate? No there are not. I think it is time for change. And I believe it is time for some honesty from our government. I believe the people have a right to know the reality of their civic lives. They have a right to know where their tax dollars are going (or not going). They have a right to know the state of their schools, their public transportation system, their police department. I understand that those aren’t easy conversations to have when you are a public representative, but they are, nonetheless, absolutely necessary. And as the oldest son of five, raised by a single mother who worked double and triple shifts simply to keep a roof over our heads, I learned early on how to have the difficult conversations that were necessary to make sure problems were solved quickly. I learned that when a challenge arose, you tackled it, right then and there, and I intend to bring that same fight and determination to our city council in 2019.