The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the candidates running for 50th Ward alderman a list of questions to find out their views on a range of issues facing the city and their ward. Debra Silverstein submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):
Who is Debra Silverstein?
She’s running for: 50th Ward alderman
Her political/civic background: Democrat/Elected Alderman of the 50th Ward in 2011
Her occupation: Alderman
Her education: Bachelor’s Degree, University of Illinois – Chicago
Campaign website: debrasilversteinforalderman.com/
What are the top three priorities for your ward?
Debra Silverstein: Education — Our office’s collaboration with CPS has resulted in over $47 million in new investment in our local public schools, including $40 million to expand Rogers and Decatur schools. Armstrong, Boone and Stone have also received millions in new funding including new playgrounds, restoration of auditoriums and the the addition of new classroom air conditioning units.
Public Safety — My office and I have close working relationships with our local police and we respond quickly to public safety issues that affect our residents. I’ve also helped grow relationships between police and the community by hosting special meetings and community roll calls in our neighborhoods, regularly attending CAPS meetings and organizing forums for police and local business owners. I have fought for budget dollars to add additional police officers at the 24th District and sought resources to they can do their jobs. We have also obtained funding from the city to make our streets safer, including extensive new lighting along roadways and pedestrian bump-outs and crossings.
Delivering for residents — Basic city services were neglected for many years in the 50th Ward, but my office is very involved in making sure constituents receive the best the city has to offer. We have benefited from a $15 million streetscape along Devon Avenue and other infrastructure projects. More than 4,500 tree trimming requests have been completed since I took office. We have invested millions of dollars in resurfacing streets that had not been maintained properly in decades. Graffiti removal and other service requests are managed quickly thanks to my office’s commitment to constituent services and our effective working relationships with city agencies.
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.
Debra Silverstein: I have supported an agenda in the City Council that supports working families, co-sponsoring more than a dozen pieces of legislation to help Chicagoans, including ordinances increasing minimum wage and requiring businesses to provide workers with paid sick leave.
Visiting the 50th Ward is the best way to see the results of our hard work. A $15 million Devon Avenue streetscape has breathed new life into one of the city’s most successful business districts. Existing businesses are reinvesting here and new businesses have been added to our community, including TJ Maxx, Five Below, Treehouse Humane Society, Malabar Gold & Diamonds, Cermak Grocery and others, including many new restaurants and retail stores on Devon Avenue.
With updated and new amenities, the 50th Ward is growing as a destination for not only businesses, but also families. A new Northtown Library is currently under construction. In my first two terms, I secured $6 million in funding for local parks, including a restored historic fieldhouse and new features at Indian Boundary Park; new walking paths and athletic fields at Rogers Park; new playgrounds, tennis courts, lighting and athletic fields at Warren Park; and we recently dedicated a new passive park at Devon Avenue and McCormick Boulevard.
We’ve invested more than $47 million in local public schools and worked to support local private schools as well. Those resources provided new construction for an expansion of Decatur and Rogers schools, new playgrounds, security improvements and air conditioning for classrooms.
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.
Debra Silverstein: The courts have ruled on multiple occasions that pension agreements with current city employees and retirees cannot be diminished and we must honor our contractual obligations. While there is talk of amending the Illinois Constitution, any change should only affect new municipal employees. Additional pension tiers with adjusted benefits, perhaps even ones that include options to invest in 401ks, can provide some relief. I want to work with organized labor to ensure that their input is heard in any discussions about pension reform.
I have made tough votes to help stabilize the city’s pension obligations but more work needs to be done. Long-term solutions will have to come from the revenue side and I am eager to work with Governor-elect JB Pritzker, the General Assembly and the organizations that represent employees and retirees about options in terms of new funding streams to address pension liabilities.
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.
Debra Silverstein: Because, with regulations and oversight, they have proven to provide additional revenue streams elsewhere, I am not opposed to additional casinos or video gaming or a safe, responsible initiative for the legalization of marijuana. In addition, I would consider an increase in the real estate transfer tax for high value properties. An increase in property taxes or sales taxes should only be considered as a last resort.
The most significant upcoming revenue changes will likely start at the state level and I expect the Governor-elect and the General Assembly will introduce a revenue package that will include some of the items listed above to provide new dollars for our schools, infrastructure, public safety and our growing pension liabilities.
What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?
Debra Silverstein: I support a progressive income tax that requires wealthy individuals and businesses to pay their fair share. I am eager to see what proposals move forward in the General Assembly to support working families in my community.
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?
Debra Silverstein: I supported legislation to shift TIF surpluses into funds to support infrastructure projects for Chicago Public Schools and I believe there are steps that can be taken to modernize and reform the TIF system. I support additional transparency when it comes to TIF, public disclosures in regard to the planned use of TIF district dollars and new rules that hold businesses accountable to the promises they make in exchange for TIF benefits, particularly when it comes to job creation and investment in the community.
The Devon and Western TIF was a critical tool that allowed for the funding of a desperately-needed project to enhance our premier business district; an area that generates tremendous sales tax revenues for the City of Chicago. The Devon Avenue streetscape was a proper use of TIF and I support TIF reforms that allow for TIFs to be used for their primary purpose.
What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?
Debra Silverstein: In our community, the wishes of residents are reflected in any and all decisions made by elected officials. Aldermen are elected to be advocates for their communities and aldermanic discretion is an important tool to affect change at the direction of community members.
Before each of our ward’s biggest projects got off the ground, we facilitated meetings that put residents in the same room as city officials, developers and architects to encourage an open dialogue. We mail notifications, send emails and even go door to door to make sure residents are aware and involved when it comes to development, zoning matters and other issues. The Devon Avenue streetscape and the new Northtown Library are examples of resident-driven, projects that benefited from extensive input from community members.
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?
Debra Silverstein: I support the current consent decree framework negotiated by the Illinois Attorney General, the Chicago Police Department and the City of Chicago. There is a clear need for increased accountability and reforms that better reflect the values we hold. I try to demonstrate my support for the police by working closely with them to make my community safer. I also support providing police with additional resources for training, specifically when it comes to use of force and engaging individuals dealing with mental health issues. We should ensure that police have the resources they need to be effective while rebuilding trust among people in the neighborhoods they serve.
What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?
Debra Silverstein: We need to reduce the demand for illegal guns by continuing to invest in underserved communities through economic development, job creation, mentorship programs and job skills training. We also need to work with lawmakers in Springfield to explore all options to reduce gun violence and end the flow of illegal guns into our communities.
What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?
Debra Silverstein: Rather than consider additional charter schools, CPS, and the city as a whole, needs to do more to support local schools. Our ward doesn’t have any charter schools and, while I believe they can play a role in our education system, charter schools must be held to the same standards as our public schools.
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?
Debra Silverstein: Like the vast majority of Chicagoans, I support an elected school board. Our public schools are among our city’s greatest assets and residents should have the final say in how they are managed. In terms of accountability to constituents and stakeholders, a fully elected school board is preferable to an appointed board with an appointed chief executive or a hybrid.
Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain.
Debra Silverstein: The 50th Ward is a place where many Chicago families get their start and we are doing our part to provide additional affordable housing here. I support growing affordable housing via the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund and an expansion of the Preservation of Existing Affordable Rental (PEAR) program
A beautiful new, 16,000-square-foot public library that is being built in our community has a senior housing component. This is a unique project and it is currently under construction across from Warren Park.
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?
Debra Silverstein: Our city is a city of immigrants and the 50th Ward is a true melting pot – it’s one of the communities that most represents Chicago’s legacy. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths, but people here feel like they are under attack. The Trump Administration and rising anti-immigrant sentiment has terrified residents of the 50th Ward. I have seen first-hand how people are so scared they are afraid to come to their doors.
The city must maintain and grow its status as a welcoming city. As alderman, I have made every effort to reach out to our diverse residents and in the City Council I have supported a municipal ID for immigrants and others, as well as increased funding for free or low-cost legal advice. I voted for legislation that opposes local law enforcement handing over to ICE people who do not have serious criminal convictions or outstanding criminal warrants. I’ve been a vocal opponent of Trump’s policies and supported the City’s lawsuit against the Trump Administration over efforts to block grant funding over sanctuary city status.
Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not?
Debra Silverstein: In 2016, I supported an unsuccessful effort to increase oversight in the City Council by combining the offices of the inspector general with the office of the legislative inspector general. The measure would have saved tax dollars, provided additional resources to a proven and effective monitor of good government and increased accountability among elected officials.
The city’s inspector general should have authority to investigate corruption and malfeasance. Corruption not only has a direct cost to taxpayers in terms of lost resources, but it also costs us in terms of a loss of faith in government.
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.
Debra Silverstein: I am a full-time alderman and, for my staff and I, serving the residents of the 50th Ward is a full-time job. We work tirelessly to meet the high standards we set for ourselves when it comes to the needs of our community and, no, I would not employ staff who have outside jobs or contracts with entities that do business with 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.
Debra Silverstein: While he was not an alderman, Abner Mikva was an educator and served as a state legislator, US Congressman and federal judge. Although later in life he was an advisor to US Presidents, his career started in local politics, going door-to-door, addressing the basic needs of constituents. He was a strong advocate for fairness and justice and was known for fighting the Chicago Machine.
Also running for 50th Ward alderman: