5th Ward candidate for alderman: Gabriel Piemonte
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The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the candidates running for 5th Ward alderman a list of questions to find out their views on a range of issues facing the city and their ward. Gabriel Piemonte submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):
Who is Gabriel Piemonte?
He’s running for: 5th Ward alderman
His political/civic background: No formal political background. Background in community journalism. Here are some examples of my civic enterprise:
- Founding organizer, South Side Community Federal Credit Union
- Co-founder, Woodlawn Voices and Visions
- Co-founder, Coalition to Save the Shrine and Save the Shrine, NFP
- Founder, hydeparkhelps.org
- Convener, Fourth Ward civic meeting series following the resignation of 4th Ward Ald. Will Burns
- Board president, St. Martin de Porres House of Hope
- Board member, Northern Illinois Historic League
- Author, southsideunited.org
- Co-developer, Care Free Community Garden (60th and Vernon), Kumunda Garden (65th and Kimbark)
- Advocate for a community center in Woodlawn at the former site of the Dumas Child and Parent Center
- Convener of a selection process for the Chicago Plays park restoration initiative
- Co-organizer of two community meetings in response to school closures.
His occupation: Journalist, writing coach, editor, youth media instructor
His education: B.A., communications and journalism, Suffolk University, Boston, MA
Campaign website: gabrielpiemonte.com
What are the top three priorities for your ward?
Gabriel Piemonte: Authentic, empowered community participation in decision making; rebuilding local economics, including asset development among African American constituents and others; improved responsiveness and efficacy in constituent services.
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.
Gabriel Piemonte: As the board president of St. Martin de Porres House of Hope, I have aided founder Sr. Therese O’Sullivan transition into retirement and have supported the new executive director as she takes on the myriad challenges in this legacy institution. A year ago last March, I launched southsideunited.org, where i wrote a series of columns exploring development issues related to the Obama Center and other major initiatives in the ward.
Two winters ago, I led the creation of Carols and Candles, a holiday celebration in Woodlawn that featured outdoor caroling and cocoa and coffee and sweets, plus a distribution of hundreds of coats and clothes and wrapped gifts to residents. My work at Save the Shrine is ongoing, in which we are raising funds for the restoration of the Shrine of Christ the King Church. My work at Woodlawn Voices and Visions is also ongoing (although suspended for the campaign). This is a program I co-created to provide videography and critical thinking skills to South Side high schoolers while paying them.
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.
Gabriel Piemonte: I don’t think taking away promised benefits is the right path, ethically or practically, toward solving our pension crisis. The first problem we have to confront is not that retirees make too much money. It is the inability of our elected officials to do as they are mandated to do. We see models we can learn from in mitigating this problem, such as the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, which is more than 90% funded.
There are important differences between IMRF’s context and that of Chicago’s pension crisis, but one clear lesson (among others) to learn is that elected officials are more responsible with money when there are personal consequences to not taking care of business. Linking the health of pension funds to the retirement benefits received by aldermen could have a remarkable effect on the sense of responsibility that politicians feels toward other municipal employees. If they were so motivated, what could they do? One obvious idea is the consolidation of pension boards, which would allow for more sophisticated investing and possibly eliminate some of the political posturing that has complicated pension reform. Of course, attempting the consolidation of pension boards and other streamlining efforts means tackling the many pension boards and their political value to unions and others. It is my opinion that this is a moment when some progress could be made on that front.
There are many places where money simply disappears in the city’s budget, and we cannot afford to leave these practices in place. One place where we can make huge progress in this direction is revisiting the City Hall inspector general’s scope of investigation, a scope narrowed through a vote by Leslie Hairston and many of her colleagues. Ald. Ed Burke’s $100 million workers’ comp program is just one example of the many places where aldermen are almost certainly using our money to advance their own agenda, to the tune of tens of millions and hundreds of millions of dollars. Another disgraceful example is the massive amount of settlement money we need for Chicago Police Officers who injure and kill citizens. Reforms of the CPD – I am a supporter of CPAC as a means to that end – could radically reduce the amount of money we waste because we can’t keep some of our police officers under control, to the endless shame of the men and women doing that difficult job the right way. We owe it to them, to our city, and to our fiscal health to fix that problem.
But all of this will not be enough. I appreciate the sense of Emanuel’s $10 billion pension bond plan, but I think we are in a situation where we have to be certain we have changed political culture enough that any bond issue will not be seen as a reason to pay less into fund elsewhere or otherwise undermine the intent. This is where I think somehow linking the benefits of aldermen and the mayor to performance might make a difference. Emanuel seems to have put the funds into a lock box. I would have to have extensive conversations with experts to be assured that the lock box doesn’t have a false bottom. But at the same time, it is hard to see a clear path forward without some borrowing, and it is true that the window where this will do the most good is closing.
Should we pay fewer benefits to current future employees? It may be that we just can’t afford to offer the packages we offer. This is a complex question, because the city’s ability to provide stable retirement to so many Chicagoans has a positive effect on many communities. We should not be so quick to say this is a solution. At the same time, I recognize that the aforementioned ideas are not enough. We will need to be bold and to do more. The question is what we are willing to dare and whether we can convince the voters that whatever innovation we come up with is worth the risk.
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.
Gabriel Piemonte: None of these is, on the face of it, good or bad. I think casinos are potentially dangerous and that they have real disadvantages, especially when placed in economically struggling communities, as has been proposed. Marijuana legalization must include a criminal justice component (releasing people imprisoned for possession charges and some other charges) and a certain amount of local ownership guaranteed. A LaSalle Street tax is more helpful and less risky than its detractors suggest. A commuter tax for out-of-state commuters seems like a good idea to me; I prefer different branding, something linked to congestion or fossil fuel use, with some amount of the tax diverted to pollution mitigation and green industry. Property taxes do not need to be raised until we get a handle on how property is being assessed, and then we need a thoughtful freeze program in communities undergoing dramatic change and for seniors. Sales tax on luxury goods is possible, but I oppose a general sales tax increase. Real estate transfer taxes are fine, if handled properly. Video gambling can be more trouble than it’s worth and has to be carefully studied before its allowed.
What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?
Gabriel Piemonte: I like the idea of a tax on high-end residential properties when the seller is leaving the city. I think zoning changes should incur a tax set aside for neighborhood community investment goals, something along the lines of the adopt-a-landmark’s recent extension into neighborhoods..
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?
Gabriel Piemonte: Tax increment financing has not proven to serve the Fifth Ward’s blighted areas, but all of our schools and other critical infrastructure across the city suffer from a loss in revenue. Schools are crumbling and parks are in disrepair because there is not enough money allocated for maintenance. We have local economic challenges throughout the South and West sides that have not been touched by TIFs. I question the premises that it is a development tool for blighted communities. I believe we need hearings on the future of TIFs in our city and should seriously consider whether the program has a future. I also think we probably need to return a great deal of TIF money to the general fund, as our city generally has needs that are not being met by the TIF system that are leading to increases in blight.
What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?
Gabriel Piemonte: Local development councils would check the power of aldermen. I propose local councils, beginning on the South and West sides, consisting of elected citizens from precinct clusters across wards. Each neighborhood in a ward would get its own council. Every development project would need approval from the council.
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?
Gabriel Piemonte: The consent decree is a good first step, but it is inferior to a citizen board as described in the CPAC ordinance. It is possible that the decree could coexist with CPAC, but if I had to choose, I would choose to elect citizens to oversee the police on an ongoing basis. Consent decrees and community benefits agreements are useful bust exist essentially based on a snapshot in time. Smart lawyers often are able to circumvent them. Living, breathing discretionary power over a system is more effective and can change with changing conditions.
What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?
Gabriel Piemonte: Coordinate with other government entities to attack sources and to advocate for harsh sentences for large-scale gun dealers who are part of a chain that leads to illegal gun sales.
What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?
Gabriel Piemonte: Charters are meant to be learning labs. We should freeze charter school development and mandate that every charter school demonstrate how its best practices can be applied in public school generally and if they are unable to do so, phase-out of their public subsidy should take place.
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?
Gabriel Piemonte: Elected, with sections of the city represented, as well as at-large members.
Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain.
Gabriel Piemonte: This is in the eyes of the beholder. I don’t think we have enough. We have a lot of subsidized housing and people using vouchers, but we have almost no social services by comparison. This makes the amount of housing appear to be excessive from the point of view of some people. In fact, subsidized housing and housing choice voucher holders in communities should mean those communities get extra resources. We don’t even get the funding HUD has allocated to voucher holders (this is a whole separate topic), so people see a lot of folks who are struggling in the neighborhood and often say we have too much subsidized housing. Subsidized housing should always be seen as an asset, but that requires cooperation from the city and public education.
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?
Gabriel Piemonte: We need to be a welcoming city for all – including our own residents. When residents feel they do not have enough services, they become angry and even jealous when they think others are getting what they can’t get. I think we need to demonstrate that we respect and value everyone, including people who have come to our city from another country to find a better life. I believe my brothers and sisters who are struggling all deserve sanctuary. We need to become a city that is sheltering and caring our own as well as the stranger.
Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not?
Gabriel Piemonte: Absolutely. See my answer above. We need the money, we need a more honest system, and the people must have maximum understanding of how the process works. There is no money in a city that should be secret or hidden in the public budget.
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.
Gabriel Piemonte: No.
Is there a past or current alderman whom you model yourself after, or would model yourself after, or take inspiration from? Please explain.
Gabriel Piemonte: I had the great privilege of knowing Leon Despres and I am also friendly with many of his friends and fellow travelers from his tenure as a councilor. I could write a long essay on why he is a role model and inspiration, but I will simply say that he was an honest man who believed in doing the nitty gritty of the job as well as he could as well as inspiring the highest ideals of the ward and the city. This is also my aspiration.
Relatedly, although he was not a Chicago alderman, my grandfather was a city councilor in Boston, and I draw upon the lessons of my childhood from him and his friends as well as I navigate public service. I hope to serve my neighborhood as he served his, with honor, respect for all people, and both a practical and aspirational perspective.
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