The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the candidates running for 20th Ward alderman a list of questions to find out their views on a range of issues facing the city and their ward. Nicole Johnson submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):
Who is Nicole Johnson?
She’s running for:20th Ward alderman Her political/civic background:Though this is my first run for political office, I have worked on several public policy campaigns, particularly in the areas of education, voter registration, and community development. Her occupation:Education and community development consultant. Currently full-time candidate for alderman of the 20th Ward Campaign website:nicolejchi.com
What are the top three priorities for your ward?
- Bringing resources and progressive policy initiatives that benefit constituent safety and health
- Transforming our schools from average to exceptional
- Exploring innovative funding solutions to capitalize on the ward’s entrepreneurial skills and other economic development opportunities, such as those connected to the Norfolk Southern railroad expansion and South Suburban Airport completion
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.
Nicole Johnson:I am a Chicago native, born and raised on the city’s South Side. After serving as a classroom teacher, I was prompted to leave the classroom to have greater influence to address the issues that affected my students’ ability to learn and their families’ ability to support them. I looked to the political and advocacy space to broaden my impact. At Chicago Votes, I planned and executed the “Parade to the Polls” with Chance the Rapper. Additionally, I co-developed the strategy to pass Automatic Voter Registration into Illinois law. At Teamwork Englewood, I developed the organization’s impact narrative and communicated it to various stakeholders. I also developed the Englewood Planning Advisory Council review process, to improve communication between the Englewood alderman and the community.
In 2018, I was elected as the Community Representative for the Kershaw Elementary School Local School Council. In 2017, I was selected as a New Leaders Council Fellow and Obama Foundation Civic Engagement Peer Advisor.
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.
Nicole Johnson:I do not support amending the Constitution or reducing pension benefits for new employees. Most people do not realize the trade-off in Social Security benefits the majority of us can count on in our retirement years. Reducing benefits will encourage talented applicants to seek employment in the private sector. Moreover, the basis for a proposed constitutional amendment is troubling. While cost of living adjustment (COLA) is based off inflation, what is not being considered is the increasing tax burden that Illinois residents will bear to address budget gaps and the backlog of debt due to the budget impasse.
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.
Nicole Johnson:I could support legalized and taxed recreational marijuana, LaSalle Street tax and commuter tax because of the lower impact on average residents.
I could consider property, municipal sales and real estate transfer tax increases if absolutely necessary, because Chicagoans are already overburdened.
What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose?
Nicole Johnson:The private sector is a largely untapped source of revenue, capable of contributing more with far less impact on them than constantly milking average citizens. For example, studies have shown a minimal tax on certain business financial transactions could bring in millions of dollars, as would cutting down on the “incentives” that give them a free pass.
That said, no suggestion would top the South Suburban Airport – the single biggest economic engine for both Chicago and Illinois. The necessary property has been purchased and Federal requirements to date have been met. Completing, maintaining and expanding it will mean hundreds of construction jobs well into the future, as well as countless service, administrative, professional and small-business opportunities.
On one hand, this would enhance tax revenues from new commercial enterprises, as well as previously unemployed or underemployed individuals. On the other, it would free up revenues previously allocated to public assistance programs and crime/policing issues.
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?
Nicole Johnson:Recent city administrations have abused and diverted the program to benefit already stable and thriving districts. I would support the Back To Basics TIF Ordinance that would utilize the program as intended to exclusively fund projects in underinvested neighborhoods. I would reform the ordinance such that there are racial empowerment and other demographic hiring quotas to be met by the employer within a certain time frame, and regular audits.
What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?
Nicole Johnson:I see the problem more as aldermen ceding or shaping their prerogatives to what mayors want, rather than the other way around. I’ve witnessed previously progressive-minded aldermen gradually succumb to “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” to the detriment of their wards.
To this end, I will expand the Englewood Planning Advisory Committee that I championed while working at Teamwork Englewood, to address all ward based developments. This committee hosts individuals from the urban planning, real estate, community development, civic and non-profit spaces to the table to support the alderman in evaluating new projects, zoning changes, etc. It makes the planning process more transparent and ensures the needs of the community are included.
Furthermore, I believe it is time aldermen begin working together and pursue regional plans and initiatives. If aldermen are incentivized to work together, they will more keenly analyze how a project will affect the economic welfare of their constituents and will proactively develop remedial steps.
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?
Nicole Johnson:I fully support this measure, and our campaign has already made the first step in this direction. In August, we launched our “Let’s Get into It” civic engagement workshops. During our first edition, we provided constituents with a four-page summary of the consent decree for their discussion and recorded feedback. Additionally, as alderman I would vote for the community oversight ordinance proposed to the City Council by several community organizations.
What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?
Nicole Johnson:The city has done as much as possible in terms of legislation, though that has been weakened by the Illinois Assembly. Over the past eight years, the mayor has developed his own legislative agenda, and has lobbied the state to develop specific constitutional amendments. I want to see City Council do the same. City Council members have very close relationships with their state legislatures, and typically this relationship is leveraged during election season for each respective elected official.
This relationship should be more intently leveraged to support a legislative agenda that fills the gaps in the constitution that allows the proliferation of illegal guns. This legislative agenda could include the following: keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, target bump stocks and other devices that increase firing speed, extreme risk protection orders in which firearms can be confiscated from at-risk individuals, increased background checks, and tightened concealed carry laws and eight provide funding to urban and rural gun violence prevention programs.
While it is difficult to circumvent gun trafficking across neighboring municipalities and states, we can certainly focus more on the economic, social and mental health factors that cause people to abuse guns in the first place.
What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?
Nicole Johnson:I support schools that are doing good work, regardless of status. I will push charter schools to develop community school models. I will also pursue requirements that charter schools provide proof of their compliance of providing special education services to students with learning disabilities. I also envision charter schools supplementing nearby traditional public schools by providing specialized coursework that may not be available in their 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?
Nicole Johnson:I support an elected board, if there were a process that included developing community candidates, ways for the public to question all candidates and reasonable campaign financing guidelines. Otherwise, we could still end up with board members with the deepest pockets, usual political connections and little relationship to underserved neighborhoods.
Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain.
Nicole Johnson:No, and gentrification related to the Obama Presidential Center, and nearby Jackson Park/South Shore Golf course expansion is already displacing some long-term residents. As alderman, I would work toward such strategies as land grants and land trusts which give residents greater control and ownership over affordable housing.
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?
Nicole Johnson:I support the policies connected with being a sanctuary city, as granting ID cards to help immigrants access work, education and health/social services.
Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not?
Nicole Johnson:I believe that could help transparency in cases where there is obvious potential for or reason to suspect conflict of interests, kickbacks and misuse of public funds, particularly among alderman who have been suspected of that for years.
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.
Is there a past or current alderman whom you model yourself after, or would model yourself after, or take inspiration from? Please explain.
Nicole Johnson:Historically, I am inspired by William L. Dawson, who rose from alderman of the 2nd ward to U.S. Congressman and in 1949 became the first African American to chair a regular Congressional Committee. I particularly admire his ability to educate and engage constituents of all walks of life on the importance of their political engagement. This is aligned with an integral value of our campaign, which is education.
A more current and personal example would be State Senator Mattie Hunter. I want to model myself after the way she has used her strong educational and activist background to advocate for and sponsor legislation in health, public education, youth services and other areas to strengthen communities like mine. I especially value her willingness to help aspiring elected officials such as myself. I will strive to emulate her commitment to building successive generations of public servants.