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3rd Ward candidate for alderman: Alexandria Willis

3rd ward candidate for alderman Alexandria Willis

3rd ward candidate for alderman Alexandria Willis | Provided photo

The Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the candidates running for 3rd Ward alderman a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing their ward and the city. Alexandria Willis submitted the following responses (the Sun-Times does not edit candidate responses):

Who is Alexandria Willis?

She’s running for: 3rd Ward alderman

Her political/civic background: Policy Analyst, Nursing Home Safety Advocate. I successfully advocated for an increase in the nurse to patient ration in nursing homes. My testimony was included in the final recommendation to former Gov. Quinn’s Illinois Nursing Home Safety Task force.

Her occupation: Strategic Planning and Innovation Analyst

Her education: Master Public Health University of Illinois at Chicago Bachelor of Arts Communicative Sciences and Disorders

Campaign website: winwithwillis.com

Twitter: @winwithwillis

Facebook: facebook.com/winwithwillis

Top priorities

What are the top three priorities for your ward?

Alexandria Willis: The top priorities for the 3rd ward are creating safe neighborhoods, ensuring housing availability, and growing the small business economy. Across the ward constituents share their concerns about the rise in crime and violence, from package thieves to gun violence. Constituents housing concerns range from the need for homelessness prevention to new single family and commercial developments. However everyone is concerned about property taxes. The wards business corridors vary widely in density and variety from one end of the ward to another. However mostly everyone agrees that more is needed and wanted.

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. 

Alexandria Willis: In 2017, I worked with the Englewood Quality of Life Plan to advocate for changes to a proposed County ordinance, Neighborhood Revitalization Act, that would give free homes to Chicago police, fire, and teachers in select low income, minority communities. We were advocating for expanding the eligible participants to include education paraprofessionals, school staff, and millennials that were Chicago Public School Alumni.

I felt the ordinance, as written, would have potential negative effects on the communities it intended to help. As a policy analyst I understand the importance of using specific syntax when writing ordinances. As written, this ordinance’s purpose was to “diversify the communities”. The communities included were majority Black and Latinx communities. Instead of stabilizing the community and offering pathways to ownership to the current residents, this bill would give wealth generating home ownership opportunities to people outside of their community.

Additionally, the ordinance only required the home recipient to live in the community for 5 years. The structure of the ordinance would have made the intended communities vulnerable to rapid gentrification and displacement. I successfully negotiated language changes and expanded the proposed eligibility groups to the ordinance. However, the ordinance essentially died in committee and the chief sponsor did not win re-election.

I’ve also been a member of the Board of the Renaissance Collaborative (TRC) for more than two years. TRC is a 26-year old Social impact, 50lc3, Community Development Corporation located in the heart of the historic Bronzeville community. TRC promotes self-sufficiency through an innovative and comprehensive network of supportive housing, employment, and educational services. As a metroboard and board member I raised funds for and awareness about the organization and its programs.

This summer I lead the planning for the inaugural summer rooftop event for TRC. We raised over $3,000 to support the general operating budget. I’m also a dedicated volunteer with Urban Juncture Foundation (UJF). UJF is a community development organization that works collaboratively with neighbors to use our cultural assets to establish locally-owned enterprises and community-driven initiatives around key transit stations in order to revitalize our community. I’m inspired by both organizations and am happy to spread awareness about them, make strategic introductions, and seek ways to support their missions.


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Pensions

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.

Alexandria Willis: Not paying the full pensions promised to city employees would be wage theft. Valuing city workers is of the utmost importance to me; they are a vital part of Chicago. The question of the “pension problem” tends to put the onus on workers, making it seem as though they are where the problem lies. I want to refocus the spotlight of the “pension problem” to risky investments, and mismanagement by the city.

The city council needs to further investigate the hedge funds, and private equity firms, making risky investments with tax payer money and eliminate inefficiencies in governance. Chicago tax payers and workers are not the problem. Looking towards future contracts, I want to create a path for every Chicagoan to retire with dignity and resources. No matter what industry one works in, their gender, their race, their socioeconomic status, or documentation status, everyone deserves to be able to retire knowing they will have adequate resources to live out their lives with dignity and respect.

Revenue

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.

Alexandria Willis: I support the creation of new funding sources through a new tax structure which takes the burden off of middle and low income and fairly taxes millionaires and corporations. However, corruption and mismanagement are two of the main reasons Chicago is in such a troubling financial position. We MUST reduce corruption, ensure that any new funds are managed properly, and that there is significant oversight around loopholes and subsidies.

I’m supportive of adding new revenue to tax via a Chicago public casino and legalized and taxed recreational marijuana. I support the creation of a Chicago Casino with the stipulations that it be owned by a local company, it does not receive tax breaks and subsidies, employees receive a livable wage and benefits, and the casino agrees to a community benefits agreement with the neighborhood(s) it enters. Chicago would be able to recapture the revenue currently lost to to Indiana and Michigan via casinos.

I strongly support legalizing recreational marijuana. Legalizing recreational marijuana would simultaneously address a multitude of social and economic problems. Legalization would discourage engagement in the black market and criminal activity, decrease the criminalization of minority communities, and unwarranted stops and searches by the police. It is important that new revenue generated be invested in communities most impacted by the war on drugs. Black communities were stripped of devastating amounts money, years of people’s lives, and community resources by the war on drugs; new funding should go to the development of locally owned businesses, education enrichment programs, and social work programs.

Pathways must also be created for impacted communities to participate in the new businesses and urban agriculture ventures that will go into creating the supply. Successful models like Colorado, California, or DC are my preference for modeling the Chicago policy plan. Both the addition of a casino and legalized recreational marijuana will create downstream tourism dollars for the entire city.

What other sources of new revenue do you favor or oppose? 

Alexandria Willis: I support the LaSalle street tax, but also understand the importance of attracting business and trade in Chicago. If the LaSalle street tax causes a significant loss of business, it must be revisited. The impacts of new taxes of this nature must be evaluated and monitored. I support a real estate transfer tax increase on properties valued at over a million dollars. The expected $150 million in tax revenue would provide crucial funding for affordable housing initiatives.

TIFs

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? 

Alexandria WillisCommunity driven, equitable, development is incredibly important to me and my community. The process of allocating TIF money must be changed. I’m a proponent of Participatory Budgeting because TIF allocation should be more transparent and resident input should be required when selecting TIF eligible projects. Also, the way TIF is dispersed for selected projects needs to change so that small or community based developers can plug gaps in start up capital for projects with long term returns and community benefit.

As Alderman, I will fight to ensure that any TIF money coming from the taxes of ward residents is invested in small developers and business owners, who will hire local people, agree to community benefits agreements when applicable, and enrich the community rather than take from it. In addition, the restrictions on TIF money being used for physical structures must be revisited. Building communities means more than concrete – it means offering training to teachers, enrichment programs for students, and investments in social work programs.

Aldermanic power

What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?

Alexandria WillisI think the city council needs to be overhauled and systemic change must take place within the committees and subcommittees that handle the day to day business of the city. This could be accomplished by creating regional community councils in the ward and empowering them to make recommendations on items that are traditionally in the purview of aldermanic prerogative. When it comes to affordable housing placement, aldermanic prerogative should be secondary to to the need of the city overall.

Police reform

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? 

Alexandria WillisThe Chicago Police Department has a long history of discrimination and civil rights violations dating back prior to the 1972 federal investigation. I support the creation of a Civilian Police Accountability Council. It is time to take a serious, hard look at how police are trained and evaluated. Communities must be included in the conversation, and given power to decide what safety means to them. New training and oversight would make the police better equipped to handle challenging situations. Significant attention and resources must be dedicated to addressing the communal trauma in black neighborhoods that have been targeted by, and in many cases terrorized by the police.

Guns

What should Chicago do to reduce the number of illegal guns?

Alexandria WillisChicago should work with surrounding states to make it harder to traffic weapons from these areas to Chicago. Increase security along rail routes that carry weapons, including considering banning weapon transport through city or for weapons to be stored overnight in the city during transport.

Chicago could also reduce illegal gun use by making communities safer so residents don’t feel the need to carry guns and obtain them illegally. If the city prioritized Improving education attainment and economic development in communities with the most gun violence fewer people would participate in the criminal economy.

Also, if the city provided closer oversight to the Park District and Streets and Sanitation departments so that services were delivered equitably across the city there would be an increase in the quality of life of residents further driving down the desire or necessity to engage in criminal behavior.

Schools

What is the appropriate role of charter schools within the Chicago Public Schools system?

Alexandria WillisCharters should provide choice for parents seeking a different education experience for their children. They should be testing grounds for experiential learning and best practices to be shared and implemented in public schools. However, it is important to pay attention to the privatized nature of charter schools in Chicago and the history of administrations taking advantage of the different oversight requirements and are not operating to the benefit of students or teachers.

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? 

Alexandria WillisChicago should have an elected school board, the caveat being that campaign finance reform has to be a key ingredient toward developing that more democratic body politic. An elected school board without campaign finance reform would leave working families and communities in the same situation they are in currently.

Affordable housing

Is there enough affordable housing in your ward? Please explain. 

Alexandria WillisNo, there is not enough affordable housing in my ward. Many of the former affordable housing units were torn down. The Robert Taylor Homes, The Ickes, and the Ida B. Wells projects are all examples of housing units that are no longer standing in my community. The Chicago Plan for Transformation did not return enough affordable housing units to the Ward overall. In addition, developers opting to pay a fine rather than including affordable units in their developments continue to limit the availability of affordable housing. Beyond, traditional affordable housing, there is a serious need for housing that is affordable for families who earn 80-150% of the annual median income.

Immigration

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? 

Alexandria WillisChicago must be a city that protects all of its residents regardless of documentation status from racism, discrimination, and victimization. Presently, while being a “welcoming city,” Chicago’s immigrant communities are not being protected or supported. An example of a place the city is failing immigrants, that I will advocate on, is getting rid of the gang database. Presently, the ICE officials have access to the gang database, which has repeatedly been shown to have false information, and endanger those on it. The example of back of the yards resident, Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, wrongfully being put in the gang database and stripped of any protections from the city’s sanctuary city rules, can not continue. We will fight to end attacks on immigrants and communities of color like the gang database, advocate to increase protections for immigrants, and work to assess the needs of immigrant families in the ward.

Ethics

Should the inspector general have the power to audit and review City Council programs, operations and committees? Why or why not? 

Alexandria WillisYes, the Chicago City Council has a history of corruption and abuse of public trust. Strong oversight from an independent Inspector General should be welcome by all members of the city council.

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. 

Alexandria WillisNo, I would not employ staff with outside jobs or contracts with the city. I think that culture is part of the city’s long running issue with corruption and inefficient government.

Role model

Is there a past or current alderman whom you model yourself after, or would model yourself after, or take inspiration from? Please explain. 

Alexandria Willis: If there is any one alderman I model myself after it would be William Cousins. I admire his ability to serve as an independent ward representative during the height of Chicago’s machine political era. Chicago is in desperate need for more independent aldermen who put the needs and desires of their constituency over personal or political rewards. I also admire that Cousins found other ways to serve Chicago after leaving City Hall rather than hold a position for decades stifling leadership aspirations of other community members.

William Cousins was an alderman, many of my fellow aldermanic challengers can admire. He felt that he could serve his community better than the Democratic supported Leslie Bland, as I feel I can serve the entire Third Ward better than the incumbent. Cousins ran and served with the mentality of “Unbowed, Unbossed, and Unbought”. I’m a truly independent candidate with the sole desire to live in a nice neighborhood.

I’m running with the benefit of political overturn, old alliances and loyalties are less beneficial and less certain than they ever have been. Illinois has a new Governor, Chicago will have a new Mayor and hopefully a desire to see improvements in Chicago with new City Hall members. I believe this is the greatest opportunity citizens have ever had to demand substantive change in City Hall through voting for independent aldermen who will put the needs of citizens first.


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