One of ten Democratic candidates currently running for three six-year seats on the board of commissioners that governs the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Cam Davis is one of three incumbents seeking re-election. He was first elected in 2018 to fill a vacancy created by the death of Commissioner Tim Bradford. As a result of the timing of Bradford’s death, three days before the filing deadline, every candidate had to run a county-wide write-in campaign. Davis set the Illinois record for most write-in votes in an election, winning 54,183 votes and the two-year term. This time around, his path looks considerably less difficult: he’s been endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party and the Chicago Federation of Labor, and his name is listed on the ballot. Before he was elected two years ago, Davis had a long and varied career in water protection work. He previously served as Barack Obama’s “Great Lakes Czar,” coordinating environmental restoration in the region. He also worked as president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes and as an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation.
Let’s get started by talking about your background and how you ended up on the MWRD. Who are you?
I have worked to protect the public’s interest in clean water for my entire thirty-four-year career. It is all that I’ve ever done. I started out as an organizer and a volunteer, and I felt that the mission of protecting the Great Lakes was so important that it prompted me to work for a nonprofit during the day and put myself through law school at night to become an environmental attorney. I went to Chicago-Kent, which is part of IIT, on the South Side. [Ed. note: the Illinois Institute of Technology is located in Bronzeville, but its law school is in the West Loop.]
From there, I litigated for the National Wildlife Federation, mostly filing suit against the federal government to get it to do its job. Then I went to become president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based citizens nonprofit advocacy group and home of the Adopt-A-Beach program, which helps your Hyde Park beaches stay clean thanks to volunteers. Then I went to work for the Obama administration to be point person for its Great Lakes restoration initiative. There were basically three parts to that job: coordinating the work of a lot of eleven federal departments, including the White House Council on Environmental Quality and others. It was also serving as liaison to Capitol Hill, working with Democrats and Republicans alike for Great Lakes restoration. And then it was also making sure we were fully engaged with stakeholders: states, tribes, municipalities, businesses, NGOs, academia. No one entity can save the Great Lakes on its own, we all have to do it together.
When my boss had to leave in January 2017, about three years ago, I had to leave, because I was an appointee. Soon after that, there was an opening on the board of the water reclamation district, and I wanted to continue my public service. So I ran for that, and to my surprise, I won.
What have you done in the last couple years on the board?
There have been several things that I’m really grateful I had the chance to do. One of them was the chance to vote for an independent inspector general. For the first time in 130 years, we have what I call forensic accountants and attorneys who can follow the money and make sure that the agency, including us as commissioners, is doing what it’s supposed to do, and complies with all laws and policies on the books. I give credit to Commissioner Debra Shore, she really helped get that idea up and running. I had the good fortune to join the board and vote for it.
Another thing is we just passed an ethics reform ordinance. A couple other things: I’ve helped lead the effort to update our watershed management ordinance. My goal with that effort has been to continue to reduce the impact of flooding on disproportionately impacted communities in Cook County. That’s something I’ve vowed to keep working for, and revising and updating that ordinance is one of the most powerful ways to do that. Also working to help give communities more of a say in how MWRD property is used to their benefit. I’ll close with this one: not many people know MWRD is the second-largest property holder in Cook County, second only to the Forest Preserve District. Yet we can and should be making better use of that property. I’ve been advocating for neighboring communities around MWRD property to be able to help influence what happens with that property. For example, if they would like to use MWRD property for community farming, as long as it helps reduce stormwater, it could provide space for people to have an inexpensive, healthy source of locally grown food. Especially in places like the South Side, where we have food deserts—communities without easy access to inexpensive, healthy produce—this is a good way to combat that problem.
What options would communities have? Can it be anything they want? What does that process look like?
We’re limited by state law. They can be used for commercial purposes, but it’s limited, and there’s a lot of hoops to jump through with that. If communities are using property to grow their own food, as long as it’s community gardening, not for commercial purposes, that is a much easier lift. If you want to plant trees to help pull carbon out of the atmosphere and combat climate change, that’s possible. Those are a couple of thoughts off the top of my head, but I also want communities to be able to propose ideas that achieve the district’s mission and benefit them. We ought to be getting as much impact out of our MWRD assets, including land, as we possibly can.
On ethics, the Green Party slate raised this issue in the 2018 election, saying that commissioners and candidates were taking contributions from companies that had business before the district. Do you think there should be rules that restrict or limit those kinds of contributions?
Basically, those rules are now consistent with state rules. I’ve gone beyond that and have voluntarily restricted myself from taking contributions from engineering firms doing business with the district.
Looking at the next six years, you mentioned flooding as an issue. The MWRD is continuing to expand McCook Reservoir as part of the “Deep Tunnel” project to capture and store excess stormwater, but what are the other solutions that the MWRD can pursue to minimize the threat of urban flooding, especially on the South Side?
One of the most important things the district can do, and this is not obvious to a lot of people, is we should be changing our energy mix. Right now, we as Cook County residents pay $40 million per year in energy bills. That energy use is about a third coal-burning, a third gas-burning, and then a third nuclear. The coal-burning is problematic because that creates air pollution that contributes to childhood asthma, and it contributes to climate change. We’re paying to hurt ourselves. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In contributing to climate change, we’re also contributing to wetter, rainier springs, which then hurt some of our disproportionately-impacted communities with flooding even more, including the South Side.
What role does the district have in shifting us away from fossil fuels?
The district has a lot of property. We can be installing more solar and other renewables. We can also optimize the use of recoverables—the waste that flows through the district’s systems can be converted to biogas. The district is doing that already, but we can be doing more of it. That can burn cleaner than coal, and it’s a very cheap fuel source because we’re already treating and moving that waste through the system anyway. Why not convert it to an energy source and bring down energy costs for all of us? My other mission, underneath the environmental mission, is cost savings for Cook County residents who are already hit pretty hard with one of the most expensive costs of living in the country.
I know the district recently discussed seeking a five-year variance from the new chlorides standards because of the use of road salts. What is the district doing to reduce the use of road salt, and will it be enough to bring it in line with the standards within the next five or ten years?
I really appreciate you raising that one, because one of the top priorities for me is reducing old road salts. I’ve raised a lot of questions about why we at the district are paying so much to attorneys when we could be using that money to actually address the problem.
There are a number of things the district’s doing. Number one is discussions to find alternatives. I know I’m doing my part to educate the public about alternatives around the home, and there are some interesting and new substitutes to rock salt entering the market all the time. Another thing that we should be doing is better land management: minimizing the use of salts, and, where we have to use them, making sure they don’t wash into our waterways. Our waterways are like the food on your dinner table: you don’t want to over-salt your food, so why are we over-salting our waterways?
Another runoff issue: the MWRD reached a settlement with environmental organizations in 2017 to reduce phosphorus levels in the waterways. I’m interested in hearing about the progress that has been made on that and what more can be done to reduce phosphorus levels.
We at the district are undertaking a study to understand where phosphorus is coming from. We know it’s coming from our plants, since we as human beings excrete phosphorus, but outside of that, where else is phosphorus coming from? I think the results of that study should help us answer that question.
What are the challenges you see on the horizon that voters might not be thinking about that’ll impact how the district functions and take up your time over the next few years?
I think the theme of how the agency can do more, in addition to its traditional water treatment mission, is really important. How can we do more to get more use out of our land? How can we do more to fight climate change by pivoting to cleaner sources of fuel? How can we do more to reduce the tax burden on our residents? Those are the kinds of things that are occupying all of my thoughts, especially as I run for a full six-year term this time around.
So, about running for a full six-year term. You’re in a county of more than five million people, running for an office that doesn’t really get a lot of attention, with nine other people on the ballot. How do you distinguish yourself and get your name out there in this kind of election?
I’m the only one running, whether a sitting candidate or a challenger, who has dedicated their entire adult life to protecting the public’s interest in clean water. It’s all I’ve ever done.
And I think people see that: when I ran in 2018 to fill the two remaining years of Commissioner Tim Bradford’s term, because of the timing of when Mr. Bradford died, I had to run as a write-in candidate. It was this really quirky race that most people thought could never be won, had never been done on a county-wide scale in recent memory. I think a lot of people saw that qualifications really do matter, especially in the face of the Trump administration’s public health protection rollbacks. If the federal government’s not going to protect us, we better damn well elect people who have a long, demonstrable track record of protecting the public.
Sam Joyce is a managing editor and the nature editor of the Weekly. He last covered Hyde Park & Kenwood for the 2019 Best of the South Side issue.