Interviews | Politics

Meet the Candidates: Nicole Johnson

The Weekly sits down with the educator running for alderman in the 20th Ward

Ellen Hao

Nicole Johnson is one of between five and twelve candidates (depending on how petition challenges shake out) running to replace outgoing Alderman Willie Cochran in the 20th Ward, who has been indicted on corruption charges. The ward is made up of parts of Woodlawn, Washington Park, Englewood, and Back of the Yards. Johnson lives a block west of Halsted in Englewood—in the same house she grew up in—and has worked across the city: as a third grade math teacher on the South and West Sides, a consultant at Magic Johnson’s education nonprofit the Academy Group, and at community development nonprofit Teamwork Englewood. She’s also a peer advisor at the Obama Foundation, and volunteers with Alpha Kappa Alpha and the Chicago YMCA.

Like most of her opponents, Johnson is a first-time candidate, but she has a financial leg up—she’s got twice as much cash on hand as her next-closest competitor. (A large chunk of that comes from frequent political donors, including a couple who have given money to Republican committees and candidates.) That monetary advantage may make up for the fact that the 20th is usually seen as a Woodlawn ward, a reality Johnson says she’s “not oblivious to.” Johnson spoke with the Weekly about education policy ideas, residents’ complex attitudes toward policing, and why she thinks she’s the most independent candidate in the race. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What do you think are the most important issues facing the ward?

I think the most important issues hinge upon the values that our campaign is espousing, which are economic empowerment, exceptional schools, and safe communities. These are all the values that I hold dear to me because they played an influential role in me being where I am today, feeling safe and comfortable, and having the environment to go to between my home, train, and school, and having a great school. That was also a motivation for why I wanted to run for this office.

I was on the selection committee for the new president at Kennedy-King College. We’re already having a conversation with [them] and with Kershaw [Elementary School], which is within the same block—I’m on the LSC for that school. Let’s make sure that our parents and our older siblings can get into the GED programs there. Let’s get our kids thinking about school beyond eighth grade so they can start going to classes and shadowing. [Kennedy-King] also has the pre-apprenticeship highway construction program, and that’s a very competitive, free highway construction program. So wanting to expand the slots, or earmark some of the twenty-five slots for a handful of parents whose kids attend local schools, so they have a pipeline.

Another thing I’m very keen on is Becoming A Man and cognitive-based therapy. I go to therapy every two weeks, just for me, and I think that needs to be a regular part of education. We need to be thinking about and have our kids be thinking about: If I’m angry, why? And thinking about how they can self-regulate in that way.

I think schools are right for this. We have really good hardworking people, the leadership and the teachers, but they’re just overwhelmed and inundated with their own responsibilities. Just trying to maintain order in their classroom, mitigate relationships with their parents, and still be able to provide service even though their kids come to the classroom with so many other issues. I know I dealt with kids that would be like “Ms. Johnson, the police raided my home.” I’m like, “Okay, I can’t expect you to learn today. Just go color and we’ll talk about this later.”

What about public safety?

The community I come from has got its own host of issues—some would say over-policing or over-surveilling, and not many restorative practices or responses to why people are experiencing violence. People deserve the right to walk to and from their homes. Bullets fly every day—I almost got shot two days after Christmas in 2011. We want to make sure that we are improving the relationships between our police officers and our community members. This was one of my critiques of the outgoing Seventh District Commander [Kenneth Johnson]: you have your officers, your CAPS officers, that are Black and they’re always at the meetings. I see them and I know them on a first name basis, and I know their phone numbers. I call and text them. But what about the other patrolmen that don’t know who we are outside of when we’re being stopped for a traffic stop? So making sure that the police are more of a presence beyond just being law and order. My critique of Kenneth Johnson, was asking him to have his patrolmen go to our meetings. Not just the CAPS officers, who are usually just the Black officers, the Black CAPS officers or the school resource officers, and not the ones who may not be privy to what black life looks like. [Ed. note: Kenneth Johnson retired last year before being charged by federal prosecutors with stealing over $360,000 in Social Security checks; he has pleaded not guilty.]

Woodlawn and Washington Park get patrolled by both CPD and the University of Chicago Police Department. What do you think of having that doubled police presence in the ward?

Being Black in Chicago—and just in America, period—you question your relationship with police departments across the whole country. I came in thinking [residents] don’t want more police, but they do. During the summer, I talked to a young Black guy in his twenties and he said, “You know, I want more police cause I want to feel safe.” I’m pretty sure he’s been accosted by the police at one point in his life. For me, that was a light bulb—it’s obviously kind of tough to reconcile, but I do hear them.

There’s a family on 64th and Ingleside and, you know, they paid a pretty penny for their home. [The mother] called me in tears last school year. She said, “Today was the first day of school. Last night, I had my son empty the garbage and the guys on Ellis were shooting. It literally barely cleared my son and it bust our back window.” These are well-read people and they understand that the zero-tolerance policies from the eighties and nineties put more Black men in jail, but they also are like, “I want to feel safe.”

Another issue people are both worried and excited about is development, particularly in Woodlawn. How will you try to avoid problems like displacement due to rising rents and home values?

I’m a strong proponent of land trusts and home cooperatives. So let’s transfer twenty-five percent of the publicly owned land on these vacant lots, and then enter into a cooperative agreement between homeowners that not just live on that block, but have to occupy homes within a half or a third of a mile from that vacant lot. And then they build a building, like a multi-unit. Then they agree to say, “x number of units are going to be affordable.” Half of them, or seventy-five percent, are affordable units, the others are market-rate. And so there you’re able to, one, expand those homeowners’ portfolio(s) because now they’re adding more to their wealth and their investments. Two, they’re able to provide affordable housing. Three, they’re able to select their tenants. So that also creates more community.

The most important part of this is that once those homeowners want to sell or they want to pull out, that’s a good way to transition renters into homeowners because now it’s much cheaper for them to acquire property cause it’s not gaining the same amount of equity.

There’s also too much emphasis on mainstream and big box businesses. We just saw what happened with Target. We really need to think about how we can create strong, sustainable, scalable businesses—how we can do some crowdsourcing with community dollars to put ancillary businesses to support the distribution of goods that are coming from Norfolk Southern, which is also in the ward.

Do you think the capital exists to open independently-owned small businesses in Woodlawn?

We can find it.

What do you think of Emerald South Development Collaborative, the new nonprofit tied to the Obama Presidential Center aiming to promote economic development in Woodlawn, Washington Park, and South Shore?

Yeah, that’s a huge thing there. I know that they have made an attempt to ensure that there are community representatives. And so you would hope that it doesn’t turn into one of those things where it’s another extension of the University of Chicago and their power and influence in this area.

What would I like to see them do with it? Be transparent, right? We’re always the last to know about the plans that are coming down. Be transparent and be able to provide the financial analysis.

Let’s stop acting like there’s not a huge elephant prancing around here. What are your alternative solutions? Don’t just say, “Oh, the housing price index is increasing thirty-five percent every year.” What do we do to stop it? You should have done that before you said, “We’re gonna build this.” Be really responsible in developing, be more transparent, make sure that there are more regular community meetings.

My concern is that you have all these different bodies that are trying to neutralize the alderman’s power. I mean, you even had the Metropolitan Planning Council that wants to take affordable housing out of the alderman’s hands. I think [the question of aldermanic prerogative is] hard, because it depends on who the leadership is. I know how I’m going into it, but I also know how Cochran has interacted with the university—just letting things go, and not questioning. So that’s what I mean: I’m coming in, you know, trying to move on the right foot and saying we want to have more of a say in what’s happening, and we’re going to question and critique this and not just sign it off with no questions asked.

Do you think you’ll have a lot of allies on City Council?

I think [Progressive Caucus chair and 32nd Ward Alderman] Scott Waguespack is probably the only person. But you know, I don’t have a lot of allies in my campaign now. I’m probably one of the most, if not the most, viable independent candidate in this race.

Why do you say that?

Because I don’t have any union support thus far. I’ve raised the most money. I made my decision to run two years ago. So, you know, they thought it was in the bag for the committeeman [Kevin Bailey], and now it’s calling him into question. And I think the support that he thought he was going to get from the party is probably not gonna come through. [Ed. note: Johnson’s sole endorsement so far is from Resurgent Left, a Los Angeles-based PAC founded in the wake of Trump’s election. The group also supported U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood’s successful underdog campaign in the west suburbs.]

You do have the most money, and a lot of that comes from people who are frequent political donors or donate to Republicans, including someone like Tim Schwertfeger, who donated over $150,000 to Bruce Rauner’s first campaign and is also on the board of Emerald South. Are these people you’ve been courting?

Each person that’s given me a considerable amount of money is someone that’s either known me my entire life or I’ve been courting for the past two years, just engaging them. Tim Schwertfeger—I’m a Chicago Scholar. Chicago Scholars [a college access nonprofit founded by Schwertfeger and his wife] gave me money to get my plane ride when I was spending my last semester in D.C. and interned at the Center for American Progress. He and I reconnected when I was at Teamwork Englewood. He was talking about personalized learning and ego with schools. And I was like, “Hey, I’m the result of your investment in the organization that you built.” So all of the people that have supported me are people that have invested in me throughout my entire life.

Schwertfeger does have ties to the university through Emerald South, and Ashley Joyce is the president of the Duchossois Family Foundation, which endowed a $100 million institute at the University of Chicago Hospital last year. [Ed. note: The Duchossois family has also donated large sums to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, federally indicted Alderman Ed Burke, and several Republicans, including the state Republican Party, Rauner, and 2018 Attorney General candidate Erika Harold.]

The only time we communicate is when I reach out to them. I think we have to think about the bottom line. What they’re giving me is immaterial to their bottom line. These are people that are worth hundreds of millions and almost billions of dollars.

They’re not funding my campaign. They are contributing to my campaign. These are personal relationships and professional relationships that I’ve leveraged over time. Tim has been supporting me since 2008. It’s not just something like, “You’re running now, so let’s get in on it.” Tim wouldn’t support me if I didn’t ask him to. And the university isn’t going anywhere, Emerald South isn’t going anywhere. You have to have these relationships.

The next 20th Ward aldermanic candidate forum, hosted by Southside Together Organizing for Power, will be at Harris Park, 6200 S. Drexel Ave., on Thursday, January 17, from 5pm–7:30pm. bit.ly/20WardForum

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Christian Belanger is a senior editor at the Weekly. He last wrote about the response of Chicago’s police and prison abolitionists to the Jason Van Dyke conviction.

Aaron Gettinger is a staff writer at the Hyde Park Herald

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