Joseph Ziegler lives and owns an insurance business in the same neighborhood he grew up in, in the 21st Ward. The ward, which includes parts of Auburn Gresham, Brainerd, and Washington Heights, has been run by Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. since 2004. Ziegler once worked with the alderman but parted ways with him years ago. The times he’s spent outside of Chicago was when he was a student at Southern University in Louisiana.
When the possibility of conducting business in the southern suburbs arose, Ziegler decided to bring his business to his home community instead. The Weekly sat down with the insurance broker at Ziegler Insurance Agency on in Auburn Gresham, where he grew up.
Is there any way you think the job of an alderman can be built upon or better?
It could be better if we have individuals that are actually advocating for the communities that they serve. That’s one of the reasons I’m in the race. I felt that the individual who is charged with the responsibility of advocating is not doing his job. As a result, I’m in the race.
What part of the city are you from?
I’m from right here. I grew up in this community. I attended Foster Park Elementary school at 85th and Wood. From Foster Park to [Chicago Vocational School] to Southern University in Baton Rouge to Keller Graduate school right back here in the city of Chicago. My business is here primarily because when the status quo started telling me that I would make more money moving to Naperville or Lisle, I said ‘If I can’t be in my own community then, I don’t even want to put your sign on my building.’ So as a result they conceded and I ended up right here in the community where I grew up. On most days when the weather is nice, I walk to work because I live right down the block on Winchester.
How has growing up in this ward informed who you are and the changes you want to make in this community?
I grew up in a different time. This neighborhood, when my parents moved here in 1971, was a changing neighborhood. We were the second African-American family on my block. Then we, in a sense, fell victim to white flight. It was like overnight the white people moved out, the Black people moved in. But we had a genuine sense of community. As a child, if I got out of line and a neighbor saw me get out line, they would say, ‘I’m gonna call your parents,’ and then they would call my parents and I’d have consequences if they called my parents. We have gotten away from that sense of community. That was one of the things I talked about in the debate. The pride of home ownership. Feeling apart of.
In the ‘70s my father went door to door on some of these blocks and collected money from the residents. From collecting money from the residents, right out of St. Etherita school, which is no longer St. Etherita, we ran the United Southwest Citizens Radio Patrol. From the money he collected we bought CB radios, because they were popular back then. The men in the community would drive around and patrol the community. With me being a little boy, tagging along with dad, I got to ride in the car and see some of the things that they did. If there was trouble or suspected trouble, they’d get on the CB and radio back to the base station and the base station would call the police. That’s the kind of community that I grew up in.
What work have you done in the 21st Ward?
Oh my god. What haven’t I done? We donated baseballs to the little league, we painted houses for the seniors for free, we held candidate forums to familiarize—and we’ve worked with the incumbent to hold these candidate forums—to familiarize the community with the candidates who sought elective office. After I stopped working with the alderman about five or six years ago, the last candidates forum we held was a result of the aldermanic candidates who did not win for re-election, then did not win for the election. We held that candidates forum and invited Alderman Brookins and [Marvin] McNeil out to to engage with in dialogue for the community.
What is the main issue voters from this ward have raised? How do you plan to address them?
The number one issue is public safety. There is an infusion of guns and we’ve got to get to the root of that. That’s why I said I’m going to get into the elementary schools first. As a community leader I want to build the trust of the students. They will know me and can call me as they develop. They know where the drug house is. The know where the gun house is and I need to know that so as the leader of the community I can take adverse action on those drug houses and gun houses.
I was in a community meeting in Brainerd where they mentioned [a specific] house is the problem. The lieutenant said, “Yes, we’ve raided the house. Yes, we’ve taken some guns.” Through eminent domain, or what they call the nuisance building ordinance that’s already on the books, “We can take that house.” If that house in a nuisance to the community, we should be fully engaged as the leader of the community making sure that house is not a nuisance. Of course the initial step is meeting with the property owner. Property owner, “If you can’t control your grandkids, then we’re going to take adverse action.”
As the leader of the community, there’s some things our young men just don’t get. When they are detained and taken to the station, some communities get what’s called a station discharge. ‘Oh Johnny, you acted up. We’re gonna call your parents to pick you up and you get discharged from the station.’ Our young men get booked and locked up. For nonviolent offenses, one of the things I want to do it have those young men sent back to the community on community service and assign them to a church closest to their home. We will develop foundational programs that those young men, depending on the hours of community service they get. They will work for the church. Putting them in jail under a felony conviction or a misdemeanor conviction would then be the last resort. If they serve their time through the church, we ask the judge to let them off for time served. Not necessarily booking them and putting them in jail, giving them a record where in the future they can’t get jobs.
Alderman Howard Brookins has been applauded for bringing jobs to the area with the Walmart on 83rd Street, and condemned for voting for the meter privatization deal. What decisions that he’s made do you agree with and what things would you do differently?
I worked for Alderman Brookins sixteen years ago. About nine or ten years ago I watched him do some things that were questionable and I had to back away from him. [Ed. note: He declined to elaborate on this.] I’m glad that I did back away from him because what happened with his chief of staff is public record. [Ed. note: His former chief of staff, Curtis Thompson, pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe to grease the city wheels for a liquor license that ended up coming from a federal informant.]
Four years ago I decided to run against him. I tried to talk to him initially but when you sell your soul to the devil—figuratively not literally—it is somewhat difficult to comeback because you’ve put your name on the contract in blood. Four years ago when I ran against the current alderman, the mayor gave him $60,000 against me, I took $50,000 of my own money out of my left pocket, put it my right pocket and I said, “Let’s fight.” In a sense, he has sold his community out, and that’s again why I’m in the race. That’s again why Ken Lewis, who was also a former aldermanic candidate, is on our team.
The closing of Garrett A. Morgan elementary school, which had more than 600 students in it. He chaired the committee to close Garrett A. Morgan and Mahalia Jackson [Elementary school] right here at 87th and Vincennes. [Ed. note: Brookins actually chairs the City Council’s Committee on Education, which is separate the school closure committee that recommended Mayor Rahm Emanuel close some fifty schools in 2013.] At Garrett A. Morgan he told the kids to walk from 83rd and Kerfoot to 87th and Wallace which means they have to cross 87th street. Could you imagine your seven, eight, nine-year-old having to walk and cross 87th Street, and it’s twenty or fifteen degrees outside in the Chicago winter time. That is unconscionable.
The bag tax. [Brookins] said initially, “We’re trying to save the environment,” but as you look at his record he’s never seen a tax he didn’t like. In our ward, right on my block, as I walk to work I’ve got seniors. These people are on a fixed income. He made a comment: “Yes, I voted for the tax increase and I’ll do it again.” Which means, that you are taxing your constituents out of the city. Your senior citizens that vote are being taxed out of the ward.
Your website states that you are “politically astute without being part of the political machine.” I think many alderman would claim they too are simply making decisions of best interest to their voters. What mechanisms of accountability would you put in place so your constituents know you’re working in their favor and not of interest to the mayor?
Without being politically connected. Without selling my soul to the mayor by taking his money. I have relationships with many of the sitting alderman. I have relationships with individuals in the Cook County Board, as well as relationships with people in the state legislature. I know them, I have their cell phone numbers and can call them and they will answer. I didn’t just move here five years ago after being the committee member over in the sixth ward seeking opportunity. And at issue is our constituents don’t know that we have a candidate in the race, a carpetbagger per say, from the 6th Ward. [Ed. note: Marvin McNeil, also running in the race, is the former Democratic committeeman of the 6th Ward.]
I’d meet with the students, meeting with the pastors, meeting with business owners. Having collaborative meeting with community organizations. I plan to be an alderman that is very visible and hands-on. Yes, I run an insurance agency and a financial services firm but I have a succession plan. When we win, my son graduates now from college in May. My goal is to have him come in, and he’s worked in this business, and take over here so I can be a full-time alderman.
Education is one of your platforms. What is your stance on the closing of public schools and increase of charter schools in the city? What do your foresee for the 21st ward?
I like the teachers union, and I think that the charter school concept is designed to break up the teachers union, even though some of the teachers now in the charter schools have become unionized, as you see with what’s going on in the 18th Ward over at about 82nd and California. They’re striking now. [Ed. note: The CTU’s charter arm organized one of the first charter school strikes in the country at CICS Wrightwood this month.]
If, number one, the charter schools are subsidized by the Chicago Public School system, why couldn’t it be a CPS school? No one sits back and asks the questions. They’re not necessarily deep thinking enough to say, “Hey, wait a minute, why would we make it a charter school if we’re subsidizing charter schools, number one. Why would we get a charter school when we’re laying off African-American CPS teachers?” We need to start asking the hard questions. The administration of the charter schools are taking that money and putting it back in their pockets and not putting it back into the teachers or the curriculum for students they’re supposed to serve. I’m in favor of more public schools than charter schools. I think maybe we need to declare a moratorium on charter schools to reevaluate the charter school concept in the city of Chicago.
Can you please expand on your economic development platform? What kind of businesses does the 21st ward lack? What kind of businesses do you hope to see?
I do have my thoughts but that should be a decision that the community makes. We can’t just put a Papa John’s pizza on the corner of 87th and Wood if the community does not have a taste for Papa John’s pizza. We have to have meetings with the community and engage with the North Beverly Civic Association, the Brainerd Council, the Ashburn Community Development Council and have a collaborative meeting so we can make sure that whatever we bring into the community, the community supports, that community has a sense of investment in a commitment that “Hey, we want this business, we like it,” so that the business itself can survive.
A sit down restaurant is lacking. My neighbor across the street, she [owns] Dan’s Soul Food Bakery at 79th and Maplewood. White linen tablecloths and she served soul food. The restaurant has thrived in that area. We need to bring that kind of restaurant into this area. Sit down, soul food restaurant. We do have one right here at 87th and Wood but it’s not sit-down. You go in, you buy your food, you go home. We need to expand that concept.
How has housing affordability changed in this ward? What kind of affordable housing program does the ward need?
Four years ago I was meeting with SEIU and they asked me if I could come up with an affordable housing program because if you look at affordable housing under HUD, you’re talking about a house that’s $175 to $200,000 dollars. That is not affordable, even though by definition in HUD, that it was they’re classifying as buying an affordable house.
One thing I’ve suggested is on every block we’ve got a vacant house, foreclosed house, or abandoned house, to take some of those properties through eminent domain and or work with the mortgage company, sell the house to a developer and limit that developer to 100 percent profit. Let’s just hypothetically say we give a house to developer for a dollar, they put $30,000 into the house as far as rehab to make it move-in ready. I would limit the developer to a $30,000 profit plus expenses of course: realtor commission, broker commission, that kind of thing, water bills, any taxes that are required. We’d take that house, they’d put in $30,000 and would net $30,000 and we’d add the expenses on. So let’s just say they house sells for $70,000. The house is sold now below market value, but it is back on the tax rolls. By selling it to an individual we give them the pride of home ownership, the sense of community, and we make it affordable for those individuals seeking to purchase a house within our community.