When I walk into Gabriel Piemonte’s campaign office, he’s leaning over a set of newly laminated 5th Ward maps, highlighting the South Shore blocks he plans to walk over the coming months. The office itself, in a storefront along 71st Street, is sparsely furnished—a single bookshelf, a few posters, chairs and a sofa near the door. During our interview, Piemonte notes that he’s hoping to turn it into a public art gallery, or maybe a lecture space. Still, he might be forgiven for worrying about bigger problems first, such as the fact that his opponent in the race for 5th Ward alderman, five-term incumbent Leslie Hairston, has approximately $20,000 more cash at hand than he does. (According to his last quarterly report, Piemonte’s got $750 in his campaign committee account, though he has spent about $20,000 campaigning over the last ten months.) He recently received his first endorsement, from the South Side chapter of Democracy for America, the political organization of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Hairston took office in 1999; Piemonte began as a reporter at the Hyde Park Herald around the same time. He served as editor of the Herald for nine years, leaving in 2015 to work on a series of other projects. Most recently, that’s included Woodlawn Voices and Visions, a summer program where CPS students make their own documentaries. (He has also contributed to the Weekly.) But a year or so ago, he decided that Hairston’s failure to listen to the communities she represents, particularly in the debate around the Obama Presidential Center, meant that the 5th Ward—which includes parts of Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore, and Grand Crossing—needed a new alderman.
Can you tell me about your decision to run against Alderman Hairston?
I started calling people up and talking to them about running, and nobody was interested. And in the process of having those conversations, I heard myself starting to talk about my experiences. When the projects were being torn down, I thought, it’s not my place. But I’ve now lived in Chicago for seventeen years—ten in Hyde Park, seven in Woodlawn—I’ve been active in South Shore in different ways. This is my community, and this time I can feel empowered to say something.
If you had to explain the alderman’s job to someone who doesn’t follow local politics, how would you describe it?
How Leon Despres explained it to me when I was a reporter at the Herald was that the alderman has two jobs. One is to be a housekeeper, and the other is to articulate the values of the community. I think that you can get too full of yourself, and think that you’re fighting for truth and justice and a six-figure salary. You’re a really well-paid janitor. In a perfect world, you’d just be maintaining everything, and making sure that resources were equitably distributed—but we’re far from that. The other side is [that] you do have to be a voice for fairness and equity. I think we have a real problem where we have fifty-one representatives of the executive branch. All these aldermen act like little mayors in their neighborhood. We don’t have a deliberative body in the city.
What kind of coalition are you building to strengthen your campaign? And how are you planning to grow that coalition over the next few months?
I did something that I might have been the first candidate for 5th Ward alderman to do, which was to endorse a candidate in an election on the University of Chicago campus. So Graduate Students United was having its elections, and the guy who is now president of GSU and I had a relationship. Part of my burgeoning vision for the ward includes figuring out how we make our relationship with the university more equitable. A piece of that is: how do we make sure that they’re being fair to the people who work for them?
Also, I moved to 71st Street and rented this exact storefront because I want to be in the dead center of the part of South Shore east of Jeffery and north of 71st Street.
This is still a work in progress: I am in communication with an advocacy group for voucher-holders. They became kind of pariahs to the CHA, but they’re still organizing on their own, and I really want to help them connect with this community. So we’ve been working together, but we both kind of have our separate agendas. In South Shore and in the little skinny part of Woodlawn [in the 5th Ward] there’s a huge concentration of voucher-holders. I would like to build a coalition with those folks individually.
If you become alderman, what will you do to ensure that you stay accountable to the community? How do you make your office an accessible site for civic engagement?
We’re trying to do that beginning in the campaign, and then kind of transfer everything over. So a rule that’s used in guerilla warfare—and I do feel like this is a bit of an insurgency—is you create the kind of society you want in your camp, and then when you win, you have it. So we’ve got a corner where kids are welcome here, and there’s a space for them to hang out and do stuff. We’re also putting an art exhibit together.
Part of the experiment for me is, I’m also inviting people in to interrogate me. I’ve actually been real reluctant to talk a lot about education under my platform [because] I feel like parents and teachers and kids need to say what that should be. I’m very critical of charter schools, but I know there are a lot of people who will say, “Betty Shabazz,” which is an excellent charter school and Afrocentric and really rooted in the community. And so I feel like, well, okay, I know that, but also how they get money is really bad and we need to reform that. I need that to be a dialogic process.
You’ve made local development councils a core part of your platform. Can you explain what they are?
In the [the 5th Ward] we represent pieces of 4 neighborhoods: Grand Crossing, Woodlawn, South Shore and Hyde Park. Each one of those neighborhoods would have a local development council. Ultimately, it’s an elected group of people. There are groups of people from all over the neighborhood, and their primary task is to approve developments in the neighborhood. That’s the core. I believe in deliberative, democratic decision-making being not just acceptable, but the best form of decision-making. And this is a basic philosophical difference between what I’m doing [and] what the sitting alderman is doing, what the mayor’s office is doing, what our whole culture does around how we make decisions.
I guess one worry I would have about this kind of democratic decision-making is that it could prevent necessary housing from being built for people, like in Jefferson Park, where racist residents blocked an affordable housing development. How do you think about that?
Conversations in Woodlawn around “those Section 8 people” are horrifying to listen to if you believe we need a progressive housing policy that includes everybody. We’re very fortunate in the 5th Ward in that we have the potential for balance in exactly these kinds of councils, of people who would represent both sides of that argument. I think this is a very diverse community in that respect, in terms of people who [would be] saying, “Okay, I’m not really sure why you have a problem with people who have vouchers, but I have [a voucher] and so do half of the people on this council.” Part of what I think would be critical in order to not have what you’re describing happen is to get out the vote with everyone. And that’s actually an aspect that’s exciting to me—it incentivizes civic participation. You can literally help to shape that policy.
What do you think of the CBA debate surrounding the Obama Presidential Center?
The Community Benefits Agreement, to me, is a precondition. But I don’t think it’s gonna happen. If I win, I think I’m gonna be in a situation where shovels are already in the earth, and it’s like: well, what influence do you have now? I think there’s still plenty of influence an alderman can have over construction, but it’s unclear how far along it’ll be — that’s not clear to me. It’s possible that things are slowed down long enough that suddenly it’s March 2019 and it’s a different mayor, it’s a different alderman, and we’re talking about something very different.
My attitude has always been that I’m upset with the lack of civic discourse, because I think it’s the height of hypocrisy to create a civic center and not have the community help shape it. And the use of public land in that context makes no sense. But beyond all of that, I want to know what the value is locally.
When you talk about Leslie Hairston, you talk about the fact that she’s ineffective. But as an alderman, she’s developed a reputation for being quite progressive. What’s your perspective on her tenure?
I think that when she was a young alderman, she earned some of that reputation, but part of it is very low standards for what a progressive alderman is. She votes with the mayor over eighty-five percent of the time, but that’s considered brave.
The moment that I think kind of crystallizes Alderman Hairston 1.0 vs Alderman Hairston 2.0 is participatory budgeting. She brought it to the ward, which was a great progressive thing. But she had horrible turnout, people weren’t voting. And at least part of the problem was that in Woodlawn we voted for a mural, and she came to Woodlawn, and said, “Well, I know you guys voted for a mural, but don’t you think we should just fix the streets instead?” She pushed back on this thing that people had voted for. It was a very unpleasant experience, and people walked away from it thinking, “I’m not doing this again.”
What ended up happening?
We got the mural. [One woman] said, “I’m not really sure why you’re telling us you have an opinion about this, but we voted, and so now we’re going to proceed in the way that’s been laid out.” And she got a mural painted with dogged determination. We actually ended up with three murals.
There’s also a big problem with evictions in South Shore. Do you support some sort of eviction reform?
Absolutely. There are lots of different ways of people using housing that seem to be kind of a perversion of what’s intended. So Pangea [a controversial real estate company with the most Housing Choice Voucher tenants in Chicago] has this system down to a science —first time you break any rule, you’re out. They already have somebody else to take your place, and it’s all voucher holders. They get government money, and they get as much of it as they can. It’s not actually about housing people, it’s about using their vouchers to get revenue. To me that’s not the best productive use of that property… You can’t be about the voucher and not the person holding the voucher.
I think that you can create a kind of reform that’s balanced, where tenants have responsibilities, but they’re also empowered to manage the way people are behaving in their buildings. There’s this assumption that tenants are always a problem, or that they’re operating as individual actors, and so there’s no effort to take advantage of collective organized tenants. All over the country there are model public housing developments, and what they all have in common is really strong tenant organizations that are really strict about following rules. That’s a lot different from: “I’m kicking you out, and I’m gonna get another person in here really fast because I want their money.” That’s about: “We’re your neighbors, and you’ve got to follow the rules.” That’s a different dynamic.
Do you have a campaign slogan yet?
Be heard. There are three things we’re trying to really emphasize. The first is voice. I hear from all sorts of people that they feel like they can’t have a conversation with the alderman, they can’t say what they want, they can’t talk about what’s important to them. The second thing is that we need a vision for local economic infrastructure rebuilding. In Woodlawn and South Shore, the local economy has ruptured. You’ve got to carefully knit it back together. The final thing is to recognize what we have that’s worth something. We do things like build the Obama Center and there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a great thing. But why do we throw away twenty acres of public land and not value it? Why are the voices of ordinary people not a part of the deliberative processes? Why do we not value local knowledge?
Christian Belanger is a senior editor at the Weekly. He last wrote about two biographies of Harold Washington.