Andrea Zopp, 59, a Chicagoan by way of Rochester, N.Y., a graduate of Harvard college and law school, with experience as a prosecutor and a corporate executive—and, most recently, a losing Senate primary against Tammy Duckworth—has a new job. I sat down with her at City Hall recently to talk about the latest item on her résumé.
This interview, an extended version of a Q&A published in our August 2016 issue, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your new title—deputy mayor and chief neighborhood development officer—what does that mean?
Residents feel like Chicago’s a tale of two cities. When Rahm came into his second term, his transition team came up with the view that there needed to be more focus on the neighborhoods, somebody whose primary job it is to make sure that we’re being effective at the neighborhood level. We’re not just looking at what we’re doing from a project-by-project basis, but from a neighborhood change basis. If we have a retail strip, people not only need skills to get jobs, but to be successful in those jobs; that means access to transportation.
You use the phrase, “A tale of two cities.” You’re focused on the south and west sides?
We have 77 neighborhoods, and we’re making investments in all of them. For example, we just announced last [month] a homebuyers assistance program that would apply to people across the city. Certainly, we’re looking at neighborhoods that have the biggest challenges.
Cynics say your new job focusing on neighborhood development has a lot to do with Mayor Emanuel’s 70 percent disapproval rating among blacks. Does it?
If you go back to the mayor’s second-term transition report, there are very specific references to needing to increase resources on the neighborhood [level]. That happened before Laquan McDonald.
There’s already a Department of Planning and Development. What’s different about your role?
The Department of Planning does zoning and economic development, but they’re not looking at that second layer down: removing barriers.
Skills development. Almost 50 percent of African American males between the ages of 19 and 24 are not in school and not employed. [A recent study by the Great Cities Institute put the figure at 41 percent for black men ages 20 to 24 in Chicago.] You can’t have a safe neighborhood if half of your young men don’t have a pathway to employment. And if we’re going to offer jobs, [we must be certain] that we’re working with people to make sure that they’re going to be successful. We’re having a conversation [with businesses] about not just jobs, but “Will you be willing to work with a more challenged population?”
By “challenged,” do you mean people who have done prison time?
Yes. I was just this morning at the announcement of a pilot program we’re doing in Auburn Gresham through St. Sabina Church focusing on young men who have stumbled but want to get into the work force. [Along with a summer job, the men will get at least five hours of mentoring a week.]
Is this basically the agenda you pushed when you headed the Urban League?
Yes, it’s in part why I decided to run for Senate. Because I thought those core issues in the lives of average, everyday people would not be on the table otherwise.
The issue of you and Steve Koch—there was one deputy mayor, now there are two—did Steve Koch’s portfolio include things that you are doing, and now they’re out of his portfolio and into yours?
Steve has been looking at economic development since he’s been here. Economic development has always included the neighborhoods. We’re working very closely together to focus on bringing businesses here, and sometimes those businesses, if we’re fortunate, will also be looking for employees from across the city, or even situate themselves in neighborhoods outside the center city. I think this [second deputy mayor position] is really just a recognition that it’s a big city. There’s a lot going on. He’s got a strong finance background, I’ve got a strong neighborhood development background. So we’re actually very good partners to work together, which is what we will do. This is not the first city to have more than one deputy mayor, and I’m excited to have this opportunity to work with him.
What do you have on your plate now that did not exist before? What are you bringing to the table that’s new?
We’re doubling down on the neighborhood economic development efforts. We can be even more impactful than we have been. Yay for us for making that effort. I think that’s a good thing for the residents of the city.
Steve Koch is famous for being a dollar-a-year guy. You’re taking a salary?
I am taking a salary. My salary is $185,000. It is a significant salary. I’m very grateful to have it. It’s the right salary for someone of my experience and background.
How much of your time do you think you’ll be sitting in this box? [Zopp has a small, drab, windowless office. “Welcome to government,” she says when I mention it.]
Very little time sitting in this office, thank god. Most of the time I’ll be meeting with community members and talking to various people. Really, I’m a convener and an encourager of collaboration. [For example, I’ll say,] “Look, we’re doing this over at the library and this in the park. Are there things we can be doing together?”
Your experience in the corporate world and your experience as a prosecutor—do you bring stuff from those spheres to your job now?
Absolutely. My experiences in the public view as a prosecutor brings a real awareness and understanding of, for example, how people stumble and get involved in the criminal justice system in the first place. There are some very dangerous people who we need to get off the streets, and there are people who stumble and fall and whom we need to try and open the door to, to make sure they don’t go back. And I have a deep appreciation of that because I spent 15 years as a prosecutor. A lot of those people want to get into the workforce and we need to find pathways to get them there.
This is another thing I bring from my corporate background running HR at Exelon. You need to broaden your perspective on talent, because we have an aging workforce. People who have stumbled, they can become fantastic employees. They made mistakes when they were younger. So [I’m] talking to employers about creating those opportunities. That’s a key part of neighborhood development. It’s not enough just to plop an employer down there, you have to talk to them about the population.
Will your neighborhood, Beverly/Morgan Park, be impacted by some of the things you’re doing?
In my view, it’s a model. We certainly have been impacted by the violence, but not even close to the level of some of our neighbors. We have a diverse housing base, strong small business base, decent public schools. And so those core pieces—along with access to transportation—make a strong community.
When the population figures came out, it was kind of shocking to me because I grew up with Chicago being the “second city,” and now we’re moving on down. One of the cohorts demographically moving out of the city is middle-class African-Americans. Is that a concern to you?
A huge concern. We don’t want them leaving because they don’t think they can build the type of life they want to build for their families. And that’s in part why we have this focus on neighborhood development, because if we can build strong, thriving neighborhoods, we’re going to attract families.
There has been so much talk about CPS schools not opening in September; we seem to have a fix, but only temporary. How do you build communities when the schools are in jeopardy?
We’re at a very tough time. The dysfunction in Springfield has been having dramatic impact. It’s particularly frustrating right now since it has just come out that our teachers, students and principals have been making significant progress, so to disrupt that is just horrifying. What I say to people is, we know how to run decent schools and we know how to run them in tough neighborhoods. The objective is to spread that knowledge so that every parent can choose a school in their neighborhood that will give their kids the education they deserve. And we are absolutely on the pathway to do that.
What did you think when you heard Gov. Rauner call some CPS schools “crumbling prisons"? You have admit that there are schools that are awfully bad.
My problem with Gov. Rauner’s statement was the analogy to prison. Yes, we have schools that do not have the best physical condition. Our ability to repair our schools is tied directly to some of the financial challenges, and we’ve pushed hard to keep as many of our dollars focused in the classroom as well. But, you could simply say, “The buildings are crumbling.” The analogy to prison when you’re talking about a school district full of black and brown children is, to me, wrong, inappropriate and, again, part of the war he’s trying to create. He’s talking to people downstate and basically delivering their picture—the picture they want to have of Chicago Public Schools. The truth is, so many of those young people are amazing, and they’re trying hard. They want the same things that the families downstate want.
The other piece of that that’s so wrong is that there are struggling school districts across this state who are suffering. This is not a Chicago versus downstate issue. So for him to use those analogies to try and draw that line I thought was not only wrong, but also part of the challenge young people who come from poor backgrounds already have, which is that people lower the bar for them. So to have our governor defining them—of all the analogies he had to use, he had to go there. It’s particularly sad that the governor of our state thought to use the word “prisons.”
Do you regret your primary campaign?
Not at all. I knew it was going to be hard. It was. But I ran a strong race, and my message was well received. It didn’t work out, but now I’m doing something that I care about.
Are you supporting Tammy Duckworth? Are you going to campaign for her?
Her campaign has not asked me to campaign for her, but I’ve been vocal pretty much since I lost that I would support her, and I am.
Has Mayor Emmanuel told you whether he’s going to run for a third term?
No, we’ve not discussed the next term when I took this job. We talked about this job.
Is your plan, then, to work through this second term and then—
My plan is to stay as long as he will let me stay.
And in the future, is there a political job that you want? You know, Dick Durbin, there’s talk that he’s going to run for governor, leaving a Senate seat open. Or you could run for governor.
I had a tough primary race, and I got through it, and I haven’t thought [about future moves] yet. As I said, I did not get into this job to build a political career. I really haven’t thought about what my political ambitions are because right now I really don’t have any. I have ambitions to do this job and to do it well.
And did your family groan and say—
My family was so happy that I was not on the campaign trail anymore. No, they were great.
One of your daughters worked in your campaign. Was it hard on her?
I think it’s harder on your family when you are running because they believe in you, they care about you. Individually, you kind of steel yourself. You get used to it. I don’t take it personally. It’s harder for your children to not take it personally. It’s a little harder to shake off.
I was kind of surprised to see Pat Quinn pop up, since he’s been so quiet since his defeat by Rauner. He’s pushing this referendum for term limits for the mayor. What do you think about that?
I think we need to look at term limits. We should look broadly. I don’t know why [there should be term limits for] the mayor and not the legislature, so we need to look at it more broadly.
On the Obama library: I hope it goes to Washington Park, but it appears from what’s been in the press that it’s more likely to go to Jackson Park. Do you have a feeling about that?
I think wherever they put it, it will have benefits for the other neighborhood. It’s going to the South Side. That’s going to be amazing. We’re going to be able to, wherever it lands, create development across the South Side. I’m just thrilled it’s coming here.
If you walk around or drive around Washington Park, a lot of those blocks are pretty desolate.
It’s not like Jackson Park is in Evanston. The idea that if you put it in Jackson Park, Washington Park’s not going to benefit; or if you put it in Washington Park, Jackson Park is not … If we do it right, as I’m confident the Obama Foundation will do, and working closely with the city, we’re going to get benefits across the South Side. That’s what’s so powerful.
Your service on Rahm’s appointed CPS board didn’t help you in the Senate primary. If there is a political career out there for you, do you worry that working in this job in the Emanuel administration will hurt you again?
I’ve made the choices I’ve made in my life and my professional career because I believe in the work that I do. I think that’s worked well for me.