Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Alderman Leslie Hairston on Rahm, NATO, Schools, and Daley

Leslie Hairston, alderman of the 5th Ward since she upset an incumbent in 1999, has been getting some good press recently after she and six colleagues voted “no” on Mayor Emanuel’s infrastructure trust fund ordinance in late April…

Alderman Leslie HairstonLeslie Hairston, alderman of the 5th Ward since she upset an incumbent in 1999, has been getting some good press recently after she and six colleagues voted “no” on Mayor Emanuel’s infrastructure trust fund ordinance in late April. (She also voted, with four others, against Rich Daley’s parking meter lease deal in 2008). When we met earlier this week at a coffee shop across from City Hall, I mentioned to Hairston that she has gotten more good press in the past couple weeks than most aldermen get in their careers. John Kass, to quote just one, dubbed her and her six colleagues—Fioretti (2nd), Foulkes (15th), Munoz (22nd), Waguespack (32nd),  Reilly (42nd), Arena (45th)—“the Magnificent Seven,” and called Hairston “inspiring.” 

Hairston—who has a big voice and a big laugh to match it—calls herself “a South Side girl,” having grown up in Hyde Park and South Shore and attended the University of Chicago Lab School (class of ’79). Fifty years old, single, a White Sox fan who has never lived on the North Side, she shares a South Shore two flat—the house in which she spent most of her youth—with her mother. Below is an edited transcript of our 90-minute conversation:

CF: The infrastructure trust is now a done deal. What can you do about fixing it going forward?
I’m not done with it. I definitely will be trying to do what I can, to have the safeguards in place…. We need to know what happens if a company is not able to finish performing. Are there going to be performance bonds? Payment bonds? What about the people that are working? Are they going to get paid if these projects fail? What happens if the trust goes broke? Are there going to be surety bonds? We have to be sure that we have a means by which to pay back the money. If we’re not doing that, we’re going to be bankrupt.           

CF: As you say, Rahm didn’t just win the infrastructure deal by a comfortable margin; “it was a grand slam” (41-7). Which of the aldermen who present themselves as reformers most surprised you by voting “yes” on a bill that you, as well as just about every newspaper in town, have blasted for lacking sufficient oversight?
I was most surprised by [49th Ward Ald.] Joe Moore’s 30-minute speech [backing the plan]…. [47th Ward Ald. Ameya] Pawar has been voting with the mayor since he got here. I need to look at how people talk before they get on the Council and then when they get there. At the end of the day, they’re not a breath of fresh air.

CF: When you won your council seat in 1999, you were an attorney in private practice who had never held public office. There were reports you were considering running for mayor after news hit that Rich Daley was retiring. Why didn’t you?
I wasn’t ready to resign my job as alderman.

CF: Will you run in the future?
You never rule anything out.

CF: When you heard that Rich Daley was retiring, what ran through your mind?
He had accomplished a lot of things. You give him some credit. I have to look at the way my community looked when I took over. There was no grass; there were no median flowers on Stony Island. It was as if the South Side ended at the Museum of Science and Industry. And he went outside of the comfort zone. He was not afraid to look at something and try something different. With Daley, it was very clear that it was all about the city and the citizens. With the current administration, it’s more a business.

CF: Sounds like you miss the old mayor?
Mayor Daley was very respectful of the aldermen, very respectful of the neighborhoods, so when he came out to my ward he’d talk to the people…. You had to pry him away from the people because he was busy shaking hands…. His style was very homey and not as quick and rigid as the current administration’s, and so you respect somebody who respects your job even if you don’t agree all the time. [After my interview with Hairston, news broke of Daley’s machinations to beef up his pension account. Her spokesman told me that Hairston would not comment at this time.]

CF: Has Mayor Emanuel been to your ward?
No. [UPDATE: Tarrah Cooper, Emanuel’s spokeswoman, emailed me to dispute Hairston’s claim that the mayor has never been to her ward. According to Cooper, Emanuel has been to the 5th ten times, including for an appearance with the alderman.]

CF: What grade would you give him for his first-year performance?
You’d have to break it down. In education, a D. In terms of making departments more efficient, a B-plus. Consolidation of some of the police districts is a positive. He has found some really creative ways of policing used in New York that have been very successful. But on issues of safety, I’d give him an incomplete. I represent the University of Chicago, and I have students from all around the world whose parents send them to my neighborhood to be educated, and the most horrific thing would be to have something happen to those students.

CF: What about appointments, for example Jean-Claude Brizard as CPS head?
I don’t have a lot of confidence in [Brizard]. They bypassed a lot of local people that knew everything. When they do that, the children suffer in the long run. I don’t think Brizard is his own man.

CF: Do you feel in general the new mayor has too often gone outside the city to find talent?
I think the administration should get to know who lives here and could help them. I think that they should look at the talent pool they already have.

CF: Other concerns about Emanuel?
I think we have to worry what happens to city workers, the people that are actually paying taxes in this city, because city workers are required to live here. When you start giving jobs outside of the city to people who are not paying taxes in the city, that erodes the tax base.

CF: You talk as if you don’t really think of Rahm Emanuel as a Chicago guy.
This is not what he’s familiar with. He’s more familiar with Washington and their style, but this not Washington. This is Chicago.

CF: Has Rahm ever said to you, “Let’s go have breakfast and talk about things?”
No, but I’d love to sit down with him. No one-on-ones with him. I’m not one of his special friends.

CF: Are you happy that NATO is coming here?
Well, to the extent that the First Lady is coming home and is coming to visit my ward, bringing the spouses of NATO leaders [on May 20 at the South Side’s Gary Comer Youth Center.]

CF: Are you worried about security?
I think there has been very poor communication about NATO, about what to expect. My community is now asking what to expect: Are we going to be able to get to work if we work in the Loop? Not any of them know anything about my ward. I know it better than the Secret Service; I know it better than Rahm Emanuel; I know it better than all those people he just hired that he brought in from out of state. I’m still awaiting information about the 20th. He gets a big fat F for communications.

CF: Will Obama’s presidential library be built in your ward? Have you heard anything about that?
No, but this is where the grassroots organization came up, out of the 5th Ward. We have Michelle’s elementary school in my ward. Barack’s first two [state senate] offices were on 71st Street [close to Hairston’s ward office also on E. 71st St.].

CF: Are you friends with the Obamas?
Yes. They were constituents. I was their alderman; I was their committeeman. [Their current house in the 4th Ward.] I supported Barack every time. I supported him in that awful 2000 race against Bobby Rush. I’ve been an Obama girl from the beginning.

CF: Have you been to the White House?
Yes, after the election at the Christmas party.

CF: As the weather warms up, Occupy Chicago will reemerge. If you were mayor would have allowed Occupiers to remain in Grant Park?
This is still America. We understand that you want safety but at the same time, we as Americans fought for these rights, and you damn well better respect them. I would have let them stay in Grant Park if they were not bothering anybody. Let them protest. They have a right to protest. Let ’em be.

CF: You worried about a teacher’s strike brewing?
Our teachers are the most underpaid, underrated, overworked of any profession, and they’ve got our most precious commodity. I think one of the things that has to be learned by this administration is that we [the aldermen] are not here because we just landed, but because we earned our right to be here. We’re here because we know something. This is not something where you say, `Jump!’ and we say, `How High?’ I think this is a hard thing for the administration to hear.

CF: You graduated from the University of Wisconsin and started law school at the University of Iowa but ended up switching to Loyola [JD 1989]. Was Iowa just too rural for you?
That was not it. My father was an Eagle Scout; we did family camping trips, so rural areas were not strange. It was the racial tenor at the time. [The professors] assumed certain things about you—they must have watched Good Times—that I was a deprived black child and not familiar with social graces. They said, “We understand that you’re from the inner city and that you might have some issues adjusting.” I said, “Look, I don’t come from a place where there are 14 kids in two rooms; I come from a place where there are two kids in 14 rooms. [Hairston has one sibling, a younger brother]. So don’t make those assumptions about me.” It was a very, very negative experience for me.

CF: Were your parents in politics?
My mother was a CPS principal [at the Mary C. Terrell Elementary School abutting the Robert Taylor homes] and a teacher before that—CPS for 43 years. My dad [who died in 1986] had a very reputable tavern for African-Americans in Woodlawn called the Avenue Lounge, and then he was the first black owner/operator of a McDonald’s franchise here in the city.

CF: Who inspired you to get into politics?
Harold Washington. I volunteered to organize the absentee vote at the University of Wisconsin. I had the pleasure of speaking to him, getting advice from him. I saw him on the fifth floor [of City Hall], at events. He was a very public man. Part of the thing for Harold was he had to shake a thousand hands a day. When I decided to run, [a mutual friend] gave me Harold Washington’s clicker [a counter worn around a finger]. My goal was to shake a hundred hands a day.

CF: Do you work a second job?
I still maintain my law license, not much law practicing going on—99 percent of my time is spent being an alderman.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune


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