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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Is Bridget Gainer a Mayoral Contender?

This ambitious Cook County commissioner talks about getting things done in the “least sexy” unit of local government and her plans for 2019.

Photo: Lucy Hewett

When I interviewed Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, 48, for Chicago’s June feature story Who’s Got Next?—a showcase for our city’s “emerging power players”—I knew that only a small portion of our interesting conversation would make it into that short profile.

So, here’s some of the rest of the story taken from our hour-long talk at a Gold Coast bistro and subsequent email and text exchanges.

A community organizer for the first decade of her professional life, a born and bred South Sider—yes, a White Sox fan—and mother of three, Gainer is a contender, someone to watch, because she’s probably not going to stick around for long as one of 17 county commissioners. (She currently represents the North Side’s 10th District.) The job she wants, I think, belongs to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, although I think she’d also consider the job now held by Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle.

An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

Are you going to run for mayor in 2019?

I’ve thought about it. It’s something I’ll continue to think about. It’s still a couple of years in the future, but I love the city, I grew up here and I’m going to live here until I die, so I want to be a part of whatever is going to make it better.

We don’t know if Rahm will run for a third term but I’m betting he will. Would you run against him?

Look, I don’t think there’s one person who’s going to determine what I do. I’d evaluate closer to the time.

You supported Rahm for mayor in 2011 and didn’t take a position in 2015 when Rahm ended up in a runoff against your fellow commissioner Chuy Garcia. If Chuy challenges Rahm again in 2019, would that keep you out of the mayoral race?

I don’t even know. Chuy and I are really big allies. We just passed paid leave together. We worked on that for almost a year. I like him tremendously.

You think Toni Preckwinkle won’t run for mayor, and that she’ll remain president of the county board. But people say she could have beaten Rahm.

She could have been the governor or the senator. I think she’s dedicated to criminal justice reform. That’s like pushing a rock uphill. She moved some of these people by sheer force of will. I think she made that decision that, sure, I could go to the U.S. senate tomorrow, but she said if I walk away from pushing this rock uphill, it goes right back to the bottom and someone else has to start over again. That’s my observation, and I don’t think she gets enough credit for that decision.

Do you have a candidate that you’re supporting for governor?

No. It’s really early now. There’s a $50 million price tag on the governor’s race. What I appreciate about Ameya Pawar and about Daniel Biss is that they’re not letting that get in their way.

You had a close relationship with Rich Daley and worked for him when he was mayor. [She also worked for the Park District as lakefront director.] He went from being celebrated as “America’s mayor” to being seen as an incompetent who planted flowers but allowed the city to rot in every way imaginable. So has Daley gotten a bad rap?

When I was there in the late ’90s, I really feel like it was the golden years. There was so much focus around neighborhoods and how to make them livable. If you went to a meeting with Daley and you said, “We’re thinking of doing this at 63rd and Stony,” he’d say, “Wait, you mean the corner with the bank? Or the corner with the gas station?”

I think very highly of Daley. The pendulum swings in government; one person focuses on one thing because it’s what they’re really good at and it’s what needs to happen at the time and then things go back. Being portrayed as incompetent is ridiculous. That’s not even in the realm of possibility.  Did he focus on some things and not on others? Yeah, I think that’s a fair statement.

After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1990, where you majored in English and political science, you went straight to New York. That’s where you got the community organizing experience?

Yes, I did a year of volunteer work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. I made $400 a month, lived with five other people in a rectory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. One of the people I worked for was Geoffrey Canada, who has gone on to do the Harlem Children’s Zone and Waiting for Superman. I was trained in Alinsky-style organization.

In New York, school ended at 3 o’clock, and the doors were shut, even though kids had nowhere to go; moms were working and these after-school hours were the most dangerous times of the day. We surveyed the schools and the ones that had the fewest programs after school were in low-income communities of color, almost exclusively. So we ran a huge grassroots organizing campaign, changed the contract with the engineers union, changed the policy of the New York Public Schools, so people could petition to use the gym and classrooms after school.

Three years as an organizer in New York and then you came back to Chicago?

New York was interesting to me. I loved every minute of it. But this is my home.

It’s now 1994. Someone connected me to a woman named Cindy Moelis who now works for the Pritzker Foundation [as president; she was formerly an assistant to Rich Daley]. She told me that the city is looking to start after school programs like we did in New York. I started figuring out if there’d be a desire to open up a community center in a public school. We wrote a grant and it got funded, and so now Senn High School has become a community center, open until 9 at night.

People have told me that they consider your biggest accomplishment as commissioner to be the Cook County Land Bank, a program that acquires vacant properties in distressed neighborhoods and resells them to developers for rehabilitation and reuse. How did it happen?

Alderman Michelle Harris and I used to drive around the 8th Ward. When you start to see vacancies in a neighborhood like Chatham—a stable neighborhood, people want to live there—it’s a bad sign. I’d go to a meeting and someone would say, “The house across from my mother’s has been vacant for a year. And I can’t even find out who owns it.” I thought: This is nuts. The market’s broken. People want to buy, but the market’s not lending.

So I’m reading through stuff one day, and I found this example of the land bank, started by a man in Flint, Michigan, when he was the county treasurer. I found money in my budget and I asked him to consult on how to create a land bank in Cook County.

Who was the key person on the county board who helped you?

Larry Suffredin [a fellow county commissioner] is an amazing legal mind and he was hugely helpful in helping us to structure it on the legal side. It took almost four years. Today we’re financially self-supported; we don’t get money from any government or organization. The money that is made [$27 million so far] is plowed back into the community because the people who are redevelopers are living there. Over 400 acquisitions of single family and two-four flats have been rehabbed by over 135 small developers, the majority of which are African American or Latino.

You’re married to a former South Sider, you were educated in Catholic schools on the South Side [St. Barnabas and Mother McCauley], and you grew up in Mt. Greenwood on the far Southwest Side. Now you and your husband Dennis Kibby live in Lakeview. Why move north?

I got this job at Senn and then at City Hall. I always imagined we’d move back south, but opportunity came up on the county board and now I’m in the district.

If you were to run for mayor, how would you attract African American support?

Most of the people in the African American community with whom I am the closest came not through seeking support, but by driving around the neighborhood talking about what kind of impact foreclosures were having and how we needed to change the appraisal process. Or how to leverage the relationships we had at banks to get working capital loans and use the Land Bank pipeline of housing to build more African American developers. Or from sitting together looking at neighborhood maps and determining how many young people we could employ if we bought 20 houses and used them as job sites. People and communities have most of what they need to help themselves. The role of government is to challenge the things that get in their way—whether it’s government, the court system, or the free market.

You say that the county board is the “least sexy” unit of local government.

Sometimes you’re sitting there and you think you’re going to fall asleep; you start feeling, why don’t I up my image and move on to something that’s more glamorous, less gritty? What I love about the board is I get to effect the change I want to effect, not just through the land bank but sick leave.

You and your husband were part of the delegation that went last November to the Vatican for the elevation of Chicago Archbishop Blasé Cupich to Cardinal. How was the trip?

As a woman who’s a progressive, the Catholic church can test your faith sometimes. I am pro choice. At mass at the Vatican, I looked around and thought, we have a really universal church. Every corner of the world is represented, and the pope is up there, and he has done and said wonderful things. The place was packed, and they were singing and the bells were ringing. It was magical.  It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced in my life. I don’t talk about my faith a lot, but when you think we have this call to mission, to serve the poor, you realize we’re part of something that has lasted for centuries.

Who do you model yourself on as a politician?

Mary Robinson, first female president of Ireland, and Senator Diane Feinstein.

Who are your closest friends in politics?

Kwame Raoul, Jim Houlihan, Anna Valencia.

You’re a county board commissioner, but you have another job as well?

Yes, I work for Aon doing global public affairs, building engagement around the world. We just launched an apprentice program here in Chicago and in London. My time is pretty evenly split. I work 30 hours a week for each one.

Previously you worked for Aon as a registered lobbyist?

I have been at Aon for 16 years. I came in, as I was finishing my MBA at University of Chicago, as the assistant treasurer. Then I ran M&A operations. After 9/11, Aon created a government affairs [lobbying] role in the U.S. that I ran. I then progressed to a role in business development and strategy.

What did you think when President Trump said about Chicago, “send in the feds”?

I don’t like him using the city to score political points. I think “send in the feds” is absurd. How about funding an infrastructure program? People need to be working and he needs a Works Progress Administration-style program. Talk to the guys who are drug dealers and ask them what it would take for you to walk away. They say $12 an hour.

What else am I missing?

I haven’t talked about myself this much since my wedding video.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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