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Interview: Alderman Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward (Part 1)

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Sep 16, 2010 6:00PM

Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd
A few weeks ago, when I first scheduled an interview with Ald. Waguespack, the notion was to get a bit of background about one of the leading candidates who was likely to step up and challenge Mayor Daley in next year's Mayoral Elections. But, just a few days before we were due to sit down, Daley turned the local political world on its ear with the announcement of his retirement. Suddenly, there's an abundance of candidates, some serious, others less so. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 people considering running, the field is more crowded and this, certainly, will have an effect on Ald. Waguespack's decision to run. Someone who's been outspoken against Daley in his term as alderman, Waugespack talked with me about his initial victory over the Machine in 2007 to win his ward, what he's done for the ward, and some of the challenges facing the City of Chicago as it heads into new territory under new leadership next spring. And, yes, about his mayoral aspirations.

Chicagoist: The 32nd Ward has been, traditionally, a very powerful ward. Rostenkowski’s recent passing is a good reminder of that and then there was Ted Matlak. What galvanized you to run against this machine, this powerful ward organization, in the first place in 2007 as an outsider, as a reform candidate?

Ald. Scott Waguespack: I was just talking about this with someone else, I’ve always kind of cringed at the word “reform” because I think people overuse it at times. It was more somebody coming to the table with new solutions. Back in 2006 when I first started looking at it, I was looking at how things were going in the city and I was watching a lot of other cities, talking to friends around the country, and I said, “Hey, here’s what’s going on in Portland, Seattle, Charlotte, New York City, L.A., Denver,” and listening to people talk about how their cities were changing. I thought, “Well, I live in the 32nd Ward, the old bastion of Dan Rostenkowski, the old chairman of the ways and means, the stamp king. And we’ve got this guy, Matlak, who essentially talks only about clout and how great the city is but still plays the old machine politics which plays to the detriment of a lot of other people.” At the same time, that whole machine was using the 32nd Ward as the zoning and development playground and things were completely out of control. Buildings were going up without neighbors really knowing anything about zoning changes or developments that were coming. And to their detriment they were taking the damage for years.

So I woke up one day, talked to a few friends, and said, “I want to change that. I want to go after the corruption in this city. Because these guys are never going to call the Mayor out for the Hired Trucks scandal, the Meigs Field issue, the heroin sales at the Water Department.” And as the list went on, there was nothing being said about it. So that’s why I jumped in: the clout, the corruption, and the zoning and development.

C: What made you think you could beat this machine?

SW: As I was looking at the demographics change in the ward - and it’s always hard when you look at the map you say, “Wow, how do you galvanize all those people in those different areas?” - but what I was hearing was that Roscoe Village was paying the price for Ted [Matlak] pushing stuff through West Lakeview. People were getting frustrated enough with the waste at the City level that it was time to take a chance. So when we ran the numbers, I figured out that if I was going to win, I’d win within 300 votes and it turned out to be 122. I made the calculations and I decided it was a risk I was willing to take.

C: What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

SW: When I came in, I put together a set of issues I thought were most important at the city level to tackle the waste and corruption, the waste being things like the parking meters, as it turned out, and some of the mayor’s budgets that I thought were wasteful. The education issue was another aspect that I thought - a lot of families were staying or moving into the neighborhood but the schools weren’t really up to par. We focused really hard on that and I hired someone specifically to work on those education issues. And the zoning and development, we basically put a set of guidelines together and said, “Anybody who walks in the door, no matter who you are, has to follow those guidelines.” There were some people who tried to undermine that repeatedly - and on a political note, that included the present committeeman. I looked at these three issues as ones you had to tackle all together.

The most time-consuming was the zoning and development but the most difficult was the education issue because it resonated with a lot of the community. CPS tried to come in and close two schools within a couple of years and we had mustered the support to say, “We’ll fix those schools.”

C: In specific terms, can you describe for me how the economic and housing crashes have affected the ward?

SW: Absolutely. When you saw all the zoning and development changes in the ward, you saw condo units going up, three or four where there used to be one single family home. So the infrastructure has taken a pretty big hit in terms of what we were tapping into in terms of the water, sewer, street. When you come down Damen, it’s like a roller coaster in some ways.

What it’s done now, with the market crash, is it’s left the 32nd Ward with a lot of damage that was done to the infrastructure. It’s left a lot of homes abandoned, not as many as in other parts of the city, but we have been, for the last two to three years as the market took a dive, just care-taking for a lot of these places that were abandoned or these developers, who are all fly-by-night, they have all disappeared. Only the really good contractors who have stayed it out and stuck around have attended to those places. A lot of these places, the developers and contractors have literally left the country and there’s no one to fix the mess that they left behind so it falls on our shoulders.

C: Is there a plan in place to deal with this as the economy - hopefully - slowly moves into a recovery mode?

SW: Yeah, what we’ve been trying to do is gather with the Building Department and say, “Look, before the next housing market boom comes, here are specific things we need to put in place.” I’ve asked for impact fees for the last three years, so that when somebody builds a house or a big condo building, the damage they do to the immediate surrounding community or to a homeowners association based on things that they’ve shoddily built, there’s two ways to tackle it: force them to put a lot more money on the table in escrow or to force them to keep open an LLC for a lot longer than they’re liable for. And also to be able to go after them if they try to walk away from it. So, essentially, making sure what they’re doing to the surrounding streets, that they’re putting money back in and also take care of individual issues in the home after they build it. We have put together specific ordinances or plans for the mayor’s office, memos that I’ve written the last three years that just say, “You need to put impact fees - like all other cities have - into play.” And we also need to tighten rules and regulations on the Building Department as well.

C: Speaking of the mayor, besides throwing it into complete chaos, what were the effects of his announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection on the City Council?

SW: When they announced it in the Finance Committee meeting, the room was full of lawyers, cabinet people, staff, aldermen, everybody you can imagine. The air completely left the room.

C: It was a complete surprise?

SW: Absolutely. No one knew. From what I understand, his guards didn’t even know, the guys who pick him up every day. That’s how tightly closed that circle was. The reaction was jaws dropping and some people tearing up. But I wasn’t too surprised.

I think he’s left behind a tattered legacy of the city being essentially bankrupt and I think the reaction people are going to see if the next mayor comes in and actually does what they should which is open up the books, they’re going to find out we’re in dire straits financially.

C: The City Council has come under fire for being something of a rubber stamp. There have been a few holdouts here and there - including yourself on the parking meter lease - but so many of his ordinances still breeze through. Do you think his retirement ends that? Between the mayor leaving and the large number of aldermen who won’t run again, do you see an end to that? Is this positive or is it going to be chaos?

SW: I wouldn’t call it chaos, I’d call it democracy. I think it’ll be great. I’ve seen it in other cities where, yeah, it can get a little ugly sometimes, but you’re actually having discussions and people finally stand up. Take the minority community. They’ve been told for years that the mayor was providing minority contracts on the level of 15 percent. And I never believed that. Lo and behold, the Inspector General does a report that shows it actually around three-to-five percent. They were all stunned but then said, “Oh, well they’ll do a better job next year.” And then the aldermen told them we’ll do a better job. I think what this will do is really open the door for some of the minority aldermen to start saying, “We want to raise the bar.”

Another thing, for the first time ever, maybe they’ll all start questioning the budget. The way the budget thing works is they walk into the budget hearings and they will nitpick about one or two positions and have a battle about that. But for the first time ever I think we’re going to be talking about some of the bigger issues. Two years ago, I was talking about the $55 million in PR contracts. Why do you need $55 million if you have over 100 staff members throughout the city in PR. Things like that will start being scrutinized. We’re already $700 million in the hole so the only thing left to do is open the books and say, “How are we going to get out of this mess?”

I think you’ll see in October a wide-open… it might even be serious… I won’t say attacks but a serious push to get to the bottom of some of the departments’ funding. The mayor might seems as something of a lame duck for the last seven months. Some may try to protect him. I think the Budget Chairwoman [Ald. Carrie M. Austin, 34th] is going to try to temper the council but it’s going to be difficult I think because people for the first time ever have, as I think John Kass might have said, the leash is off and they can say what they might have been feeling for 20 years.

I never had a problem with that. One day I was walking in the back rooms and this guy who I consider to be their enforcer -- after the Children’s Museum vote, it was in the New Yorker [page 47: "a city worker whom [Waguespack] believed to be a Daley loyalist"] how he walked up and did [pokes air violently] one of those, I basically said to bring it on, you want to challenge me, I’m just going to tell you how it is -- He was introducing a new guy to me that had been brought on to the administration about six to eight months ago who seemed like a nice guy. He said, “This is Alderman Waguespack. We like him because when he says he’s gonna eff you, he’s really gonna eff you and he’s gonna do it to your face.” And I was, I didn’t say anything but the new guy’s mouth was wide open, he’s coming on board to the administration and I said, “Well, what he means is that I’m going to tell you straight up what I’m going to do and I’m not going to back down from it and I don’t have a problem challenging when I think you’re doing something wrong, when the budget’s not right or the Children’s Museum’s not right.”

I think that’s worked out well for me because I don’t waffle when I get in to the Council and if I say I’m going to vote against it, I’ll give you the reasons why and stick to that. I think that’s helped me establish myself on the Council especially with the other aldermen: “Hey, guys, here’s how I see it on the parking meter deal, here’s my analysis, I think they’re wrong and they’re not going to tell you what the real numbers are. I implore you to read through this.” Of course, some of them said, “Um…”

C: Didn’t someone say they didn’t have time to read it? [Note: It was Ald. Dick Mell, 33rd: “How many of us read the stuff we do get, OK? I try to. I try to. I try to. But being realistic, being realistic, it's like getting your insurance policy -- it's small print, OK?”]

SW: Yeah.

C: I have to ask then: Are you running for mayor?

SW: I’ve got a couple of more weeks to consider it. Two months ago when I was challenging the mayor and looking at running, and a lot of people have said that the reality is my chances were better taking Daley on one-on-one or part of two or three people taking him on, and I was happy to challenge him as that one person or two people who were going to step up and say, “Someone needs to challenge this guy’s policies and the way he’s doing things.”

When he quit… you saw what happened. There was chaos. Everybody wanted to jump back on the Titanic and grab a deck chair. But I don’t think any of the people being thrown out there by the media - frankly I’m a little disappointed with the big guys saying, “Here are the people that we think should be running the city.” Because that’s really what’s happening.

C: I wanted to ask you about that. There have been two polls so far [this one and this one from the Sun-Times] and you’re not mentioned in either of them.

SW: I know.

C: There are some I assumed would be mentioned, a few that surprised me. One had Rahm in the lead, the other Sheriff Dart. Are you waiting to see who else announces their intention of running before making your decision?

SW: No, I don’t care who else does. I think the shift in my thinking was mostly due to the big media conglomerates that are basically saying, “We don’t care about the issues, we just care about a popularity contest.” That’s really what it is.

C: Are you going to be willing to challenge that, though?

SW: If I think that I see resonation with the people that have been part of the different venues or different organizations I’ve been going out and speaking to, if I feel like there’s still a good groundswell there over the next couple of weeks, then I’ll challenge it. But if not, if it looks like there’s no opportunity to be part of a group that is willing to tackle the real issues in the city instead of just having their names thrown out there, then I wouldn’t run. I’d absolutely focus on reelection as alderman.

C: So you still see something to maintain by running for alderman rather than mayor.

SW: Absolutely. Because here’s the alternative. I think I’ve put together a pretty good set of issues for the city - not only in my ward but in the entire city, I put it on my web site months ago - about how to look at the city finances, how to open up the books and redirect money where it needs to go which is to restore law and order, open up the TIFs - I’ve been talking about that for three years and been working with NCBG and some other organizations to put a new set of policies in play for TIFs. Ben Joravsky’s been in on it, we’ve been digging on it for two or three years.

C: You talked about the budget gap and this is going to be an issue for you as either mayor or alderman. You lean against privatization, citing the parking meter lease, so how do you close that gap? Is it higher taxes? Is it cuts? What taxes get hiked or where do the cuts come from?

SW: You know, I worked in Berwyn for a year [at the mayor’s office] and when I went in there, I put in a transition team, about 40-50 people and a few on the fringes, and they were all lawyers, CPAs, accountants, and whatever anybody had in terms of expertise. This is kind of a background of what I would do if I were taking on Daley and, frankly, as an alderman, too, which is what I would like to see any of these new people who have thrown themselves into the ring do. If they don’t do it, they don’t have an agenda. They don’t have any idea of what really needs to happen in this city.

So you take a group of people like that and you say, “Let’s open up the books and redirect the money where it needs to go.” You cut off a lot of the mega-contracts that are out there where you’re spending money on things that the money doesn’t need to be spent on.

C: Can you give me an example?

SW: One a few weeks ago was the Water Department. 60 percent of their contracts go to companies outside of the city and they’re lining sewers. They’re lining sewers that were just rebuilt, they’re relining sewers in areas that don’t have any problems, and they’re spending $100 million, $150 million, on multiple contracts. I just had a meeting with the new commissioner [Tom Powers] yesterday and I asked - and I asked this before to the previous commissioner - “Why don’t you stop those contracts and put the money back towards where the sewers are collapsing, put it back into the infrastructure, and keep the guys in the city hired on so that the money is flowing back into the city and lower the amount of the contracts. And you can do that by just saying, ‘We’re going to renegotiate your contract real quick, we’re not going to give you $150 million. Finish up this part of the contract and we’re going to redirect $100 million back to where it needs to be.’” You can do that for each of the big departments; you can say the same thing for the Fleet Department, for CDOT. “Okay, if we don’t need this project right now, if it’s not an emergency, or to direct it to a public safety issue or something like that, then pull it off the shelf or renegotiate the contracts."

C: So you’d be looking to avoid raising taxes in any way?

SW: You might have to if you get in there and find - I think that’s partially why the mayor left. He threw up the white flag when he said we’re going to look at privatizing the Taste, all the festivals, fleet management, recycling. Basically, he was going, “I give up” because he doesn’t have any other ways to tackle it unless he stops the over-spending. Two years ago we brought up the issue of ending fee waivers for every festival in the city. That might be $100 million right there. Ald. Brendan Reilly [42nd Ward] just said that he wanted to open up that discussion again. And we had looked at that as a possible way not to raise money or revenue but to say, “All those organizations out there that get free festivals and we pay for the police to go out there, you’re going to have to start paying for that stuff.” That adds up to tens of millions if not $100 million.

C: What about TIFs? You and [former 1st Ward Alderman Manny] Flores passed the transparency ordinance. Is taking that money a viable option when you’re talking about the city budget or the public school budget. It seems like it might be a one shot option.

SW: Well, it could be a one year, two year, or three year option because if you look at how much is going into the entire set of TIFs, some of the projects that are out there are already part of bigger financial packets and they’re projects already on the move. So you can’t really stop all the projects but you could, say, look at the North Branch TIF here in the 32nd Ward. We finished a bridge the other day, there are no other major projects, it has $6 million in it, you can extrapolate it to the other TIFs.

I know there are people out there kind of throwing numbers around that you could just stop all the TIFs - well, you can’t really do that because some things are tied up legally. All you have to do is get the whole staff down there to look at it and say, “Okay, Ald. Waguespack, in your North Branch TIF you have $6 million or $5 million. We’re going to suspend your TIF this year and that money will go back into the general set of levies.” So the schools will get their 40-plus percent, the parks will get their ten percent, the libraries will get some, and the general funds will take their 20 percent back. So, you can do that math and do it for all the TIFs and you might get, for the city, maybe $50 to $70 million.

C: Is it possible to consider phasing them out over time?

SW: Absolutely.

C: And that’d be a goal of yours.

SW: Yes, I’ve said that in the past. Like, “This one’s expiring in 2014, I don’t see any need to keep it moving. Either terminate it, suspend it,” and there’s a lot of those out there you could do the same for.

Tomorrow, part two, covering unions, his proposal for Chicago Public Schools, and more.