Students, supporters and citizens filled Fisk Hall Tuesday night for the Evanston mayoral debate, hosted by The Daily Northwestern and the Northwestern University Political Union.
6th Ward alderman Mark Tendam, 9th Ward alderman Brian Miller, former Evanston Township supervisor Gary Gaspard, businessman Steve Hagerty and lawyer Jeff Smith discussed their plans for Evanston and Northwestern if elected.
The 90 minute debate, moderated by Daily Northwestern editors Julia Jacobs, Nora Shelly and Marissa Page, covered topics ranging from town-and-gown relations to the electoral process itself.
On town-and-gown relations, specifically regarding Northwestern’s “good neighbor” payments to Evanston in lieu of property taxes, the five candidates agreed that there are a lot of pressing needs, including mental health support and parks and recreation. Smith and Miller agreed that paying down Evanston’s debt was a priority. Miller also advocated for increasing the fund from $1 million a year for 5 years to $2 million a year for 23 years to better allow for long-term projects with the money.
All candidates encouraged students to get involved in Evanston’s political process. Hagerty said he wished to speak during freshman orientation. Miller encouraged students to come to city council meetings. Tendam asked students to consider living in Evanston after graduation. Smith expressed support for ward redistricting to better represent students.
“I think what we have to do is see the student body not as this separate bubble of folks who live on the other side of Sheridan Road separated by some Trumpian-like wall,” Smith said. “During the academic year, students are actually about 25 percent of the adult population of Evanston. Students are adults and should be treated like adults, should be treated like full citizens.”
All five candidates expressed support for the City of Refuge ordinance, which declares Evanston a sanctuary city. President Trump has vowed to punish sanctuary cities, but the candidates agreed Evanston would not comply. Tendam sees it as a civil rights issue.
“Over one third of this country lives in a sanctuary city,” Tendam said. “If someone comes after immigrants and their rights, or women and their rights, or whatever rights people have, they’re coming after my gay rights. They’re coming after me. My gay rights are now women’s rights. All civil rights are the same.”
The most contentious exchange of the night came about after moderator Julia Jacobs asked Brian Miller how he would improve the electoral process in Evanston after confusion this year resulted in two lawsuits – one from Miller and one from Smith. Miller supported having a primary, in accordance with a 1992 Evanston referendum.
“I believe the will of the voters is supreme,” Miller said. “The voters went to the polls, the voters said they want it done this way and that’s the way we’re going to do it.”
Smith disagreed, saying that two Illinois Supreme Court cases made the primary process void. He said he would fix the electoral process by clarifying that the city should not hold a primary.
“We had a mayoral election eight years ago where if the referendum applied, we should have had a primary,” Smith said. “We didn’t have it! I challenged the city to say ‘Why didn’t we have a primary?’ Their answer? ‘Oh, we forgot.’ Have you ever heard of that in your life? ‘Oh, we forgot about the law.’ The law didn’t apply, it was abandoned for a good reason.”
Hagerty then interjected, taking issue with the litigation itself.
“I was a person that had to pay thousands of dollars to defend myself when these two gentlemen decided to litigate and have everyone removed from the ballot,” Hagerty said. “Let’s talk about how we solve problems, okay? But really, I agree with these guys – there is an issue.”
Other issues discussed included racial profiling by police and the establishment of an independent citizens review board after the 2015 arrest of Northwestern graduate student Lawrence Crosby, and adding bike infrastructure and increasing the safety of Sheridan Road after Northwestern freshman Chuyuan “Chu” Qiu was struck and killed earlier this year.
The biggest theme of the night, however? Get involved. As Gaspard said, when young people get involved, they can really make a difference.
“Everywhere you see around the world, students are always the ones that make a difference,” Gaspard said. “You feel like a part of this town, you get involved in it. You vote in it. And you vote what is in your best interest – not only for you now, but for the students that are coming.”
Evanston residents and Northwestern students can head to the polls next week, as early voting begins on Feb. 13, and the primary election is on Feb. 28. The general will follow on April 4. Find your closest polling place here.