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Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th)

“I have receipts,” Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor (20th) said with a smirk, scrolling through her texts with Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Taylor pulls up a message she sent to the mayor on October 18: “nobody bothered to say anything to me.. this is not right.”

Last fall, Taylor had just received word that some of the thousands of migrants bussed to Chicago from Texas would be housed in Wadsworth Elementary, a shuttered school in her ward. The city’s decision to install the shelter with little communication to the community about it generated fierce criticism from some Woodlawn residents. To Taylor, who has been pushing to make homelessness a bigger priority in City Hall, the decision added insult to injury. 

Members of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration have since apologized to Woodlawn residents for the project’s rushed rollout. The shelter now houses a few hundred refugees and asylum seekers, though the alderwoman is still demanding a special session in the City Council to discuss the matter. In protest of what she called a lack of communication from the city about its shelter plans, Taylor voted against a recent measure to accept state funding for the city’s migrant shelter system.

“When it comes to Black people, it’s always, ‘let’s wait,’” Taylor said during March’s stormy City Council meeting. “Let’s not make this about us against the migrants … But we should have a sanctuary for everybody.”

In an interview, Taylor said the clash feels symbolic of her first four years in office. Taylor, who worked her way up as a community organizer, is part of the council’s growing Socialist Caucus that is butting heads with the city’s more moderate leadership. Taylor’s first term saw progress on her key issues of housing affordability and displacement. She spearheaded the Woodlawn Ordinance, passed in 2020 to mitigate displacement resulting from the Obama Presidential Center. Still, many of her caucus’ goals were left unrealized, facing a tangled mayoral administration and the bureaucratic inertia of City Hall.

The alderwoman’s demeanor reflects the urgency of her job. The neighborhoods she represents, including most of Woodlawn, as well as parts of Back of the Yards, Englewood, Washington Park and Hyde Park, face some of the highest rates of poverty in the city. The fight is personal for Taylor, a mother of five who herself spent 29 years on the waiting list to receive rental assistance from the Chicago Housing Authority.

Her hardline approach comes with costs. Taylor is upset by rumors that the people being housed at Wadsworth believe she does not want them there. Her caucus’ efforts to decrease the city’s police department budget have been swatted down by the political mainstream. Likewise with their push to reopen closed mental health clinics.

In February, she won another four years in office, avoiding a runoff with 53% of the vote. Her team is now working on how to address the evolving needs of her ward amid rapid demographic shifts.

“We’re getting younger folks moving into the ward; how are we including them in what’s going on in the community? We got a lot of vacant land that has a lot of opportunity,” Taylor said in an interview. In Chicago more broadly, she added, “we got 60,000 people who are homeless, how are we helping those families?”

Entering a second term, Taylor brings a laundry list of legislative goals that center on housing development and poverty. She is prioritizing the Bring Chicago Home initiative, which would raise the real estate transfer tax on properties worth at least $1 million to generate revenue for homelessness initiatives. She’s keeping tabs on the rollout of the Woodlawn Ordinance, for which construction is currently underway. And her office is in talks with the city’s Department of Housing to set up tenants’ rights workshops.

Early in her tenure she also established a community-led team to provide input on local development decisions, a practice she will continue.

Whether that agenda faces headwinds or tailwinds will be determined with the conclusion of the mayoral runoff election on April 4. The runoff pits Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (D-1st), a former public school teacher and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, against Paul Vallas, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools. In a race largely defined by public safety, Taylor has endorsed Johnson, a progressive candidate who advocates investing in employment programs and mental health services for underserved communities to address violence in the city. His approach contrasts starkly with Vallas’ public safety plan, which largely consists of increasing police presence.

In an interview, Taylor slammed Vallas for his longtime advocacy of charter schools. Johnson has linked Vallas’ management of CPS in the mid-1990s to the fiscal disarray which resulted in the closure of hundreds of public schools in low-income areas, including in Taylor’s ward. Her diagnosis of the race? “Good and evil. That simple.”

In February’s municipal election, about 30% of the vote for mayor in the 20th Ward went to Lightfoot, followed by 22% for Johnson, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. Vallas earned just shy of 10%.

Asked about that election, Taylor does not name Lightfoot — who she once called a “bully” after a tense exchange in City Hall. But mention of the mayor’s ousting elicits from Taylor a wry smile. “You cannot lie to people, and not be honest, and think that people will continue to vote for you,” she said, mentioning the mayor’s mishandling of the botched raid of social worker Anjanette Young’s apartment in 2019.

The bigger picture for her next term, she said, is rolling back the city’s legacy of “implementing without listening.” It’s a story she sees including the Woodlawn Ordinance, which Taylor believes should have included nearby neighborhoods to begin with, to the Wadsworth migrant shelter. 

“The community is always gonna step up and help,” she said of the shelter. “But the community was not wrong for being upset. They were in the right to ask, ‘How are you taking care of other people and not us?’”

In January, officials from the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services announced that the shelter will also house Woodlawn residents in need, though that hasn’t happened yet. 

Four years into the job, Taylor’s energetic manner is starting to hold the frustrated undertones of an incumbent. She’s growing tired of being blamed for issues outside of her control: from small things like trash cleanup, to the massive Norfolk Southern Railway expansion, approved by her predecessor Willie Cochran, which she warily greenlit after holding out for months. But the passion she brings to the office remains untouched.

“I’ve learned a lot, but the community and I have a lot of work left to do,” she said. “You elected an activist. So let’s get some activism going.”

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