In a freewheeling Feb. 26 interview for the AirGo podcast, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) reflected on how her past has shaped her political worldview and reiterated her opposition to Mayor Lori Lightfoot's Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance (WHPO), promising grassroots opposition until her concerns are ameliorated.
"They're only going to put $10 million into protecting the class of people who are currently in my community, and that ain't good enough," she said. "I can ride by myself. I came by myself in this world, and I'm going to lead by myself. So I do not care about challenging the powers that be. I don't agree with Lori, and we've agreed to disagree. But they've got to come with some better numbers when it comes to the CBA (community benefits agreement), and I'm holding out for that."
Lightfoot's administration has stressed that the WHPO is an altogether distinct legislative effort than the CBA ordinance introduced by Taylor and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who represents most of Hyde Park, a few Woodlawn precincts and the designated Obama Presidential Center, though Hairston said this week that the mayor's ordinance appears to accomplish much of what the CBA ordinance was designed to do.
The CBA ordinance has not moved since its introduction — the Housing Committee has never considered it — but Taylor said the mayor's administration does not realize she is an organizer. "I'm not coming alone," she said. "Don't think I'm by myself."
Taylor has changed little since she won the April 2019 runoff in a landslide. Her interview at the Silver Room, 1506 E. 53rd St., was as freewheeling and direct as any public appearance she has made either during the campaign or in office.
"I am probably the most unelectable person in the City of Chicago," she said. "So the thought that I'm in this space, I always wake up and find stuff that reminds me that I'm actually an elected official."
Asked about displacement in the 20th Ward, Taylor responded that she is in the same position as many of her constituents.
"Those $700,000 homes, I can't afford that. And even if I could, I still wouldn't pay for it," she said. "I like being a renter, and I'm not interested in homeownership. I've seen where people have paid for their homes right out, and they took them because of taxes. So I'm not going to change.
"Woodlawn has a 60-year turmoil when it comes to housing," Taylor continued, going back to the predominantly African American gangs that formed in the neighborhood in the late 1950s and arsons that accompanied White riots and flight as Chicago desegregated. "It's not going to be fixed in a year's time. And so we need time to work it out, but time is of the essence."
"Affordable housing" goes beyond Chicago Housing Authority and Section 8 vouchers, Taylor said. "I'm not going to go along to get along," she said. "Why when it comes to Black working-class poor we can't ever get it together?"
A former Bronzeville resident, Taylor described her past relationship with area Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) as love-hate: "I loved to ask her for sh-t; she hated to see me coming. But it happened. She was that kind of elected official who made it happen, whether she wanted to or not, because she understood that I came with a base of folks who would challenge her."
Taylor moved out of Bronzeville after being priced out, relocating to Woodlawn two weeks before the March 2013 murder of six-month-old Jonylah Watkins, who was killed by a gunman targeting her father as he changed her diaper in a parked minivan. She said she met with her City Council predecessor, Ald. Willie Cochran — now an imprisoned convicted felon — and telling him she was afraid and displeased with the police response to the violence.
"He's like, 'How long have you lived here?'" she remembered. "He said to me, 'You're being very critical to have just moved into the community.'" At the time, Taylor was the education organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and threatened him with protests if he disrespected constituents again, saying, "You're in this seat because people elect you."
During her 2015 hunger strike to save Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St., West Side Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) discounted her lobbying because she was not a constituent. "I'm embarrassed to say that I told him, 'You better be lucky I don't have a car, because I'd put you in the trunk of it," she said. "You never tell people, 'You're not in my ward.' Because as an elected official, we're responsible for what happens in the city."
She said the Black Caucus has historically not voted as a bloc, but noted that 16 aldermen unsuccessfully voted in December to delay the sale of legal marijuana in the city until July to protest the lack of African Americans in the newly legal industry. (While less than a Council majority, it was more than voted against the mayor's first budget in November.)
Taylor said she hates City Hall. "They work in silos, and that has not worked for our city as a whole," she said. "You would think that these departments work together, and they actually don't." She decried appointed, unelected commissioners. When she went to the seat of government the day after her inauguration and found herself to be the only alderman there, she said city employees stopped her to pray.
"I know why now they wanted to pray over me, because I am the token Black girl, to some extent down there. They call me 'firecracker,' because I say all the sh-t that people are thinking but they just won't say," she said. "I cannot be in this space and not speak my truth and not say what our people think. I'm just not going to do it, and it's more than just a job for me."
Between corruption, unfunded and under-resourced schools, vast budgets for police departments, climate change and the general chaos of the contemporary world, "We're living in all of the things that we allowed our government to control with really no accountability to us," Taylor said. "I am only as strong as the people who stand behind me, and the power that I got, if you're conscious and you're really woke, is borrowed from the people. They're allowing me to flex their power."