West Side activist makes bid for 24th Ward alderman

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By ROBERT FELTON

A longtime West Side resident and activist is making her move to run for political office.

Valerie Leonard, a community development consultant from the North Lawndale community, announced her intention to run for 24th ward alderman last week. Leonard, 46, will challenge three-year incumbent Sharon Dixon. This is Leonard's first run for political office.

"I think there is a leadership void within the 24th Ward right now, and it greatly needs to be filled at this time of great economic uncertainty," she said in an interview with Austin Weekly News.

Leonard, a financial consultant, has lived in North Lawndale for most of her life. As head of the Lawndale Alliance for the past three years, she's known as a fiery community advocate by her colleagues.

"She's going to be a great candidate," said Dwayne Truss, who worked with Leonard on several issues, including state funding for Tax Increment Financing (TIF), and Chicago's failed to secure the Olympics, which both opposed.

"While I'm not going to say which candidate I support in that race just yet, I know for a fact that Valerie is a great community leader," Truss said. "It should be an interesting race."

During her stint with The Lawndale Alliance, Leonard worked to change the terms of the $250 million Ogden/Pulaski TIF project which would have, according to her, led to major zoning issues within North Lawndale; potentially causing the displacement of 1200 residents.

"The proposal could have resulted in the reallocation of TIF dollars generated by the 24th Ward to fund projects in other communities in other areas of the city, including downtown," Leonard said. "I did agree with certain aspects of the plan, like building affordable housing, providing funding for childcare and offering employment opportunities for ex-offenders, but the possibility of so many people being displaced-plus the lack of transparency by the developers-needed to be addressed."

Through Leonard's and the Alliance's negotiations with the City Department of Planning and Development, the city agreed to write a less intrusive version of the plan. The result: only 56 residents as opposed to 1,200 would be affected.

Leonard described this as one of her proudest accomplishments as a community advocate.

"No other community advisory council has ever succeeded at coaxing the city to change its plan on a project of this magnitude before. It was a tremendous accomplishment for the Lawndale Alliance," she said.

A 1985 graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, Leonard earned a bachelor's degree in economics. She received her master's of management degree in 1989 from Kellogg Graduate School of Management in Evanston. She lived in New York for three years, employed at Toronto Dominion Bank as a personal banker, and then spent one year working on economic development projects for former New York mayor David Dinkins.

Professionally, Leonard is most proud of her time as the financial analyst for Mt. Sinai Hospital on the West Side. In 1993, she worked with Chief Financial Officer Chuck Weis to obtain $107.5 million in funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the building of a new obstetrics department, outpatient clinic and emergency room. The three-year project held a personal significance for Leonard.

"It meant a lot to me to work on that project because I was born at Mt. Sinai Hospital," she said. "At the time, the Mt. Sinai in North Lawndale (15th and California) was faced with major issues with overcrowding. It meant a lot to me to help renovate a hospital."

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