As a Chicago police officer for the last 20 years and an attorney for the last eight, Chris Taliaferro says it takes a lot to get him worked up.
But his victory over 29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham in the April 7 runoff election — by a narrow 437 votes — has him excited about the future.
“I feel the excitement I had when I first became a police officer,” Taliaferro said in a recent interview.
Calls are already pouring in to the alderman-elect from his new colleagues in city hall and his future constituents.
The police sergeant, assigned to the 25th Police District, which is within the 29thWard he will represent, said the election victory brings an end to his work as a cop and as an attorney. Taliaferro will take an unpaid leave of absence from the police department when he is sworn is as alderman on May 18, and he’s also winding down about 20 remaining cases he’s working on in his family law practice, Nexus Legal Group.
Taliaferro said he had been considering running for alderman since 2012, but the tipping point for him came when he and neighbors from the Northwest Side Community Coalition, among other groups, joined forces to fight the opening of a pawn shop at 6432 W. North Avenue — the fifth pawn shop within a couple of blocks.
He also was encouraged by Ald. Nick Sposato, a member of the city council’s progressive caucus. Taliaferro said he plans to be a member of the group that often votes against the wishes of the mayor.
“I certainly believe in their political ideas and their desire for social justice and equality and their strong desire to put the needs of their community first,” said Taliaferro, noting that the caucus’ fight to strengthen the city’s public schools, rather than continuing school closures and sending resources to charter schools, particularly resonates with him.
Referring to it as the “privatization of our school system,” he said, “We need to put forth a strong effort before we give up [on the public school system].”
He said he tried to run an ethical campaign and was even understanding of the 11th-hour attack ads put out by Graham, which claimed he would funnel city work to his law practice if elected.
“I’m a divorce attorney,” he said, laughing. “I’ve never seen a law firm that gets divorces funneled to them.”
The incoming alderman said he is handing over his business to his law partners, who started the firm with him in 2008, because he wants to focus all of his attention on the 29th Ward.
The attack ads went out in print and in the form of television commercials during the final days of the campaign.
“I understand that Deborah Graham wanted to fight for her job and it’s politics,” he said. “I just chose to fight with truth. I don’t believe the ads were very truthful at all.”
His experience in law enforcement could turn out to be Taliaferro’s biggest asset in a ward with one of the highest crime rates in the city. He’s worked in the 15th and the 25th police districts, both of which are in the 29th Ward. He said a strong decrease in crime — not seen during Graham’s term in office, he noted — would result in more businesses moving to the ward and a better quality of life for residents.
“I intend to use my leadership abilities as a police officer, as well as my friendships, to make this ward safer and a better place to live,” he said, adding, “I know quite a few cops, and they want to see me succeed.”
North Avenue, for example, has a perception problem as being dangerous, he said, noting that, statistically, the crime is relatively low along the commercial corridor. Storefronts that are unkempt, loitering and businesses that have their front windows covered with paper or advertisements create a false impression, he said.
“City ordinance says you are able to have a certain amount of your store windows covered; some of the stores on North Avenue have all of it covered. That brings about the perception that there’s illicit business going on in there.”
He also wants to recruit, and do a better job vetting, the businesses that come to the ward. He used the example of the liquor store, Convenience For You, which opened last year at 5337 W. Madison St. about a block away from two other liquor stores. A Chicago Tribune story revealed that the city gave the business $105,000 in TIF district funds to open the store, and Ald. Graham helped by lifting a moratorium on liquor stores opening in the area. The Tribune story also showed that the business was backed by a convicted drug dealer with ties to the Vice Lords street gang.
“A proper vetting of that business would have shown so many things that were later found out,” Taliaferro said. “It’s just another liquor store in a community that doesn’t need one.”
Taliaferro said he wants to establish an economic development committee to help bring businesses to the ward and plans to hold a meeting to form the committee shortly after being sworn in to office.
He hopes that reaching out to the community and staying in touch with constituents will help reverse the problems with customer service associated with Graham’s office during her tenure.
“One of the things I want to do differently is I want to stay a part of the community, and that means getting out the office,” he said. “That means shaking hands for the next four years. That means introducing myself for the next four years, but more importantly that means listening for the next four years.”
Taliaferro addressed several other topics, following his election night victory.
Pensions: He wants to look at overspending and search for new revenue sources, such as a commuter tax, casino gambling in the city and cutting management positions from city hall. “If you look at some of these departments, they are headed by superintendents and deputy superintendents and assistants to the deputy superintendents and assistants to the superintendent. These are salaries that are $125,000 to $150,000. That adds up.”
Red Light Cameras: “I believe our red-light camera system, as well as our speed cameras, should be responsibly abolished,” he said, adding that a new revenue source will have to be found to replace the funds generated from red-light tickets, but it “shouldn’t be on the backs of our taxpayers.”
Participatory Budgeting: He is reviewing the process used in other wards to figure out what works and what doesn’t. “There are other aldermen who are using it, and I hope to have a conversation with them to gauge the success of their program.”
Taliaferro said he’s “starting to understand the limits of what $1.3 million (in discretionary spending allotted to each alderman) can do.”
“Since I’ve become the alderman-elect, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with some incumbents and gotten a greater understanding of the cost to repair the infrastructure of the ward; it goes quick,” he said. “I’m finding that to repave just one street can be very costly, so we want to make sure the money is being used very wisely.”