As 29th Ward aldermanic candidate Zerlina Smith and her campaign manager, Lorraine Chavez, walked up Central Avenue on the cloudy afternoon of Sept. 8, they spotted a man walking down the street and it’s off to the races.

“How are you doing, young man!” Smith beamed as she dashed toward him. “I’m Zerlina Smith, and I’m running for 29th Ward alderman again, because I’m still not happy with what’s happening in our community!”

The man stopped and, without missing a beat, Smith asked him what his concerns were. The 29th Ward stretches through many communities, she said, and she wanted to hear all of the voices.

By the time the conversation was over, the man signed her nominating petition and wished her good luck. 

Most of the encounters Austin Weekly News observed that afternoon went something like this, with potential voters either expressing interest or offering support. Smith said that these types of interactions would be the key to how she approached her job as an alderman if she wins the seat — talking to residents one-on-one, building relationships with stakeholders on the West Side and the city as a whole, and mobilizing the community for initiatives that would benefit it.  

Although Smith emphasized several times that she was running for the seat, not against incumbent Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), she argued that his policies haven’t benefitted much of the ward and that it would be up to the voters to make up their own minds whether she would be any different.

Smith is a longtime West Side community activist. She works as a case manager for the Institute for Non-Violence Chicago and serves on the leadership teams of several West Side organizations, including West Garfield Park Stakeholders and Westside Democracy for America Accountability Chapter. 

She previously ran for 29th Ward alderman in 2015, the first election year since the city-wide ward remap significantly shifted the ward’s boundaries. Smith said that where she went wrong was to focus on South Austin, where she lived. Now, she said, she was determined to visit every block of the ward while canvassing for signatures for her nominating petitions, and keep visiting residents during and after the election.

It helps that Chavez can speak Spanish, which came in handy when she and Smith went into more Hispanic parts of the ward.

Smith said that she wanted to run again for a very simple reason. The issues she saw the last time around — crime, lack of resources, struggling schools, lack of business development — remain today. 

“Small businesses are constantly packing up and leaving,” she said, gesturing at the empty storefronts around Madison Street for emphasis. “Property taxes have been going up and city services have been going down.” 

The fact sheet Smith and her volunteers handed out while canvassing outlined “a 100 Day Plan” for what her priorities would be as an alderman. It included calling for an elected Chicago Board of Education, putting a moratorium on new charter schools and turnarounds for existing neighborhood schools, $15 an hour minimum wage, instituting the financial transaction tax to fund community development projects, building and repairing affordable housing, expanding mental health services and investing in renewable energy sources.

Smith told the Weekly that her major priority would be investing in Austin’s major commercial corridors. She said that she would create a staff position in her office to help businesses big and small, as well as aspiring entrepreneurs, set up shop in the ward by connecting them with necessary resources and helping them with the approval process.

When asked about what she would do to improve neighborhood schools, Smith said that she would work with Local School Councils and parent organizations to connect schools with resources that would allow them to get funding outside CPS. That way, the schools will be able to pay for staffed libraries, as well arts, music and foreign language classes.

“Why would you have your child in a neighborhood school that has no resources, no programs?” Smith said, saying that the key was making schools more appealing not just to people in the 29th Ward, but in Chicago as a whole.

Smith also said that she was in favor smaller classrooms and expanding afterschool program. She also mentioned that her major priority would be to work with other aldermen to open up a West Side technical training school, to help the youth get well-paying, union jobs.

When asked what she would do to address public safety issues, Smith said that increasing job opportunities and making it easier for residents to access mental health services would go a long way. She said that she wanted area hospitals to set up satellite health offices in Austin. 

Smith added that she believed that strong block clubs would play a part in improving safety as well. 

Smith said that her other major priority would be to address the backlog of city service requests and fix up infrastructure. 

Every year, each alderman gets “aldermanic menu” funds to handle issues like this, with the discretion to allocate those funds as they see fit. Taliaferro became the first – and so far, the only – West Side alderman to use participatory budgeting, giving his constituents an opportunity to nominate projects that they believed deserved funding and then vote on which projects would get it. 

Smith said she intends to continue the practice. But if there was one thing she would do differently, she said, it was to increase outreach, something that Taliaferro himself acknowledged has been an issue.

“[I will have boots on the ground, knocking on doors, and sending out mailers,” Smith said. 

While talking to one of the voters, Smith mentioned that she was in favor of the property tax freeze. 

She said that she didn’t believe the tax money was being spent properly, and that many home owners were getting over-taxed for no good reason. 

“I’m going to advocate that property taxes for the last 15 years be [analyzed] to see where the funds went,” Smith said.

She said she wanted to make sure that the area parks and schools get the funds they deserved. As for Tax Increment Financing districts, Smith said she was in favor of a moratorium on creating new TIFs and ensuring that the money that gets collected in existing TIFs get spread “equally” throughout the communities they are located in.

Ultimately, Smith said that campaign wasn’t about what she wanted; rather, it was about what the residents of the 29th ward wanted.

“I would like residents [further north] to be open about their issues, to be open, about what ward, what neighborhood they want,” she said. “I plan to walk this whole ward, rain, sleet or shine. I want people to be open, be upfront and give me a chance.”


Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...