Zerlina Smith, right, walks with former Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein during the nominee's visit to Austin in 2016. | File

Long-time Austin activist Zerlina Smith-Members isn’t letting her past Chicago City Council election losses keep her out of politics. In fact, she’s aiming for a higher office.  

Smith-Members, who ran unsuccessfully for 29th Ward alderperson in 2015 and 2019, said that she’s running for Cook County Board President because she believes that the board doesn’t listen to the voters in communities like South Austin, where she lives, and because she didn’t want incumbent Toni Preckwinkle to enter the Democratic Primary on June 28 unchallenged.   

She described her platform as the “Four Ls”: Less taxes, less government, less regulation and less crime.” Smith-Members believes that she can reduce property taxes without reducing services by getting rid of high-paying, politically connected jobs and she argues that the county should be doing more to make communities safe, including increasing bail for gun crimes. 

And while she was upfront about struggling to raise money and getting support,  said she believes that traveling all over the county and talking to residents will help her chances.  

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

“I’m running against Toni, because she’s out of touch and out of date,” Smith-Members said. “She has  failed to step up and address the issues that the constituents are constantly living with, not just in Black and Brown communities, but in wealthy white communities.” 

Smith-Members argued that the county wastes its money by keeping politically connected jobs at the expense of lower ranking, unionized employees. Addressing that issue and reviewing spending, Smith-Members said, would allow the county to reduce property taxes while still maintaining county services. 

In a statement to the Chicago Sun-Times, Preckwinkle’s campaign said that the board president “has shown exemplary leadership during her decade as county board president and looks forward to seeking reelection to a fourth term. She has upheld the county’s legacy commitments to providing affordable, accessible health care to residents advancing criminal justice reform, and in the last term, providing support and recovery resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Smith-Members’ other major priority is public safety, specifically saying that she wanted to ensure that the bail for those accused of shooting someone is no less than $100,000. She said she would work with the Office of Cook County State’s Attorney to make that happen.  

When asked how she would respond to concerns about these kinds of measures affecting the Black community, Smith-Members said that “this isn’t about color – this is about safety.” 

“We have to make sure [that] if you do the crime, you do the time,” she said. “We have to make sure if you’re riding around shooting 3-year-old babies, you’re not out on bond.”

Smith-Members also said that she supports solutions beyond just law enforcement, but she also wants to look at data to make sure that violence prevention programs that can prove they are effective get the funding they need. 

Smith-Members said that she has struggled to raise campaign funds. Her campaign’s quarterly report for Oct. 1, 2021 to Dec. 31, 2021 showed no contributions other than a $100,000 loan she made herself. 

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that she and her husband took out a second mortgage on their house to finance the campaign. Smith-Members said that people and organizations whose support she thought she could count on haven’t responded, which she attributed to their fear of antagonizing Preckwinkle. 

“I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost relationships, when I announced I would be running for Cook County president,” she said. “This is the hardest fight I ever had to do or deal with in my life. Being shut out by not just some, but by the masses, after declaring that I’m running against the Democratic machine.” 

According to the Cook County Clerk’s website, Smith-Members must collect at least 5,885 signatures from registered voters in Cook County between Jan. 13 and March 14 to get on the Democratic primary ballot. 

“I’m out there, rain sleet or shine, with my team,” Smith-Members said. 

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...