Adrienne Alexander speaking to ChiHackNight at Braintree. Photo by Chris Whitaker.
ChiHackNight is Chicago’s weekly event to build, share & learn about civic tech. Me and 100 of my friends (50 of whom are new every week!) meet in the Braintree auditorium on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart. Sign up for notifications on upcoming presenters. The content of my blog post is derived from real-time note taking.
Adrienne Alexander, or @DriXander on Twitter, came to ChiHackNight last night to tell us about her experience as a lobbyist working for the state’s largest public employees union. She lobbies the Chicago City Council and the Illinois state legislature for bills and budget modifications that would impact the members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees council 31.
Members of AFSCME (afs-me) are staff at numerous Chicago city departments and in state government. Alexander watches new bills that come in and analyzes what their impact might have on its members.
She gave the example of the privatization legislation that she lobbied, the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance, for three years. Salon reported on the PTAO in 2013, saying, “[it] is designed to help prevent abuses of privatization, and avoid the kinds of deals negotiated in the past that were intended to help close budget deficits but turned out to be massive boons for corporations and Wall Street while losing long-term revenue for the city.”
Alexander, however, had been battling efforts to privatize city functions earlier. In 2011, she said, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was trying to privatize the water billing group. This would have been realized by amending the budget and reducing the amount budgeted for that group of staff.
“We represented those folks”, she said. “It got a lot of aldermen upset, it was supposed to save $100,000 annually but also lay off 40 people.” It didn’t happen. And neither did the 311 privatization that Emanuel proposed in 2015 for the 2016 budget.
Alexander said that it was hard to keep the press focused on this issue for three years, because nothing was happening. “If there’s nothing happening, they would say, then there’s nothing to write about”, she said.
It was passed in November 2015. “It’s hard to get things passed that don’t have the mayor’s support,” Alexander said. “A lot of the calls the aldermen get are not about policy, but about alleys, trash, tree trimming, these very ‘quality of life’ issues specific to their ward”.
There’s a good reason – for them –in all of this, she explained. “You can be the most citywide alderman, really focused on policy, but if you don’t take care of the stuff in your ward then you will lose your election.”
Alexander gave some advice to ChiHackNight members who are building tools that explain why some policies aren’t working and should change. Claire Micklin asked how to get alders to “mobilize on and care about policy issues, and can they affect policy change from the ground up if the mayor isn’t necessarily generating or supporting that policy issue?”
Micklin led the development of “My Building Doesn’t Recycle”, a map where Chicagoans can report that their multi-unit building doesn’t have a third-party recycling service (required if the tenants of a building with 5 or more units request it).
Alexander said “I think there’s not so much a culture of [alders generating their own policy initiatives] here, but I think it’s possible”.
She advised Micklin, and anyone else who’s working to change a city policy, to:
- Choose your sponsor carefully.
- Be clear of what your expectations are, have a plan so you can help guide them
- Have grassroots support, so it’s more than one person coming and talking to them about it
- Make sure they’re hearing about it from different places, and find out who else they’re listening to.
In each ward, she said, there’s at least one organization that an alder really cares about, so if that organization is making something an issue, or it would be beneficial to that organization, then they could be helpful.
I’ve seen this kind of organization-derived influence a lot in property development matters. If there’s a neighborhood-based organization that purports to represent resident issues in a specific boundary, then the alder who’s receiving a new property development proposal will ask that the developer meet with the organization to gain their approval. I’ve seen situations, especially in the 1st Ward, where the alder supports the development if the organization supports the development.
Alexander concluded her response to Micklin’s question, saying, “It’s really helpful if you can do a lot of the legwork, and you can get the alderman plugged into the process.”