After More Than 100 Days In Office, Ald. Sophia King (4) Sits Down For Interview

Thursday, September 29, 2016

by A.D. Quig –  Picked from a crowded field five months ago by Mayor Rahm EmanuelAld. Sophia King touts 30 years of experience within the community and a rolodex of powerful South Side connections, including the Obamas. But since her appointment, King has kept a low profile–opting to host and attend dozens of community meetings, and making only a few waves in committee meetings. She has pushed developers to provide on-site affordable housing, delayed a $100M beach parking lot until she knew residents could park there, and voted no to $3.5 billion in bonds for O’Hare Airport over minority contracting issues.In a lengthy interview with The Daily Line after passing her 100 day anniversary on the job, King points out that her ward–which stretches south from the Museum Campus to Bronzeville, Oakland, Kenwood, Hyde Park, and South Side–is a diverse one. There are a lot of constituencies to please: residents in the booming South Loop, business owners in underutilized retail corridors, and organized interests like the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), not to mention the push and pull of being in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s home turf while being a political appointee of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.She appears to be keeping her head down, working on a strategic ward plan and talking to LSCs, principals, and block clubs, even as challengers begin to emerge for the February 28 special election. While the petition process doesn’t wrap until the end of November, there are already candidate forums starting up. 17 others applied for the open 4th Ward position after Ald. Will Burns’ abrupt exit to lobby for Airbnb last spring, and many are expected to come out again. Local activist and mayoral critic Gregory Seal Livingston has already announced his candidacy, lambasting Mayor Emanuel’s police plan and using the hashtag #RahmsDaddy.  While she expects to be tied to the Mayor in the impending campaign, King argued in a 45 minute phone interview with The Daily Line her focus on community (she used the word more than 40 times), her diverse background, and her packed rolodex will help her deliver for the ward. “I’m not going to speculate about how people see me. I work hard anyway.” Our interview is below, edited for length and clarity.The Daily Line: Congratulations on your first 100 days. Tell me about the transition–some things you’ve learned or some things that have surprised you.Ald. King: It’s been a very let’s just say…interesting transition. I have been very meaningful about getting out into the community and listening to people, and I think one of the things that has surprised me the most is just how many people have said, “How can we help?” People are engaged as I go to these different community meetings, meetings with different community organizations, hold town halls, constituent nights–nine times out of ten at least one or two people are going to ask me, “How can I help? I know there’s a lot to be done, how can I help?” That piece has been a very positive surprise that I’ve encountered and continue to encounter.TDL: When you say there’s a lot to be done, what do you mean?King: Safety is a concern for everybody. People want to know how they can help, do their part. Schools, it just depends generally on what we are talking about at the time. People understand that we are living in unique times in the city and in the nation and there’s a lot going on and that’s going to take a community effort to bring some changes about.TDL: Yeah, you started in office at a pretty crucial time for the city. What are your priorities in the discussion about policing and race in Chicago?King: It’s a systemic issue. This is not something that has just occurred recently. It’s something that’s unfortunately ingrained–the racism that our country was founded on. We are seeing the results of that. I think what’s new is the light that social media and new social organizations have brought upon this issue. This makes it seem like it’s a new issue, but it’s an old issue we’re having to grapple with because of the transparency that other orgs like Black Lives Matter have brought to bear.This is not something that started overnight. We’re not going to fix it overnight. but we are going to talk about it in an honest and deliberate way.TDL: What are your impressions about the debate on police reform in City Council now? Any specific measures you support?King: There are a lot of proposals out there. I suggested at one of our last meetings that we bring all of those proposals together and look at the things they have in common, that we agree on, and start there on the things we have differences in. While there are a number of proposals, a number are similar. I suggested we put them all together. That’s one thing the administration is trying to do, it’s trying to put together proposals and see where they’re aligned and where the differences are. It’s hard to speak to one individually because each is nuanced and until I see what the differences are in each of them… once I see what the differences are in each of them I can talk about a solution. But the big emphasis is on inclusion. Communities want to be included, know the process is transparent, and feel that they have a voice in that process.TDL: Do you feel prepared to take a vote on this at the October 3rd meeting?King: I’m a voice that thinks that we need to make sure we’re more deliberate about taking time with this. I don’t want to rush into addressing something that didn’t happen overnight. It’s a very important step we’re about to take. I want to make sure the community is informed and I don’t think they are as informed as they need to be. That’s why I suggested putting out a comparison about different proposals. I will be prepared if it comes down to that, I will have to be... [but the] community and fellow councilmen still educating themselves around what direction we should go.TDL: The city’s also facing a fiscal crisis. What are your priorities going forward, and for the upcoming budget?King: As you know I voted in favor of the water tax. I think it’s important that we make sure that our city is whole in terms of the finances, so that’s one of the reasons I voted for that. We really don’t want to go the way of Detroit, we don’t want to continue to go to junk bond status and not be able to handle our fiscal responsibilities. From a global perspective, that’s really important.  It was a hard vote because I don’t want it to impact those who are most needy, seniors and on fixed incomes, but it’s something I felt that we needed to do. That being said, my priorities going forward for budget are education… that’s really important to me. I’m an educator, was a teacher, administrator for a while.Education is near and dear to my heart, it speaks to a lot of issues. We can’t think to these in isolation. Education has implications on safety, economic development. It all goes hand in hand, and I would love to see budget address comprehensive solution to those issues - youth engagement, schools, jobs, economic development. It’s like an ecosystem: if you impact one the other moves. I want to take a holistic approach when looking at the budget.TDL: I’ve seen you at some events with Ald. Pat Dowell (3), you joined the Black Caucus to vote against O’Hare bonds recently–who have been some guides that have helped you navigate City Hall? What caucuses do you belong to?King: I do belong to the Black Caucus. I believe I have been invited into the Progressive Caucus, I’m looking at that, my [ward has been] a traditionally progressive ward. Those are the two caucuses I’m looking at.There have been a number of aldermen who have been very helpful to me in different ways. I can say that that’s been a constant surprise, they’ve all asked me, every single one, “How can I help? What can I do to help?”Ald. Dowell and I have worked together the most because we started a summer initiative, Building Community Block by Block... that was after my first week in office when I went to a shooting that happened inside of Mandrake Park. That made that shooting unique. I decided then to figure out, “What are things we can put in place immediately?” We had meeting about the safe passage program, and asked “Why don’t we do it in the summertime?” We repurposed Safe Passage to work in the summer. We also wrapped that in with a more comprehensive program. We brought jobs, made sure the youth were engaged, made sure parks were a partner, CPD, University of Chicago, Metra, other police programs to the table to talk about how we’re going to use limited resources. [Dowell and I] also are seatmates in Council. I lean on her a lot too. I certainly talk to Ald. Hairston, all my neighboring aldermen, [Danny Solis (25) and Brendan Reilly (42)].TDL: Your special election is in February, another 200 days away. Challengers can start filing at the end of November, and seem to be lining up already. What do you think you need to do to set yourself apart in that time?King: I don’t know who the challengers will be. From the ones I’ve already seen that are coming out, I think really what sets me aside is my track record. I’ve been involved in the community for 30 years. The moment that I’ve started living in 4th Ward I started volunteering and being a part of the community. I helped start Ariel Community Academy, and saw that really change the vibrancy of the neighborhood. I’ve been involved on Park Advisory for 8 years. I helped start a not for profit after the Hadiya Pendleton shooting with a neighbor of mine. I’m an educator by training, I know about teaching and what can really speak to some of the issues teachers and principals are grappling with. I founded an organization whose mission is to increase employment in African American communities. I had a business on 53rd in Hyde Park. It took others to point out to me that all of those things have led to this position and where I am today and that commitment over the past 30 years to my community is what sets me aside. I don’t think anybody has a track record like that.TDL: Do you feel that you need to work harder to prove yourself to constituents because you were appointed to the seat by Mayor Emanuel? You have a deep list of connections - Mellody Hobson, Mayor Emanuel, Toni Preckwinkle…King: Yeah. It’s hard and I’m not going to speculate about how people see me. I work hard anyway. I think I’ve proven that I work hard, and part of that is I have met a lot of people along the way. Some of the people you named, I met them before they were who they are today. But that was because of my involvement in the community. Certainly I know people, but that’s part of what I bring to the table. I have resources that are out there. I don’t think it’s a “none-sum” game. There are people who know people and don’t use it for the greater good of the community, and there are people who don’t know people who are still very resourceful.Relationships are important, but my work ethic speaks for itself. I will use everything within my reach to better the 4th Ward, and if that’s relationships I’ve built over the years, so be it. But I think that combination is a strength for me. I have a track record of being in the community and not because it brought me any attention. As a matter of fact, I don’t seek attention and I don’t like attention: that’s one of the challenges that I honestly do have. I was a very private person and I worked hard because it was the right thing to do. I built relationships over the years, and I will use and leverage those relationships to do what’s in the best interest of the ward.TDL: Do you think your opponents will tie you to the mayor in the special election?King: I think they will, but it was a process. There were 18 people who applied to the job, and I think he picked the best candidate at the end of the day. That’s what I was told by the committee. I was honestly a little leery of the process and I wasn’t necessarily going to apply in the beginning, but once I put my application in and went through the process, it was a good process, I was surprised at some of the questioning that came out of it in some of the interviews. I hope that they’ll tie me to my record and my 30 years of experience and track record in the community, working in the community as opposed to that.TDL: When was the last time you talked with President Preckwinkle?King: Um gosh, I talk with her quite a bit. Last time I talked with her was probably the day before yesterday. She obviously knows the ward better than almost anybody. I like her style of being present in the community. I have had several meetings just to talk about different things coming up, what she thinks about them, how she handles it. She’s been very very supportive as well, so I appreciate not only her historical perspective but her astute way of thinking about things. She’s very pragmatic and so I cannot tell you how invaluable that experience has been. I appreciate her time.TDL: Ald. Burns was praised and criticized for his redevelopment work in the ward–tell me about some initiatives that he left behind that you’d like to pick up.King: Ald. Burns did a lot in terms of development, and I want to expound on those. Some of those that he did that I’m working on now - several CHA transition sites that I want to see continue to be developed (Oakwood Shores, Lake Park Crescent/Sullivan Station, and Washington Park Court).There was some South Loop development going on, and I want to continue that, but I think one of the things I add to that is I think that affordable housing is a responsibility that the entire city should bear. I’ve been intentional about asking developers what their affordable housing plans are. There were several developments that didn’t include on-site, and I was intentional about encouraging them to do so and they did. We’ve got Mariano’s coming. I’ve been intentional about making sure that they’re hiring from the community and having job fairs, continuing that development. There are several bridges in the works–one in particular, the 35th St. bridge, is the only suspension bridge in the city. There are several other walking bridges over Lake Shore Drive that will be continue to be developed.I’m just making sure more jobs, economic development comes and stay in the community,. I’m being purposeful about working with the Planning Department–we’ve been talking about Cottage Grove Corridor, that that area is built up in a very intentional way that brings both housing and commercial space to the area, the 47th Street corridor, 43rd, just making sure that parts of the 4th ward that had historically not seen resources get those resources. and we’re talking about a neighborhood like Bronzeville community, an area that was once a very thriving community and want to see it thrive and prosper again.I understand the importance of neighborhood schools, we need to make sure their infrastructure and capital needs are met, so I’m working with principals and teachers to make sure what I call co-curricular, or after school programming is intact.TDL: Your focus on education seems different from Ald. Burns’, who was criticized as Education Chair in the neighborhood v. charter school debate.  King: I can’t speak to Ald. Burns specifically but I can speak to the neighborhood versus charter versus private debate. I have a combination of all of those schools in 4th Ward. I want them to continue to do well. However, I feel that my first priority is neighborhood schools. Those are the kids who most likely don’t have those options, those are the resources I think that are lacking the most in those particular schools. I want my neighborhood schools to thrive and be vibrant and if they do, my communities will thrive and be vibrant.Sometimes we are very… what’s the word? The benchmark is too low when we talk about our South Side neighborhood schools. I want to raise that benchmark, I want my schools to look as if there’s the highest education going on on the insides. Obviously it’s important to work inside out, but capital improvements are needed, instructional improvements are needed. We need to take care of our neighborhood schools first.TDL: There’s a candidate forum for the special election tonight–will you be attending?King: No, I will not be. I actually heard about the forum in the paper, I wasn’t initially invited, although they said they invited everyone at the same time. I have to work. I’m the alderman now, and there’s a lot of things I have to do. The petition period is still going on. We really don’t know who’s going to be on the ballot, and until we do know, I’m going to wait to do more. Once we do, I’d be happy to debate and talk about why I should continue to serve as alderman, and the strengths that I have that would make me the best candidate for the position, right now I think it’s a bit premature.