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ELECTIONS '11: 46TH WARD Emily Stewart
by Andrew Davis
2011-02-02

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Windy City Times interviews three gay candidates for 46th Ward alderman

Emily Stewart may be one of the younger candidates, but she will be the first to tell you that youth does not equal naivete. Stewart, an out lesbian and corporate finance attorney ( and one of 11 candidates in the race for 46th Ward alderman ) , has a business and community background that she feels will serve her well should she become alderman.

Windy City Times talked with Stewart ( who was recently endorsed by the Chicago Sun-Times ) in her Lake View office about several issues, including her background, a school for LGBTQ students and Rahm Emanuel.

Windy City Times: Your background is pretty interesting. Could you tell our readers about it.

Emily Stewart: Sure. I was born and raised in Uptown on Argyle Street and it was a pretty rough neighborhood back then. I played soccer on the lakefront. In addition, I went to Japanese school at the Buddhist Temple.

WCT: What was that like?

Emily Stewart: Well, my mom had gone to the same school so I had a reputation to live up to, because everyone loved her. But I think I missed the mark a little bit. [ Laughs ] But it was great; I learned about Japanese culture and the language.

So my grandmother was a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, and I actually have a very religious family back in Japan; I was just back there recently. So it was great growing up. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do a lot of activities with neighborhood kids because my parents tried to shield me from everything that was going on. Then I went on to St. Ignatius, NYU and Northwestern University School of Law.

WCT: What compelled you to enter in this race?

Emily Stewart: The board has been divided for so long, and politics have gotten so ugly. I'm sure you've seen the footage of Helen [ Shiller ] running from the entrance of Truman College to her car. So, I really think that there needs to be someone who can unite all the residents of the ward—and I didn't see someone who represented all the interests in the ward.

The second reason I ran is because I'm very concerned about our budget, and none of the candidates talked about that before I got into the race. That's been my major focus since day one.

WCT: Tell me about your political experience.

Emily Stewart: I actually think my corporate-finance background—sitting with business people to come to a solution about their problems—is more relevant than my past experience working on campaigns. I did work on one, down in Galesburg, Ill., and I worked on a U.S. Senate campaign in Chicago.

WCT: You mentioned the budget earlier. Do you feel that is the most critical issue for the 46th Ward?

Emily Stewart: I think it's one of the most critical issues. The thing is that budget affects so many other things. If you don't have a truly balanced budget—Mayor Daley is often quoted as saying, "We have a balanced budget," but that's because he's dipped into reserves to pay off the deficit. I think [ budget ] affects job creation, business development, crime.

One of the things I notice when I walk through Uptown is that I know who the drug dealers are, and so do the residents; they can point them out to you on the street. So the issue is literally that open. It's not that the police don't know; I really believe it's a lack of resources, and that's something I want to focus on.

WCT: Your detractors are going to say you're young [ 30 ] and inexperienced. What would you say to those critics?

Emily Stewart: Well, I would say that my professional background and my education are very important; the quality of [ those things ] is not something everyone brings to the table. In addition, some of the most powerful and effective aldermen started when they were very young: Ed Burke, Gene Schulter. I don't think [ age ] has anything to do with it; a lot of people believe that I bring a mastery of a lot of the issues to the tables—and a lot of the candidates don't bring that.

WCT: Could you talk about the extent of your involvement with the LGBT community, including organizations you've been involved with?

Emily Stewart: My main involvement with the LGBT community has been professional in the sense that I've worked with my old law firm to actively hire qualified LGBTQ members and mentoring them.

But the LGBTQ community has given so much to me. I grew up going over to Cafe Pride, on Addison and Halsted, every Friday for years. I don't think I could ever repay the community for what it's done for me. [ The cafe ] was such a wonderful place to be.

WCT: What do you think about the fact that there are there are so many out candidates in this race? Do you think it might provide some sort of edge? Do you think it won't matter?

Emily Stewart: As a gay person, when I was growing up I was always looking for role models so I do think it's important for gay youth to have these role models, and I think [ 44th Ward Alderman ] Tom Tunney is one of them; he definitely broke barriers. Do I think it'd be great to have more [ out candidates ] ? Absolutely. I think it'd be great to have a lesbian on city council.

I don't think it's going to give people any particular edge, because there are so many of us. But it's a testimony to the diversity of this ward and this community.

WCT: What are your thoughts on a school that would be specifically for LGBTQ students?

Emily Stewart: I wish it wasn't necessary but children need to feel safe and flourish in this environment—and if we can find enough children who would want to be in an LGBTQ campus, then I think it's great and I would support it.

WCT: Do you wish there was a school like that when you grew up?

Emily Stewart: [ Pauses ] I don't know. We are a minority, and I liked being able to interact with all different kinds of people. I mean, it's a really brave kid who can come out at 14 years old. But I'm sure there are kids in Chicago who come from families where they don't feel comfortable, so I'd like to see a lot of diversity with the LGBTQ campus.

But I loved my high school so much, and we had teachers who we knew were gay. One of my religion teachers at St. Ignatius was a gay man who unfortunately passed away from AIDS-related complications when I was a student there. I think Ignatius was a pretty welcoming community.

WCT: Let's say you become alderman. What would you like to accomplish within your first 100 days?

Emily Stewart: I'd set up an interactive website; we need to bring this operation into the 21st century, although I will have extended office hours. I want to build some accountability into that system so I can track my office's performance. If you're complaining about a missing manhole cover, for example, and we farm that out, we need to follow up to make sure [ that task ] is completed.

In addition, I'd like to set up a participatory budgeting committee and framework; it's something I really admire about [ 49th Ward Alderman ] Joe Moore. That's part of the uniting process—building coalitions and giving people an opportunity to effect change.

WCT: Getting back to the race, what do you feel is your biggest asset and what do you feel is your biggest liability?

Emily Stewart: I feel that my biggest asset is my corporate-finance background and bringing that to city council. My biggest liability, I feel, is probably name recognition; that needs to be improved.

There are certain avenues to reach a widespread audience to the community. I've been active with my local block club and I've met with St. Augustine College to make the area around it safe. In addition, I've always been active with the Japanese American Service Committee, and even with my elderly neighbors—taking them to the hospital, translating for them.

For my community, there are things that are important, like organizing a postman's protest for one of the postal workers in the community. He was very much beloved, and got 300 people to sign a petition. At a rally, we had 40 people show up to demand that he be returned to our community.

Some people feel that I haven't been active in the community. Well, that's not true; I've just chosen to serve in a way that has not been geared toward running for public office.

WCT: Are there any LGBT-related issues you want to tackle as alderman?

Emily Stewart: I think because the Center [ on Halsted ] touches the 46th Ward, there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. I'd like to work with the center to make sure it stays open longer, so we'll see what we can do there.

WCT: Do you believe that an alderman should step down if he or she is being investigated for illegal activity?

Emily Stewart: No, I don't. We've had a lot of corruption in Chicago, but people are still innocent until they're proven guilty. Once someone's convicted, I believe they should step down and have their pensions taken away—and that's for all city employees.

WCT: With your finance background, I wanted to ask you this: What do you feel about the state's recent income-tax hike?

Emily Stewart: I felt it was unfortunate but necessary. We were facing another downgrade of our credit rating as a state, and that has been lifted. But the pension liability is so great that there's still a problem; I doubt there is the political will to raise taxes high enough to cover all those pension obligations. It will help the city, somewhat. I don't agree with the corporate-tax increase because I think we need to bring jobs here.

WCT: Are you supporting or endorsing any mayoral candidate?

Emily Stewart: I do respect Rahm Emanuel quite a bit. I think he has the strength to be a great leader for the city. As long as he is on the ballot, I will be voting for him.

WCT: Was there anything you wanted to add?

Emily Stewart: One of the most difficult issues facing the city is the budget crisis and a huge reason I decided to run is that no one seemed to be willing to stand up to the special interests in the city, with special interests meaning unions, because they wield so much power in the city. Unions should be powerful entities, but we do need independent aldermen who are willling to stand up for what is right in the city.

We're going to be facing a budget deficit of $1 billion—and half of that is going to be related to increased contributions to city employees' pension funds. I'm the only candidate who's been saying that pension reform for current city employees must come to Chicago; if we don't do that, we're not going to have the services we need to go forward as a city. It's not that I'm an ideologue; it's just reality. The City of Chicago is not guaranteed those pension funds. I want to help protect employees, and help get the city back on track.

See www.CitizensForStewart.com .


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