For many in LGBT community, James Cappleman is not just the 46th Ward alderman. He and 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney represent the entire LGBT community as the first two openly gay aldermen in the city's history.
Cappleman, still in his first year on the job, has negotiated on recent Pride Parade changes and voted in favor of a hotly contested ward remap, a budget that slashed the Advisory Council on LGBT Issues and a protest ordinance that many activists opposed.
When Windy City Times questioned Cappleman about these and other controversies, the alderman invited the newspaper to come ask him "the really tough questions." Windy City Times sat down with Cappleman in his Uptown office and asked him some.
Windy City Times: What are you working on right now?
James Cappleman: A lot of my focus has been on encouraging more economic development, creating more jobs, creating more retail in the area.
WCT: When Lakeview residents were worried about safety this summer, did you believe that crime rates were going up?
JC: What we're hearing from the police is that crime rates are going down. But there is a perception that it is going up. It was the perception that needed to be addressed. What adds to this perception is that there are upticks in violence. We saw that uptick in violence, and it wasn't necessarily a trend that we were seeing.
WCT: Part of this safety concern was born from issues with the Pride Parade. Were you in those first meetings about the initial changes to the parade?
JC: Yes. The reasons for the parade route itself was because there was that triangle where people were isolated and they couldn't get out. It was a safety issue. The thought was to make it to 10 a.m. because of the public drinking. I certainly listened to what the police had to say; 10 a.m. is rather early, so I was not thrilled about that. My understanding is that it has gone back to 12 o'clock. I was not part of that conversation.
WCT: People complained that the community was not consulted on those first changes.
JC: I'm new in the process, and I knew the facts were we had to change the route. The focus was, how could we change that route to make it worthwhile for everyone? We wanted to balance that concern with the businesses along Halsted and the businesses along Broadway.
WCT: How did you feel when Cardinal George compared the parade to a Ku Klux Klan gathering?
JC: Well, I'm a part of Dignity/Chicago, and we left the church property because the church required us to openly oppose same-sex relationships. [Note: In 1988, Dignity left to offer services elsewhere after the Archdiocese stated that it did "...not endorse organizations 'which assume a position of advocacy against Church teaching.'"]
So, when the cardinal made this statement, I was disappointed. My stance has always been that the Roman Catholic Church should take a more pastoral stance and work to unite rather than divide. This was a more divisive action.
WCT: Tell me about your decision to vote in favor of the budget, which cut the Advisory Council on LGBT issues. What was your feeling there?
JC: I hated it. ... I believe that the issues that LGBT community faces are different than what other groups face. We face intense discrimination, and I've personally experienced that myself. So, this was a group that I believed deserved special protection. So, I was disappointed.
The struggle I have is that the city's budget is very precarious, and I knew that we had some problems. It's much more serious than I wanted to believe. I don't think it will compare to the cuts that will have to be made in 2013 and 2014. So I went along with this. I certainly did some bargaining.
WCT: People have called this a "rubber stamp" council for the mayor. What were the conversations behind the scenes that led to the overwhelming support of this budget?
JC: Part of my concern, and the concerns of other alderman, was the lack of information that we needed to make decisions. I did not like it that, at times, I had to make a decision as to who was telling me the truth and who was exaggerating things to make me vote a certain way. I almost voted "no" on the budget…
Many of us who had questions on this process saw Mayor Rahm Emanuel very new to this, as I am as well. There were lots of other factors that it made it more difficult for him to create sudden reform, but we saw him going in that direction. I saw him focused more on wanting performance metrics for different directions, and I saw him going in the direction of wanting more transparency. So my vote, and the vote of many other aldermen, was "We're going to let this go this time, but we're watching very closely."
WCT: Tell me about the new ward map. This was redrafted the morning it was voted on without a public hearing. Why did you support it?
JC: I went to one public hearing, held at DePaul University. Over 100 people [who] testified opposed [it]many of them because their neighborhoods weren't being respected. The reality was that there were too many complicating factors to make this work. African Americans and Latinos are protected classes.
I did not want a council war based on race. This is 2012. This is embarrassing. And I was angry that you could sense where an alderman stood on different maps based on what that alderman's race happened to be. That disgusted me.
So when this map came out where the Latinos and the African Americans agreed on it, and I saw this maybe as a way of stopping some of this tension that existed that felt so unhealthy, I felt it was my duty to support it. Did I like it? I did not like the gerrymandering. It disgusts me.
WCT: Does this map disenfranchise North Side voters?
JC: In the past, my understanding was that the standard deviation was greater in the 2000 map. It's not the ideal. I don't like it. I weighed it with wanting to make sure the representation could withstand the court challenge. My biggest focus was not costing the city $70 million in something that we couldn't possibly afford.
WCT: Does this city need 50 aldermen? Many have argued we would be fine with 25.
JC: It makes a lot of sense. Here's my problem with it: I'm currently working around 80 hours a week. My job is typically seven days a week. So at this point in time, given the public's perception of what we should be doing, we need 50 aldermen. Most of our requests are all related to 311.
If you fix thatif you fix the public's perception that the alderman's job is to make sure that 311 does their job and that police [do] their jobthen we wouldn't need 50 aldermen. I'm not sure we need 25 aldermen. The other part of this is that the public wants an available alderman. … If we lessen the number the public has to understand the availability of the aldermen won't be as much. If they're okay with that, go for it.
WCT: Why did you vote for the protest ordinance?
JC: Oh my gosh, that was frustrating. Originally, I was all set to vote no, absolutely no. I was originally suspended from high school for encouraging other students in some protest, so I'm an adamant believer in that.
I listened to the concerns of my constituents, and I also listened to the concerns of [American Civil Liberties Union]. It was my understanding from another alderman's conversation with the ACLU that their primary objection was with the raise in fines. A number of residents said I should not vote for this ordinance because they would have to register bull horns. That was taken out. Actually, the ordinance was even expanded so that if there is a large protest gathering that morphs into a parade, it could become a parade without the need for a permit for a parade.
…I did not want any perception that the city was discouraging protest. The biggest concern was about the increase in fines. I think the lowest cost is $25, which it costs more to even process a $25 fine, and it had not been raised in 40 years. When I heard the concern the ACLU had, I went back to mayor's office and said "You can't increase these fines." They said, "They haven't been increased in 40 years." I said, "I appreciate that. Shame on us for not reviewing this … but increasing it now gives the perception that we are discouraging protest." When the city responded to that, I thought "Okay, I can support this."
WCT: Some have lamented they feel that the mayor is not supportive of the LGBT community. What is your sense of his support?
JC: Well, he knows my partner by name. I'll be getting married, and I'm inviting him to my wedding. I have always sensed his support for me. I think the tension that we see is the constraints he has on the budget, and it's going to get worse. But I've always felt his support. I believe it's there.
WCT: Do you support single-room occupancy housing?
JC: Absolutely. We need to build more SRO housing. One of the problems we have with SRO housing is that when they start getting into difficulty…they need some help. When SRO housing gets in to trouble, the most vulnerable get affected. So, I would like to see a process in place to provide SRO housing the support they need so they continue to provide quality housing for single individuals.
I would like to see SRO housing scattered more throughout the city than just certain sections. The 46th Ward has a disproportionate number or SRO housing, and that's fine. I just think we need to make sure that the [SRO] housing that we have is run well for the safety and well-being of the people that live there and the safety and well-being of the community at large.
WCT: Final comment?
JC: My final comment is when I am making a decision about public safety, or about development, or an ordinance that affects our free speech or the budget, there are multiple complex factors that are at play. My job as alderman is to weigh all that, so that when I make a decision, the good outweighs the negative, and it's fair.