(From left) Appointed alderpersons Nicole Lee (11th), Monique Scott (24th), Timmy Knudsen (43rd), and Anabel Abarca (12th). Credit: Provided

Four times during her term, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has invited applications for aldermanic seats that opened due to a resignation. A committee interviewed them before she interviewed finalists and made the decision. She appointed four relative moderates, in terms of Chicago politics—two with family connections to the ward, three women of color, two Millennials, one gay man. They call themselves the Newbie Caucus.

All of them said that Lightfoot was dealt an extremely challenging hand by fate and faced additional difficulties due to her race. None of them were willing to endorse Lightfoot during the interviews.

“I am laser-focused on the six opponents that I have,” Alderperson Nicole Lee (11th) said. 

“I’m focusing on my race,” said Alderperson Anabel Abarca (12th).

“I am only concerned with my election,” said Alderperson Monique Scott (24th)

“I’m staying totally focused on my own race,” Alderperson Timmy Knudsen (43rd) said. “It’s important because I have not been elected. So why am I endorsing anybody?”

The 11th Ward office, 3659 S. Halsted St., is also Cook County commissioner John P. Daley’s (D-11th) office and the ward Democratic organization’s office. It’s stacked with Daley family memorabilia.  

The ward’s local organization is helping Nicole Lee out with her campaign. It’s the first one in a very different 11th Ward that now includes all of Chinatown. Bridgeport has long undergone demographic changes, thanks to Asian migration from the north and Latinos from the southwest side, and the ward is now majority-Asian. 

Lee’s grandparents immigrated to the United States. Her mother owned a Chinatown beauty shop. Her father, Gene Lee, founded Chinatown’s Chicago Dragons Athletic Association and was former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s envoy to the Chinese American community, a conduit for Chinatown residents to City Hall. 

In 2014, Gene Lee pled guilty to embezzlement and tax fraud charges; federal prosecutors said he stole money from a community group, spent it on personal uses, and didn’t pay taxes.

“I’m very proud of my father. I’m very proud of all his contributions,” Alderperson Lee said. “He’s a human being. He’s paid for his mistakes at this point. He owned them. He’s taken responsibility, and we live in a country where you’re allowed to do that.”

11th Ward alderperson Nicole Lee | Aaron Gettinger

Before her appointment, Lee got a public policy master’s degree from the University of Chicago’s Harris School and worked in corporate philanthropy as a United Airlines executive. She also served on the Haines Elementary Local School Council.

She said she spent the first months of her tenure “really and truly getting my arms around what it is to be the alderman” before budget season came around last fall. “This is the leg up I’ll have if I win,” she said. “The budgeting process was really educational. Every single department had to come sit before you and talk about what they’ve done, where they were the year before, what they’re asking for now and the changes, and you’ve got to really drill people on that.”

She spent time asking about Asian American promotion rates and employment trends in the city bureaucracy, something she said Asian American city employees repeatedly thanked her for. She noted that the city’s top economic officials, Budget Director Susie Park, Comptroller Reshma Soni, and Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett, are all Asian women but that only around 2 percent of Fire Department employees are Asian American. She expects improvements and said she wants to work with the leadership to make them happen.

Crime remains her top local concern. Lee tells people that she, the mayor, and the police cannot fix the issue alone, comparing herself to someone trying to extinguish a forest fire with a water gun. 

“What we need to do is try to smother this from a lot of different angles, big and small,” she said. “Oftentimes when I’ve been on some of these public safety calls, especially with the new district council conversations and the people who were appointed to the board, a lot of the conversation was leaning more towards the left than to the middle, where I tend to sit. I had to say, ‘I live in a community where everybody in my community, for the most part—people that I talk to—want more police, that we don’t have enough, because we don’t feel protected.’ In Chinatown especially.” 

Anabel Abarca was former alderperson George Cardenas’s chief of staff.

I personally believe I was chosen because I knew how to get the job done on day one,” she said. “And I don’t think anybody else, either in the race or prior, during the application process, can say that. No one else had run a ward of 55,000 residents. And that is valuable experience because we had a seamless transition.”

She’s the daughter of immigrants from Guerrero state and Mexico City who met in Chicago while working at a restaurant. She remembers translating for her mother as a child when they went to City Hall on an errand for their auto repair business. They sent her to Chicago Public Schools through Taft High in Norwood Park. After not fitting in as a city kid with bright-red dyed hair at a small liberal arts college in rural Iowa, she transferred to DePaul.

Before a law degree from Loyola, Abarca got a master’s in public administration from Arizona State University, during which she worked for then-beleaguered Arizona State Senate and Maricopa County Democrats at a time when the local sheriff and state government were racially profiling Latinos.

“It’s one thing to be able to go to Arizona and come from parents who are Mexican, but it’s another thing to realize that so many of the Latinos at the time were being completely ignored,” Abarca said. “And when the party doesn’t have enough Spanish speakers, people feel left out.”

12th Ward alderperson Anabel Abarca | Aaron Gettinger

Latino Chicago’s politics are in flux, she added, as longtime elected officials retire and their relationships with communities and colleagues in government end. Meanwhile, millennial and younger Latino Chicagoans expect more from their politicians.

“In door knocking from August to now, I would say that environmental issues are much more on top of people’s minds,” Abarca said. She wants to see more development of polluting eyesores into community amenities, like the shopping center at Pershing Road and Archer Avenue that replaced a CTA bus depot. 

She said she can “speak to companies and get them on board, to make sure that the community’s concerns are not only heard but actually enforced.” More communication between elected officials and state and local bureaucracies could prevent things like the controversial 2018 establishment of MAT Asphalt on McKinley Park and the botched Hilco smokestack implosion, which covered Little Village in dust during the first COVID-19 wave in 2020.

Another environmentally focused aim is her advocacy for bicycling.

“It’s an incredibly cheap form of transportation that a lot of immigrant communities use, and we’ve been neglected in terms of bike lanes,” she said. “It is a mode of transportation that I think people oftentimes associate with an entirely different community. But for many of the immigrants who may not have a driver’s license, it’s their only way of getting around. So it’s just as important for us to have access to bike lane infrastructure as any other parts of the city.” 

Monique Scott has lived on the same Lawndale street since she was 13.

She is a politician with a family lineage. When her father, Michael W. Scott, became the first Black man elected to the Chicago Board of Education, he transferred her into a public elementary school in Lincoln Park. He later became president of the Chicago Park District. Her mother, Millicent Scott, was the ward superintendent. Alderperson Scott went on to Whitney Young and historically Black Jackson State University in Mississippi, and she has a master’s degree in business administration from National Louis University.. 

Scott has had a varied career in the public and private sectors. She said her last job at the park district, where she was an activity instructor and park supervisor in Bronzeville, led to her position as alderperson. 

“When you give all your time and love to people, it makes you want to do more,” she said. 

Her brother and predecessor, former alderperson Michael Scott Jr., also asked her repeatedly if she wanted his job. 

“I was like, ‘Are you nuts? No.’ That never even crossed my mind,” Scott said. “He asked, and he kept asking. And he asked again, and I was like, ‘Let me think about it.'”

He resigned in June to take a job at Cinescape Studios; Lightfoot appointed him to the Board of Education the following month.

Scott said her family heritage improves her ability to do her job, given that city services and constituents knew her parents. She spurns the idea that her appointment was due to nepotism.

“Nepotism is only when a relative appoints you,” she said. “I’m not related to Lori Lightfoot, in no shape or fashion. ‘Nepotism’ doesn’t count. And guess what? No one in that group, the 19 people, have a master’s degree. I am educated. I have lived in this ward for 51 years.”

24th Ward alderperson Monique Scott | Aaron Gettinger

At any rate, housing and development more broadly are major concerns, given Lawndale’s high number of vacant lots, available housing units, and housing burden (the number of households who spend half or more of their income on rent). 

She cited two local organizations, the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation and the Foundation for Homan Square, for their building initiatives, including two single-family homes under development off of 14th Street with a commitment of 12 more. Affordable multi-unit buildings are going up, too: the 64-unit Grace Manor Apartments at 3401 W. Ogden Ave. and another, with 124 units and some townhomes, across the street.

Scott said she was interested in locals developing the hundreds of city-owned lots in Lawndale but did not outline a coherent strategy for accomplishing this, though she suggested homeowners take equity out of their houses to invest in other properties. She said she would like to have a policy to hold landlords more responsible to their tenants, attacking absentee landlords for not being invested in the community’s improvement.

Scott suggested bad landlords be fined, but she could not propose any more enforcement actions against them when asked. Albany Park alderperson Roasana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) has proposed city inspections on rental units every five years; Scott said they should happen more often. Asked how that should be paid for, she said there are not enough Department of Housing inspectors or Streets and Sanitation workers.

The Department of Streets and Sanitation picks up trash by city divisions, not by ward. Scott wants it to be done by ward. Like many alderpersons representing minority-majority wards, she wants more menu money—the $1.3 million each alderperson gets for elective work in their wards—in order to fix alleys and install lights and speed bumps. But she said she is lobbying for amenities and job creators to come to her ward. 

“I can say that, in my life, this is the first time that Black and Brown communities have been given large economic impacts to their community,” Scott said. 

Politically engaged since college at Champaign-Urbana, Timmy Knudsen’s local involvement started with canvassing for House Bill 40, which revoked the state’s anti-abortion rights trigger law in 2017. He phone banked for Governor J.B. Pritzker during his first gubernatorial campaign. Lightfoot appointed Knudsen to lead the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals in 2020. And now he’s canvassing for himself. 

Knudsen lived first in a Lincoln Park three-flat that he thought of flipping before deciding he liked it enough to live there full time. He liked its bike infrastructure and lakefront access, moving to the Old Town Triangle during the pandemic as he grew tired of living by the el during lockdown.

Knudsen, who is gay, didn’t come out until after law school, also at the University of Illinois, something he ascribes to living in Chicago. “I kind of escaped the Wheaton bubble, and now I can look back and have therapy about it,” he said. His family came to his City Hall swearing-in. He talks about mental health in his office newsletter and did a video about gratitude practices.

Alderperson Timmy Knudsen | Aaron Gettinger

Knudsen practiced corporate law, working for venture capital companies and establishing a boutique law firm at 30 before leaving upon his appointment. Being his own boss and an entrepreneur of sorts made him organizationally and goal-focused, which has affected his approach to public service. 

“I wanted to push technology and innovation within government because I feel like government hasn’t done much of that,” he said. “Constituent services is the big one here, right? A good alderman is a constituent service provider. So we talked to a few government technology firms. We’re going to be doing an overhaul of how our ward treats constituent services.”

He’s planning an investment that will give him 311 requests, who made them, and what they’ve requested in the past every morning when he comes into work. Currently, he would have to have his ward supervisor pull them one by one. The goal is to treat constituents more like customers.

“My goal for this ward is to really set the standard. ‘This really works in 43; everyone should be doing it,'” Knudsen said.

That tech focus leads into his response to public safety, which he identifies as the ward’s top issue. He said he would support bringing back a CPD unit for the CTA, but locally, he wants to install more traffic cameras. 

“It’s a deterrent. It puts eyes on the ward,” he said. “It’s not about if I view it that way; it’s what the experts are telling me.”

“The license plate readers on Lake Shore have really stopped and caught a lot of carjackings,” he said. “But those cameras are really expensive. We can afford the stationary cameras; when it comes to license plate readers, we partnered with Senator Feigenholtz (D-6th), because they’re like $250,000 a pop, whereas the ones in the neighborhood are like $25,000. And we have several more coming up.”

Lincoln Park residents, given their general affluence, are not committing a great deal of street crimes. Knudsen said he supports Lightfoot’s Invest South/West neighborhood initiative and said there should be a corresponding focus on “how we can afford a good CPD and support our police, focus on the mental health issues, and really boost morale.” That includes staffing, he said.

Knudsen said there is a lack of affordable housing in the ward and supports efforts like 20 percent unit set-asides for income-eligible people in developments over rent control.

“We need these affordable units for people who work here to live here. In the 43rd Ward, it truly is the young nurses and teachers. We need the teachers in Lincoln Park High School to be able to live here,” he said. “The 43rd Ward has people who want to invest here. Even with the vacant storefronts we have, the rents are being held very high. I am trying to look at ways with the chamber to chip away at that.”