Like many local LGBT politicians, Debra Shore is well known in the city's gay community. However, ask those who know Shore what her job entails as a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago ( MWRD ) , and you're likely to get a blank stare.
It is not an office most people know about, although the job is arguably the difference for Chicagoans between drinking fresh water and sewage, and the difference between staying dry and coming home to floating furniture after it rains. Shore, along with eight other commissioners, holds the seemingly apolitical job of figuring out what to do with the water that comes from our drains and our thunderstorms.
It's a job that evolved out of her efforts as a volunteer environmentalist. Shore, who is active in the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, is up for re-election, at a time she says, when water management is becoming an increasingly urgent issue. Windy City Times caught up with Shore about why she wants another six-year term, why casting the right vote for the office matters, and what climate change means for Chicago.
NOTE: View downloadable election guide charts at the following link. This election chart was updated online on Tuesday March 13 with corrections and updates. www.windycitymediagroup.com/pdf/WCT_2012_primarychartsforweb.pdf .
Windy City Times: This is not an office most of us are familiar with. Why is it important for us to elect the right person for MWRD commissioner?
Debra Shore: This agency manages our water resources in terms of waste water and storm water, and so it has enormous influence I think on people's quality of life. Increasingly, we live in a world where the water is salty and dirty.
We have seen two years in the last four that have been the wettest on record; 2008 was the wettest and 2011 was the second wettest. People experienced flooding and basement backups throughout Cook County. This agency can't prevent all flooding because these new kinds of storms are overwhelming to the local infrastructure, but it has a vital role to play in working with people in municipalities throughout the county to try to tackle the storms we're seeing, climate change and try to enhance quality of life.
WCT: What are the immediate challenges in terms of climate change?
Debra Shore: In terms of storm water, I think we're seeing a new kind of storm, which is more intense and more localized and less predictable, so [ you have ] the huge storms that compound the experience last July; five inches fell in two hours at O'Hare. That's just a huge deluge, and it's a kind of natural event on the order of a tornado or a hurricane. You can prepare for those but you can't prevent them.
That's happening on a landscape that we continue to pave over and build upon, so that 42 percent of Cook County is now impervious surface, meaning it is parking lots or roads or buildings or all kinds of development that causes runoff. And it doesn't allow rain to infiltrate, and it removes the land's ability to absorb rain. So that's one of the things we can work on, is how do we return some of that capturability for rain.
WCT: Your environmental activism led you to office. Tell me about how you first got involved.
Debra Shore: Well, I started out doing this habitat restoration in the early 1990s because I wanted to learn more about nature near where I lived. I found out about these volunteers who go out on weekend mornings to the wonderful forest preserves that we have in Cook County that harbor the best remaining examples of our original Midwestern wilderness. Volunteers are seeking to restore health to these remnants by cutting out this invasive brush, by collecting seeds, by pulling weeds.
WCT: Have there been any moments where your environmentalist side was frustrated with the political official?
Debra Shore: When I came into office, I certainly supported the addition of a treatment step called "disinfection" at the waste water treatment plants that would kill more of the bacteria that aren't currently in the treated wastewater that's discharged into the waterways. However, I didn't have enough votes on our board to win support for doing that and that certainly frustrated me and my supporters in the conservation community. Happily, over the years, a number of commissioners joined the board who did also support the newer water quality standards and last June, we voted eight to one in support of disinfection.
WCT: What have been your high points thus far as commissioner?
Debra Shore: The vote to support disinfection is a high point. Our board selected and appointed a new executive director who began at the end of June. His name is David St. Pierre. This was the first time in 50 years that our board went outside the rank of district employees for this appointment. To me that is significant because it demonstrates a move towards professionalism, towards seeking the best ideas and fresh perspectives.
I'm also proud of having supported and initiated, immediately after I joined the board, providing domestic health benefits to domestic partners both of same-sex and opposite-sex employees at the district.
I was also pushing to open up our federal lobbying contracts to competition because the district had been renewing a contract with one firm for more than 25 years. They kept getting increases each year and had never allowed other firms to compete for that contract. Finally, last year, we had the votes to do that. The same firm got the contract but their fee was more than $200,000 less.
WCT: What do you want voters to know about you?
Debra Shore: I've been a volunteer doing habitat restoration in the Cook County Forest preserves for more than 20 years. I've been a hiker and camper and climber in the Rocky Mountains. I've climbed 42 of the 54 mountains in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet high. I have a 28-year-old son who is a graduate of architecture school, [ I have ] and a partner of 18 years. I live in Skokie.
Debra Shore's campaign website is www.debrashore.org .