ELECTIONS 2023: Incumbent 49th Ward Ald. Maria Hadden discusses accomplishments, second term goals
By Carrie Maxwell
This is part of a series of interviews Windy City Times is running on LGBTQ+ candidates in the 2023 municipal elections taking place Feb. 28.
Incumbent 49th Ward Ald. Maria Hadden became the first Black lesbian elected to Chicago's City Council in 2019, when she defeated incumbent Ald. Joe Moore.
She is currently a Voqal Partners (an equity-centered philanthropy) board member. Prior to being elected, Hadden was a community activist registering voters, Participatory Budgeting Project founding board member, Our City Our Voice executive director, Black Youth Project 100 board member and AmeriCorps VISTA alum.
Hadden got married to Natalia Vera shortly before being sworn in to office in 2019. They have been a couple for almost 12 years.
Most of the Rogers Park and part of the West Ridge neighborhoods make up the 49th Ward. Hadden is running against challengers Belia Rodriguez and William "Bill" Morton.
Windy City Times: Why did you decide to run for re-election for a second time?
Maria Hadden: I decided to run again because I have really enjoyed serving my community in this particular role. When I set out to run the first time, I really felt like I would be able to draw on my organizing experience and decade of civic participation, working to help community members make government work better. I really wanted to bring those skills and that experience to the role of alderperson.
I feel like I have been able to accomplish that quite a bit. I have enjoyed engaging our neighbors in this way to tackle some of the biggest issues our city faces. I would like the opportunity to continue that work.
WCT: What are the most pressing issues right now for the 49th Ward and how will you address them should you win re-election? Which issues did you hope would be addressed these past four years that you were unable to accomplish and how will you ensure they are dealt with over the next four years?
MH: The issues facing my ward are the same ones affecting all of Chicago. While we are a small neighborhood tucked away on the northeast side of the city, ward boundaries are not physical boundaries, whether it is safety issues or the increasing housing costs.
The top issue for years has been affordable housing and people experiencing homelessness. We are a neighborhood that has historically been pretty affordable, with about 75 percent renters. Finding nice housing units that people can afford on an average working-class salary that makes up the bulk of our ward is increasingly difficult. We are seeing a lot of properties change ownership as the previous owners have aged. Those changes have led to rent increases for a lot of people.
With the pandemic, a lot of the broader issues we are facing include more people experiencing homelessness, some for the first time. My team and I have been doing a lot work to help people stay in their homes and those who have already been unhoused for some time. Building more affordable housing is one of the key pieces I have worked on. We have a couple of new developments going up this year that will help with that. Also, working citywide to press for legislation and policy that solves this issue for the city. I have been a lead sponsor of ordinances geared toward creating more accessible and affordable housing, and was a lead sponsor on our Connected Communities ordinance, landmark legislation that would provide more affordable housing centered on transit-oriented development to encourage the building of more accessible and affordable housing near our transit centers.
One of the things I hoped would be addressed that has not yet been done is creating a Department of the Environment. Working on environmental justice issues and climate resiliency is something that is important to 49th Ward constituents. It was not one of my top platform issues when I came into office in 2019. That quickly changed when one of the first things we had to prepare for and deal with through the winter storm season were record high lake levels and big storms that caused a lot of lake erosion that has continued to this day.
I did get $1 million in infrastructure funding to secure three of our beaches, not just to save that landscape but also the nearby infrastructure, roads and housing. Pushing the city to revisit their climate action plan. Advocating for funds to give to the Army Corps of Engineers to do another study so we can push for a bigger infrastructure solution for our lakefront. I was a lead advocate on our fossil fuel piece, which we won to get the city to fully divest our finances from fossil fuels. I believe we need a centralized city focus on this issue which is why we need a Department of the Environment.
I am working with Alds. Daniel La Spata and Matt Martin to make that happen. In this latest budget we thought we could get it, but that did not happen. We did get some additional staffing and an entity created outside of the mayor's office to work on climate issues, but we are not quite there.
WCT: What public safety measures would you advocate for during City Council meetings, to lessen the number of crimes (including assaults, shootings, car jackings and other thefts) occurring in your ward and across Chicago that do not include adding more funding for the Chicago Police Department?
MH: My ward is in the 24th Chicago Police District and we are seeing a lot of young people doing these carjackings and robberies that are not considered violent crimes. We have to provide more youth outreach and services and that needs to begin in our public schools. I have been a steady advocate and I will continue to push for those things to be implemented.
Within the city's budget, that means investing more in our programs and services outside of police funding. A big point of contention through this last budget cycle has been unanswered questions from the administration on where all of our violence prevention funds were going. Only $5 million of the $85 million that we approved in the city council has been allocated. What has happened to the rest of that money? Locally, I have worked with organizations that do violence interruption, including One Northside's successful Communities Partnering for Peace program.
It was very difficult going through 2020 and 2021 and not having some of the opportunities to do our community festivals and programs that create temporary jobs and give people activities to do. It was wonderful this summer to bring some of those back.
One of the specific programs I support and would like to see passed in the next four years is the Peace Book ordinance. This is a specific violence prevention program designed by young people who have been impacted by violence. I believe in data-driven approaches and also centering the people most impacted by an issue to find solutions to these problems.
I was also a big advocate, and won some initial funding, for the creation of non-police mental health crisis response teams. We have a small pilot program that consists of four teams in the city. We need that to increase. This is for mental health providers, social workers, EMT's and paramedics with proven models that are working in other cities that help to expand access to services for folks. This will free up time for the police and detectives to actually be working on the public safety issues that we need them for.
WCT: With LGBTQ people under attack on multiple fronts across the United States how will you use your position as an out lesbian alderperson to ensure that anti-LGBTQ groups like AWAKE Illinois, Moms for Liberty and others who are responsible for those attacks do not gain a foothold in your ward and Chicago writ-large?
MH: We have had multiple instances in my short time as alderperson of anti-LGBTQ attacks in my ward, most recently at the lesbian-owned R Public House, where the business' front glass door was smashed in with a hammer by an anti-LGBTQ bigot, after he yelled anti-LGBTQ slurs at two patrons who were trying to enter the establishment. Early on, we had a lesbian couple whose Pride Flag kept getting defaced and some spray paint was left on their building. We have had a few instances of anti-LGBTQ slurs in public spaces.
This requires us to be very vocal, present and unafraid. When these things happen, we need to be really loud with our response. One of my responsibilities as an LGBTQ person in a position of authority is to be unapologetically out. To make ward residents feel safe by being out and by reaffirming and supporting our communities in that way.
On the city side, we also have a very active group with our Commission on Human Relations where we work to report hate crimes. My office keeps in good communication with them and the police department division that deals with anti-LGBTQ hate crimes to help them with investigation like the one they are doing to find the person responsible for the vandalism at R Public House.
We also need to uphold and grow the culture of acceptance in our community. That takes constant work to reinforce it. Communities like my ward do not just become accepting and diverse magically on their own. They also do not stay that way without work.
It has been great to be able to participate in an LGBTQ day at one of the elementary schools in the ward where the students learned about different types of families. I have done interviews with school papers where students have wanted to talk about starting an LGBTQ club. They also asked me what it was like coming out and being out. These are things that are really important serving in this role, and being an out person in our community.
It is important to identify these anti-LGBT hate groups and pay attention to the little things that give you an indication of whether they are gaining a foothold. Making sure you are sharing good information. We do not have any indications that AWAKE Illinois or Moms for Liberty are trying to take hold here in Chicago specifically around LGBTQ issues. We are helping coach ward residents when it comes to things they might have to confront. Also, keeping tabs on where graffiti happens that targets any marginalized community or communities.
WCT: What will you do to address the growing numbers of Black and Brown trans women who are attacked, assaulted and murdered in Chicago?
MH: I have been very vocal on this issue but it I have felt powerless. We have done press conferences and pushed the police department for answers. I have only been able to participate in awareness-raising activities at this point. One of the things we are missing is a specific focus on our higher leadership on this issue. We have had the mayor and county officials sort of speak out on it. I do not see a coordination across our government to make this a priority, and I will work to make that happen.
WCT: What about addressing the needs of unhoused people as a whole, some of whom are LGBTQ youth?
MH: One of the biggest challenges the city has is funding. We have been able to do quite a bit with federal funds from COVID and it is still not enough. We are creating permanent supportive housing for people. Doing these rapid rehousing events. There is more outreach than ever to people who are at risk of becoming homeless and folks experiencing homelessness. We are going to run out of that money, which is why I have been pushing for Bring Chicago Home, of which I am a lead sponsor, to create a dedicated source of funding for the city to make sure we can adequately address our crisis of homelessness. This is one of the top issues happening in the city and I will continue to fight for it.
For Bring Chicago Home, we want Chicago voters to decide, which is why we are trying to make this a ballot referendum, over whether we should do an increase in the real estate transfer tax in order to generate about $180 million a year to continue services at the level we are at, because homelessness does disproportionally impact people of color, LGBTQ folks and especially LGBTQ youth.
WCT: Are there any other LGBTQ issues that you feel should be also prioritized and why?
MH: HIV/AIDS prevention funding, awareness and education. There are a high level of people in my area who are living with HIV or AIDS. There is also an intersection and need for Black Chicagoans of all sexual orientations and/or gender identities to have more support around HIV/AIDS. Chicago has put a specific health focus on HIV/AIDS for years, including education, testing and outreach, but it was brought to the city council's attention last year, through a coalition of Black-led organizations who work to serve the community, that money the city allocates to reach that community is not going to those Black-led organizations.
WCT: What is your response to people using information about other people, and where they may live and work, in comments on social media and more specifically what happened on your government Facebook page? Do you feel that this will make constituents and others hesitant to criticize elected officials on their official social media accounts?
MH: It has been really wild. People disclosing that type of information especially in the manner it took place just before Thanksgiving. This happened on my government Facebook page. It is unacceptable. The community guidelines that allow me to report, hide or block these posts are more hindered due to this happening on my government Facebook page. It points to the tone and discourse that can happen on social media. Sometimes people take advantage of contentious situations to create havoc. I do not understand the motive. It is not good for community building.
… It was really fishy and unacceptable. We caught it really quickly, stopped it and condemned it. Nobody on my team would do something like that. We do not know who is out there making fake accounts. When tensions are ramped up in a social media community and people get to be anonymous, they sometimes engage in really bad behavior.
I do not feel this will make people be more hesitant to criticize elected officials. It has not happened to me so far. Part of being a public official is being subject to criticism and feedback. I foster a really healthy environment for that. I do not take what they say personally. I engage very little personally on social media. From being a candidate before through my entire time in office I have not had any complaints on any of my social media accounts from people. People are very vocal and I think it is because I create a very open environment where I do not retaliate unless you are doxing people's personal information.
WCT: What about the allegations from Rodriguez's campaign that you have not done the right thing when it comes to affordable housing and business opportunities in the ward?
MH: I disagree with her opinions on these issues. She is entitled to voice them. I think I have done a really great job working on some of the underlying issues and big policy pieces we need for affordable housing.
After the initial onset of COVID, I led on the Chicago Inclusive Housing ordinance. Housing has been at the top of my priorities from the beginning, and my goal has always been to not displace people in the process. In the ward, I have very intentionally created a community-planning and -development process to answers some of the concerns people had about my predecessor, who made all these decisions on his own.
We are working on a 110-unit (building) on Howard and Paulina. My opponent has been critical about this and said when I announced it that it would never get financed. Now that they have gotten their initial approval for financing, her claim is that it will bring too much affordable housing to an area and that poor people will not be able to support our businesses, which is offensive. These will be family size units which is another really important piece.
It is important to make informed decisions because the impact of all these housing developments is 50-80 years.
WCT: Are you currently endorsing anyone for Mayor and if so, who is it and why?
WCT: Why should voters re-elect you as alderperson instead of your challengers? What are the biggest differences between you and your challengers outside of your incumbency?
MH: Voters should re-elect me because I have been a good alderperson. I love the job and our community. I am a committed public servant. I have kept all of my promises and will continue to do so. I have gotten clear priorities from our community, made progress on all of them, and I know that with another term I will be able to make even more progress. I appreciate the support I have so far and I am confident I am still the best candidate in this race.
The biggest differences between me and my challengers that I can see is [because] how you do things is important. I am not an experienced political figure and do not come from a political background. I did not have a political party help me. I did a lot of independent research. It was important for me to do it right and within the rules.
Running for office is complex and hard but candidates are given clear guidelines. The job of alderperson is ten times harder than running for office. … Integrity and ethics are really key to me. Being transparent and accountable does not require one to be in elected office. We are all demonstrating right now with how we are running our campaigns, doing our financial reporting and being accountable to the voters and neither of my challengers are as accountable as I am.
I have the proven experience, not just in elected office, but also in our community. Since I moved here in 2007, I have volunteered and been active in my community in many ways, such as fighting against the closure of our mental health clinics and helping our arts community. My prior professional background where I had to build relationships with a variety of people and be an effective manager also makes me the best candidate.
See mariafor49.org/ .
NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.