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.
Attorney and activist Sam Schoenburg, who is gay, is among the Chicagoans who are running for positions on the city's newly-created police district councils. The three-member councils (there will be 22 total) are intended as a bridge between community members with representatives from CPD.
Schoenburg is running on a panel with two other candidates, Maurilio Garcia and Jenny Schaffer, to represent residents of the Town Hall 19th Police District. Windy City Times caught up with Schoenburg to see about his motivations for running and his thoughts about the new council. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Windy City Times: What compelled you to run for this new office?
Sam Schoenburg: I grew up in Springfield and got involved in politics and advocacy pretty early onmy dad was a political reporter for the State Journal-Register. So I was always learning about [politics], and getting exposed to legislators and governors.
When I was a senior in high school, Barack Obama, then a U.S. senator, launched his campaign for president. I volunteered that day in February 2007, and spent much of the two years after I graduated from high school working on the campaign, including in Iowa for the caucuses. I went to college at Yale, and worked on the primary there. I took time off from college for a semester to be a full-time organizer for the 2008 general election, so that was just a deeply formative experience for me, and it was deeply inspiring to see people come together for a cause like that.
I graduated from college and continued organizing for a few years with various non-profits. At one, I worked on reducing the influence of corporate money in politics, and at the other, I worked on getting people signed up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act through the first season of open-enrollment.
Then I went to law school at NYU. I started in August of 2014, the same month that Michael Brown was killed by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. … There were these nation-wide calls to reform policing and what criminal justice looks like in this country. I spent a lot of time in law school working on those issues.
I had one particular professor who founded a policing project at NYU Law, whose big insight that I really connected with was that policing is one of the least democratic institutions that we have in most cities. There is very little public input on what [policing] looks like on the front-end. Things go wrong, and we then try to figure out what to do after things go wrong.
I moved to Chicago in 2018 and found a community of people who had been working to change that after the unrest that came following Laquan McDonald's killing. Eventually there was a coalition working towards something called the Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance. That's when I saw a real sense of momentum that this could really move forward if we really pushed it.
I lived in Lake View and got involved as a volunteer with groups like the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and One Northside. They hosted canvasses going door-to-door and held phone banks to ask aldermen to vote for this ordinance. It got passed, and did so on a supermajority vote. I saw that as very exciting, and [as] an opportunity for the kind of reform that it called for to be put into place.
When they started to announce these positions, I was interested to know whether I'd be the right kind of person to do that, and in talking to some of the people at the organizations, and other individuals, I then sort of decided to throw my hat in the ring for it.
WCT: What kind of work would you want to see the councils move ahead with?
SS: On the district council level, I'd really like to see an expansion of emergency services to include mental health professionals and substance abuse counselors who can respond to crisis calls. There's a pilot in the 19th District called the CARE [Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement] program. It's been going on for a little more than a year, and it sends a crisis-intervention trained officer, a mental health clinician and a paramedic to respond to non-violent mental health crisis-calls. There's another pilot in another part of the city that sends just the mental health clinician and the paramedic.
I'd like to see some version of that made permanent. Right now, they're having a lot of success and they're still being studied. But it's helped a lot of people. It hasn't led to a lot of incarcerations or uses of force. It's helped to connect people with broader care. It's been a better way of dealing with a whole series of public safety issues that we've often put on police, but can be better targeted by folks with specialized training.
WCT: What are your thoughts on safety in the 19th District?
SS: If you look at statistics, at least the ones released by the 19th District, there are certain crimes that are disproportionately high right now, especially car thefts and carjackings. Those are at historic highs. … There are some scary incidents that have happenedmore shootings, for example. It might be people who know each other, and gang-related, but there's more gun violence than we've seen in the past. There were the scary incidents like the kidnappings and robberies that took place one weekend in the area around Wrigley Field.
But the violence is nothing like what takes place in other parts of the city, particularly the South and West Sides. What I really want to do as a district council member is help improve the basic information that is available, so people understand the public safety events that have happened, what the police are doing about it and where investigations are, to the extent that [investigation details] can be shared. … What I would love to see is a district council website that has updated information about incidents, so people feel like they have a good sense of what resources they can turn to. I think that could solve a lot of the unease that people have.
WCT: Is there anything you'd like to add?
SS: It is important for me to say in this race that I'm a gay person who lives in North Halsted. I love this neighborhood and have lived here the entire time that I've been in Chicago. I do think we can do more to make sure that LGBTQ people feel safe and are safe, especially folks who tend to be more marginalized in our community. I don't count myself among them, as a white gay man. But queer folks of color, trans folksI want to make sure they all feel welcome and safe in the 19th District and North Halsted.