austin-activist-runs-for-city,-county-seats-while-her-husband-vies-for-one-of-them-as-the-opposing-party-–-austin-weekly-news

Austin Activist Runs For City, County Seats While Her Husband Vies For One Of Them As The Opposing Party – Austin Weekly News

Tara Stamps (left) and Zerlina Smith-Members (right) at the June 2023 selection committee meeting | Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

The fact that long-time Austin community activist and perennial candidate Zerlina Smith-Members is running for Brandon Johnson’s old seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners isn’t surprising – it’s the other office she’s running for at the same time. 

She was among the six finalists who got a shot at filling the 1st District seat when it originally became vacant after Johnson was sworn in as mayor. Union activist and former 37th Ward aldermanic candidate Tara Stamps was selected, but Smith-Members said at the time that she would run for the remaining two years of Johnson’s term whether she was selected or not.

But that isn’t the only office she is running for next spring. Smith-Members also filed to run for the 29th Ward Democratic Committeeperson, putting her in direct opposition to the incumbent, Ald. Chris Taliaferro, and C.B. Johnson, who forced Taliaferro into a runoff in the 2023 city council election. 

What’s more, her husband, Antoine Members, who has run for several elected Chicago positions in the past, is running for the 29th Ward Committeeperson. As a Republican.

Members will be facing incumbent committeeperson Walter Adamczyk, who filed to run within hours of the filing deadline.

Only Stamps and Smith-Members filed to run in the Democratic primary for the 1st District seat. James M Humay, who ran for the seat as a libertarian in 2022, is the only candidate running for that party’s nomination. There are no Republican candidates who filed by deadline.

Ward committeepersons are responsible for getting their party’s voters out to the polls and supporting their parties’ candidates. When a political office becomes vacant, the committeepersons from the previous officeholders’ party whose wards (or, in case of the suburbs, townships) falls within their district appoint the successor. For example, Taliaferro was among the West Side aldermen who weighed in on Johnson’s successor on the county board. There are currently no Republican elected officials whose district falls within the 29th Ward.

While aldermen tend to double as their wards’ Democratic committeepersons, that isn’t always the case. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, for example, is the 4th Ward Democratic Committeeperson.

Smith-Members ran for 29th Ward alderman in 2015 and 2019. In 2022, when West Garfield Park nurse and former 28th Ward candidate Beverly Miles challenged Gov. J.B. Pritzker in the Democratic primary, Smith-Members joined the ticket as lieutenant governor before deciding to challenge Preckwinkle in the same primary instead.  She was removed from the ballot.

In the interview with Austin Weekly News a day after she filed her paperwork, Smith-Members downplayed the committeeperson campaign, saying that it “goes hand-in-hand” with her run for county commissioner because “that’s where the power is” — but that she was “more focused” on the commissioner campaign.

“As we move forward with the two campaigns, all of the funding, all of the resources will be behind the 1st District campaign,” she said.

Antoine Members is a long-time registered Republican. In 2008, he ran against U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1) as a Republican, earning 14.1% of the vote. In 2011, he ran for alderman of the South Side’s 17th Ward, coming in third in an eight-person race. In 2018, Members submitted paperwork to run for Chicago mayor, but he didn’t make the ballot.

Illinois State Board of Elections records show that, on Jan. 28, 2022, Members formed a campaign committee to raise funds to run for the Illinois State Senate’s 4th District, but, as of Dec. 4, no one other than incumbent Kimberly Lightford has filed to run. 

He didn’t respond to Austin Weekly News’ request for comment by the deadline.  Smith-Members said that he was inspired to run after hearing Galewood residents’ concerns about the possibility of the city using Amundsen Park fieldhouse to shelter asylum-seekers from Central and South American countries, said that there was “an outcry for another party” to get a shot at representing the community.

Smith-Members said that she had no idea her husband was collecting petitions until he asked her to notarize them last month. She said she has no issue with it, because she generally believes that 29th Ward voters should have a choice.

“I wish him the best on what he does in his endeavors, but it’s not my cause,” she said.

The news release announcing Smith-Members’ candidacy described Members as her campaign manager, said that on the early of morning of Nov. 29, they went to the Office of Cook County Clerk to submit her nominating petitions. When, in a Nov. 30 interview, Austin Weekly News asked Smith-Members about the potential conflict of having a candidate for a Republican office managing a Democratic Primary campaign, she said that “he isn’t my campaign manager any longer.”

Smith-Members’ campaign platform

As Smith-Members herself acknowledged, her priorities haven’t changed over the past four years. The priorities outlined in the press release announcing her candidacy echoed what she told the selection committee back in June and what she focused on in her previous campaigns.

Smith-Members plans to work with city and suburban police departments, the Office of Cook County Sheriff and social service agencies to tackle root causes of crime by providing social services and ramp up enforcement. She would advocate for putting $100 million toward preventing opioid overdoses, $100 million to pay stipends to residents who enroll in job training, certification programs or “educational advancement” programs. That would collectively account for about 2.15% of the county’s 2024 budget.

Smith-Members would also advocate for freezing the county portion of the property tax levy and eliminating the county’s 2.25% sales tax on groceries. She believes that this will encourage more affordable housing and business development, especially in chronically underinvested communities such as West Garfield Park and west suburban Maywood.

Finally, Smith-Members wants to give more contract opportunities to Black-owned businesses, particularly 1st District businesses, by requiring that at least 30% of the contracts to them. The county sets its minority contracts on case-by-case basis.

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared… More by Igor Studenkov

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