By Bob Seidenberg
Evanston voters will go to the polls Tuesday to fill two City Council seats, in a rare midterm election that could have a major bearing on some big issues facing the city, including Northwestern University’s $800 million Ryan Field project.
In the centrally located Second Ward, Krissie Harris, an Oakton College educator whom Mayor Daniel Biss appointed to serve in the seat until the special election, faces challenges from Darlene Cannon, a community advocate and member of the city’s Equity and Empowerment Commission, and Patricia Gregory, a physical education teacher in District 65 and member of the city’s Parks & Recreation Board.
In the 9th Ward on the city’s south end, Juan Geracaris, appointed by Biss to fill the ward seat that Cicely Fleming vacated, will face Kathelyn “Kathy” Harris, a former Cook County administrator.
In both wards, Northwestern’s plan to rebuild Ryan Field has come under increasing attention.
At a forum sponsored by Evanston League of Women Voters Feb. 18, Harris acknowledged the stadium proposal was a “hot topic on the council right now, generating daily emails and calls. I think it’s important that all voices be heard,” she said, noting the city has contracted for an economic impact study to take a look at Northwestern’s claims for the project.
Harris pointed out that the project will not only affect the Seventh Ward where the stadium is located, but the city as a whole.
“So all the council has to work together to make educated decisions, to work with Northwestern University to see what the end game is and how do we come to that consensus together,” she said.
At a virtual candidate forum hosted by Evanston Live’s Meleika Gardner last week (which neither Harris nor Geracaris attended), Cannon argued that the project affords the city an opportunity “to really sit down with Northwestern and try to ask for payment in lieu of taxes,” from the University, which is exempt from taxes under a charter from the state dating back to 1851, expressing concern about the university’s plan to hold for-profit concerts.
“You know, Northwestern doesn’t have a fire department, so they depend upon us,” she said. “What are we going to receive in return? A fire truck is nice,” she said, referring to contributions the university has made in past years. But a gift of that kind carries added safety concerns for the department, she said.
Gregory spoke about the importance of starting with the residents on the issue.
“We don’t actually live there,” she said of herself and other candidates at the forum. “They need to listen to those people, because it’s important to be able if you’re coming home from work, you want to park in front of your house,” she said, citing one example. “You don’t have a garage, and you can’t do that.”
The issue came up in the Ninth Ward, too.
To the same question at the League’s Ninth Ward forum, Geracaris said because of his job with the University, he will recuse himself from participating in the issue when it comes before the council.
Discussing the relationship between the city and the university in general, Geracaris expressed hope that under new Northwestern president Michael Schill, the city and the university could achieve some kind of reset “where we both benefit as much as possible from one another.”
At the Evanston Live forum, Harris said she understands Geracaris’s decision to recuse. “But we need representation.”
“Northwestern’s expansion is very important not only for Northwestern, but most important for the city,” she said. “We have an opportunity here. We have an opportunity to affect generations — not just for the next 40 years, but maybe 60 or 100 years, multitudes of generations. How we sit down and communicate with the Ryan family [insurance magnate Patrick Ryan, whose contribution is driving the project] is everything,” she said.
“We need to understand that we can’t deal in hypotheticals. We need to be able to sit at the table and actually have a constructive expectation that we give as a city and one that they also give back to us,” she said.
In an intense campaign that dates back to last year, the candidates have pressed their background and community roots.
A lifelong resident of the Second Ward, Cannon ran a strong race against incumbent Peter Braithwaite in the 2021 municipal election, losing by 71 votes. A member of the city’s Equity and Empowerment Commission, she has focused on the city’s overspending on the Robert Crown Community Center project, opposed privatization the city-owned of Harley Clarke mansion on the lakefront, organized a major food drive during the pandemic and fought for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
“I am a community advocate,” she declared at the League of Women Voters forum.
“One of the reasons why I am running is because I do see the rapid change in demographics. I see the increase in home prices so that equates to the lack of affordability. And I believe that the city of Evanston could be more fiscally responsible, because our budget and how we spend our money should be a reflection of our beliefs.”
Gregory, born and raised in Evanston, is a physical education teacher at Lincoln Elementary School. She currently serves on the Evanston Parks & Recreation Board, as well as the Reba Learning Center Board. She previously served on the Evanston Skokie District 65 Strategic Planning Committee, and was co-chair of the District 65 and 202 PTA Council, according to information on her website.
Gregory said she deliberately has not put out a supporters list, hoping to protect people supporting her from being harassed. She said she has also not sought donations in the campaign, “because I don’t want people to feel I owe them something. I want to represent the whole ward not certain people in the ward,” she said.
A member of the Parks & Recreation Board, her working style may have been best demonstrated when she heard there was a request by a council member to change park hours.
Gregory spoke with the people in her area, found that only two of the 10 people she spoke to knew about the change, then reported her findings at a Parks & Recreation meeting where the council member was present.
She said, “it’s important to get out and knock on doors.”
Kristian “Krissie” Harris
Harris, a fifth-generation Evanston resident, is manager of student life and campus inclusion at Oakton Community College. Her track record of community service includes serving as a trustee of Second Baptist Church, volunteering at a weekly food giveaway program and serving as an active member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. She has also served on a number of boards, including the YWCA/North Shore, the Dajae Coleman Foundation and Family Focus Auxiliary.
“As long as I’ve been in Evanston I have been engaged,” she said.
Explaining her communication style, she said, “I like to tell stories and I like to hear things and relate them to people in story form so that it doesn’t feel as intrusive.”
Working with college students for more than 30 years, she said, she knows that even understanding the needs of one “translates to many.”
A first-generation immigrant from Argentina, Geracaris has lived and worked in Evanston for 29 years. He graduated from Northwestern with a degree in mechanical engineering and currently works as the senior network systems engineer in Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, according to information from his website.
He is a founding member and current vice president of Evanston Latinos, a local non-profit organization formed to help Latino families during the pandemic. He is a former Oakton School PTA vice president and founder of the city’s Skate Park Advisory Board. He also serves as a board member for Next Steps Evanston, a local non-profit group focused on providing equity and anti-racism training for District 65 families and guardians.
“I’m honored to be the first Latino City Council member,” he said. “I want city government to better serve all residents and I think I brought about positive change in that direction.”
Geracaris, appointed last year, is the only current council member to actively share their meeting notes and their voting record.
His first legislative referral was ranked-choice voting, he noted, which 85% of Evanston voters supported, making the city the first in Illinois to pass such legislation.
Kathelyn “Kathy” Hayes
Kathy Hayes is a lifelong resident with a strong background of government service at the county level, including a stint at Stroger Hospital, where she was an administrative analyst, responsible for the oversight and administration of the Medication Assistance Program. She began public service with the Township of Evanston as a General Assistance program case manager, working with the city’s poorest residents.
“I am a born-and-raised Evanston resident. I go back about five generations here with my family,” she said. “As an adult, I have been able to be a public servant for over 24 years with Cook County government – first in the prosecutor’s office and then at Cook County Hospital.
“So diversity is an action word that keeps us all together and keeps us aware of the needs of all our neighbors, no matter where they come from. I’m committed to working with all types of institutions and individuals to make sure that we all are able to live the prosperity that we are entitled to do. This is an issue that [is] coming up in our country about equity and equality. Those are words that we cannot take lightly and have to continue to work on.”