Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Meet Natashia Holmes, the Unlikeliest Alderman in Chicago

Sandi Jackson’s replacement in the 7th Ward is the exact opposite type of leader: Rarely in the news, and always doing outreach in her South Side community.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel walks onto the floor to congratulate the new alderman Natashia Holmes, 7th, as she is sworn into office during the city council meeting Wednesday Feb. 13, 2013. Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

When Sandi Jackson was alderman of the 7th Ward, she was constantly in the news—often for the wrong reasons. Forced to resign after pleading guilty to filing false joint federal income tax returns, she disappeared from public view, waiting to start serving her prison term after her husband, former congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., is done serving his.

Jackson lobbied for her chief of staff to replace her, but Mayor Emanuel announced a blue-ribbon committee to interview anyone who lived in the ward and cared to fill out an on-line application. It was going to be a new start to picking replacement aldermen, no more nepotism or cronyism. (Until, some months later, that is, when Dick Mell retired and in what looks like an old-fashioned deal, Mell’s daughter was slipped into the position.)

Sixty-five people applied for the 7th Ward job. The winner—and she took over from Jackson as both alderman and committeeman—was a person who nobody sent or knew, 38-year-old Natashia Holmes, born and reared in Florida who followed a boyfriend to Chicago, landed some good jobs along the way, went to law school at night and, to her surprise, is now Alderman Holmes.

That was more than a year ago, and when I met her at Petros across from City Hall, the excitement when she talked about clearing every interview hurdle before getting the call from the mayor was still evident. She says she’s been busy learning her job, and she hasn’t made any waves—she’s a Rahm loyalist—but she plans to become more visible ahead of running for a term of her own in 2015.

Here’s an edited transcript of a conversation that lasted well over an hour.

Tell me something about yourself.

I grew up in Tallahassee; undergrad at Alabama State in Montgomery, grad school at Auburn University, an MA in community planning. After that [In 2000] I looked for a job and ended up in Chicago. [She worked for DuPage County on transportation issues, lived in Naperville]…..That job was mainly administrative. I really wanted to do more policy work and so I got a job at the  Metropolitan Planning Council, dealing with issues not only of transportation but housing, economic development. Then came a job at IDOT, law school at Chicago-Kent at night, and then, my job before this one, at a private consulting firm.

Anyone in your family in politics?

My cousin was mayor of Gainesville and my grandfather sat on the zoning board in Palm Bay. I have a cousin who used to be a state rep in Florida.

So tell me about applying and getting the job.

I was living in the 7th Ward when Sandi Jackson’s seat became available. I’ve lived there for almost 9 years now. I went to a friend’s party there and I was like, “What neighborhood is this? I love it. I have to move here.” When the position became open I was like, “Wow, this a job I could do.”

I see what the needs are in my community. I read about it in the newspaper. I didn’t have any inside track. I had just changed jobs and so, “I’m not applying for this; it’s like work,” but on the last day I decided, I’ll just do it.

I got a call.“Hey,  the committee [which included a staffer of the mayor’s, two residents of the of 7th Ward, 8th Ward alderman Michelle Harris] wants to give you a call tonight.” They asked about five questions, one of which was, “What do you think the alderman’s job is?” [Next] I got a call, “Can you come in for an in-person interview?” Then I get a call for a second interview. The next day, a Friday, I get a call, “Can you come meet with the mayor at 5 o’clock?” The mayor he was like, “Tell me about yourself.” It was about 10 minutes. He told me, this isn’t a three-year appointment; you’re going to have to run. You know they’re going to say you’re the mayor’s girl and I’m like, “Well, that doesn’t matter because I don’t know you.” I think the thing that really impressed the mayor the most was that I had served on a local school council. I think he was just moved by that because I don’t have any kids. When he asked me if I had any questions for him, I asked him, “Do you like your job?” And he was like, “I love my job.” There were four finalists submitted to him by the selection committee.

And then?

I went to church on Sunday morning, St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church of Chicago. My pastor had also applied but was eliminated because his address actually wasn’t in the ward.  When I told him I was a finalist he said, “I’m going to pray for you. I hope you get it.”

So that Sunday I get a call from [an Emanuel aide]  and she says, “The mayor is down to two candidates and I just want to meet with you and talk to you and get a gut feeling….” So she meets me at Starbucks on 71st Street and she’s asking me “Do you know any places where we can have a press conference?” We get in the car and we’re driving around the ward, and she says, “How do you feel? The mayor’s going to offer you the alderman’s job.”

I go back home, gotta find something to wear to the press conference the next day. I’m at the Water Tower. Phone does not work at all, no service. So I had a couple of missed calls from the mayor. “This is Mayor Emanuel; give me a call when you have a chance. I want to offer you the job. Be at City Hall at 9:00.” I bought a suit at Macy’s and didn’t realize until I got dressed [Monday morning] that they left the security thing on. So before the press conference I have to run over to Macy’s with my jacket.

As you were learning the job, did you depend at all on Sandi Jackson? 

No, I didn’t know her. Her chief of staff stayed on to help with the transition. The COS basically was the person in charge of the office because the alderman wasn’t there that often. [She lived most of the time in DC.]

How long did it take you to get your footing?

I think we’re still doing that now. I told my staff there’s no manual. Ald. Burke and his staff gave me a lot of helpful information…. He’s someone who respects the city and its history and its culture. But also knowing that there isn’t a playbook, he over the course of years has put that together, a huge notebook with lots of little pieces of information in it. Now I’m learning more of the legislative policy side.  I’m seeing how we can use that as a better way to effect change in the community.

Are you a member of any caucus?

Black caucus, the women’s caucus.

Progressive caucus?

Oh, no I’m not a member of any of the others.

You have a chummy relationship with the mayor?

No. The piece of advice that the mayor gave me is “Don’t  worry about the City Council; make sure you own that ward.” That’s what I’ve spent this past year doing; getting to know the ward, getting to know my neighbors.

Have you opposed the mayor on anything?

I have voted no on a couple of things; one was definitely that they want to make buildings more energy efficient, and so I have high-rises in my ward, so I voted no. It ends up becoming a cost to building owners and they pass it along to renters.

What was the other no vote?

Oh, my gosh. There was something else. I can’t remember.

What has most surprised you about being an alderman?

I didn’t realize how procedural the City Council  is as a legislative body. Whenever I think it’s going to be a short meeting,  it’s always a long meeting.

What’s been most disappointing?

The most disappointing is that people may not take advantage of a lot of the things that the alderman’s office can do for them.

What percentage of your time do you spend on constituent services?

Eighty-seven. I answer phones; nobody’s above anybody else in the office. If a constituent comes to the door, I answer the door. My ward is huge. [It includes South Shore, South Chicago, Calumet Heights, Jeffrey Manor and South Deering.] I start at 71st Street and go all the way to 107th.  I have a very diverse housing stock, which means I have diverse types of people living in ward. 

You going to run for reelection?

Yes, I’m running for reelection. No hesitation.

Any opponents surfacing?

We’ll know when they pull petitions.

So what’s on your mind as the things you want to accomplish as you finish your appointed term and think about an elected term?

What I spend a lot of time on is working with Streets and Sanitation and cleaning up the ward. That has to happen first. Second I would say trying to attract businesses.

Do you have good grocery stores in your ward?

No.

Food desert?

It is. We have maybe three grocery stores. I think there has to be shown to corporations and investors that there’s a lot of money that leaves our community every single day because we don’t have those same options [as people on the North Side have]. Save-a-Lot is great, but at the end of the day there are very few people in the ward who are actually shopping at Save-a-Lot. Most of the people are coming to 12th Street. In fact yesterday I was in Trader Joe’s [near 12th Street]…. My neighbor who lives in my building, I see her, and then I see someone who lives in Jeffrey Manor, and I’m like, this is crazy.

Why wouldn’t they shop at Save-A-Lot?  Not as high quality?

I don’t know. I couldn’t compare quality. I haven’t been shopping at Save A Lot on 83rd. I just think it’s the image that it presents. There’s no Save-A-Lot on North Avenue… The young lady I saw who lives in Jeffrey Manor, which is in the most southern part of the ward, said, “I always come [to Trader Joe’s]. I go here and to Whole Foods all the time. 

They get in their cars and drive there?

Everybody does, and in fact… l see people with their little carts and  they get on the bus and come down there [South Loop] to go to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Marshall’s, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Best Buy.

What do you do to fix that?

I think it’s a matter of how we market ourselves. I always say there are more people like me, my staff, and my neighbors who live in the ward then there are people who, you know people on the corner that don’t own any property, that are transient, that are the knuckleheads that are causing a lot of trouble.

We’re not on the corner. We’re not the ones getting on the news for doing crazy things because we go to work and we come home and we’re not hanging out. I think it’s a matter of really positioning ourselves image-wise and letting investors know what an economic pull we have. I’m going to have interns go over the census numbers and  economic data so we can find a way to market what the value is in the 7th Ward. 71st Street,  75th, 79th, 83rd, 87th,  95th;  I mean, there’s some great corridors where there’s a lot of opportunity. Awesome green space. Congressman Jackson always used to say that people think the city stops at 57th Street. When you pass 57th Street, you have three harbors for boats, two golf courses, you have the South Shore Cultural Center, Rainbow Beach.

Do people go out for walks at night in the summer?  Go get an ice cream?

Where you gonna get an ice cream from?

Are you working on getting the Obama Library in your ward?

We have the perfect site; the old steel mill site, currently under the name of Lakeside Development. That development is probably 20-30 years away. There’s no infrastructure out there. I look at it as a great opportunity to develop those corridors that I mentioned, like 75th and 79th, and 83rd and 87th. All those corridors lead right to that development.

What about industry?

I’d love industry to come to my neighborhood and for people in my neighborhood to be able to work there. There’s an imbalance in the city when it comes to that. You have industry on the North Side and West Side, lots of industry. It used to be here, and it’s gone. My neighborhood previously was predominantly white and predominantly Jewish. Same sort of income levels came in but business still left because they don’t want to serve that demographic.

You have kept a very low profile; people don’t know your name.

My focus has been on the 7th Ward and I need to make sure that those people know my name. That’s where I’ve been spending my time. I haven’t gotten going on bigger issues because my focus has been that people in the ward know me, know they can come to my office and seek the services that need. [Unlike many of her council colleagues, Holmes does not hold a second job.]

My job as committeeman is to make sure that people get out to vote and that is something that is very important to me. I always tell people I’m not far removed. My parents went to segregated schools. My grandfather was a principal in a segregated school. I know that people died for the right to vote. I don’t care who you vote for, please just vote. If someone tells me she doesn’t vote, I always look at her, “You can’t be my friend.”

You have other political goals in mind? President of the county board, mayor, a congressional seat?

I guess you never know, you never know, but no immediate plans.

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