OLD TOWN — Brian Hopkins might live in Streeterville, but as the first alderman elected in the newly remapped, but in some ways misshapen 2nd Ward, he's not about to impose some single identity on his constituents.
"People really like to be identified by their neighborhood, and I think that's a good thing, we want to promote that," Ald.-elect Hopkins said Thursday in his Old Town campaign office.
"People know where they live. They want to fly the flag. That's true in all the neighborhoods of the 2nd Ward," he added. "So I don't want to dilute that.
"I don't want to tell someone in Ukrainian Village, 'You need to start thinking about what it means to live in Streeterville.' Why? Just because they share a common representative in the City Council isn't enough of a reason in my mind to dilute their own sense of place and their own neighborhood."
In effect, Hopkins inherited a ward designed to be inhospitable to its previous representative, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd). Fioretti was already a City Council maverick and a frequent critic of Mayor Rahm Emanuel when the council approved the remap, shifting the 2nd Ward entirely from the greater South Loop area to a stretch running from Streeterville to Ukie Village with swaths of Old Town, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and the Clybourn industrial corridor in between on the Near North Side. Fioretti determined he'd rather run for mayor against Emanuel than try to adjust to the new 2nd Ward.
Some have compared its gerrymandered shape to a lobster with claws sticking into Streeterville and Ukrainian Village and a body in Lincoln Park.
Hopkins said it was a challenge to appeal to those diverse neighborhoods, especially in a race that originally included six qualified candidates.
"I don't think any of the six of us as candidates in the first round really anticipated how difficult it would be with a strong, crowded field like that," he added. "There wasn't a lightweight in the bunch. We had six really good, really aggressive candidates."
And in some ways they represented the different elements of a diverse ward.
"There was a suspicion among all the individual communities and subcommunities within the ward that they were going to be the one that was left out," Hopkins said, adding they all seemed to feel, "How are we going to stand up to that confusing geography?"
The key, he decided, was to treat them equally, and he had to emphasize that as the former two-term president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents. And in the race up to the April 7 runoff he established that well enough to win with 56.6 percent of the vote to 43.4 percent for Alyx Pattison.
Now comes the task of actually governing, and Hopkins finds he's inherited another issue from Fioretti himself — "catching up with the backlog of routine infrastructure requests," he added, citing street, alley and sidewalk repairs, garbage pickup and demands for new trash and recycling carts.
"He never really bonded with the new ward," Hopkins said. "Shortly after the map was adopted, he probably was already thinking in his mind of running for mayor."
So Hopkins has to get right down to a fact most veteran aldermen have long recognized: It's getting city services to residents that serves the constituents, and gets one re-elected.
To that end, for all its diversity, the 2nd Ward is also surprisingly similar, Hopkins said. It's relatively compact and densely populated, giving residents similar concerns, and it's also politically engaged, with a number of neighborhood and community groups as well as block clubs and condo associations.
Hopkins said that, at less than three miles wide, the ward is not as unwieldy as it looks to cover, and he can always reach out to community groups in its various sectors — and vice versa.
"That groundwork is already done," he added.
So he figures at some point to get the chance to bring his own expertise to the council. Hopkins worked 20 years for Cook County Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago), most recently as his chief of staff.
With Daley having served as chairman of the Cook County Board's Finance Committee, that means Hopkins knows his way around a budget, and has seen Daley and President Toni Preckwinkle shift it from the patronage-laden budgets of her predecessor, Todd Stroger, to something more efficient and streamlined.
"I know there's some key differences in the way both governments operate that I'm gonna have to understand," Hopkins said. "I have a lot to learn, and I recognize that."
Yet Preckwinkle and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have already worked to create efficiencies between city and county departments doing largely the same duties, and Hopkins insisted, "There's still some low-hanging fruit there" to produce more, especially given what the mayor has labeled a "$600 million pension cliff" with overdue payments coming due at the end of the year.
Daley cheered "his experience in different aspects in government," including stints doing administrative work with the General Assembly and serving under Dawn Clark Netsch. Hopkins, in fact, was her campaign manager in her bid for governor in 1994.
"His political knowledge is very, very strong," Daley said, and Hopkins has proved to be determined and adept at working to resolve conflicts between both elected officials and competing constituencies.
He'll need to draw on those skills as alderman, as with Seneca Park and Lake Shore Park, areas of intense interest — to the Streeterville area of the ward, anyway — behind the Museum of Contemporary Art. Hopkins granted that "both of the parks are a little worn and need some renovation," but they could yet get wrapped in a far larger and more ambitious project.
Hopkins pointed to a grand proposal for a "complete re-engineering of the lakefront" between Navy Pier and North Avenue, a project that would include a landfill along the concrete stretch in front of the Gold Coast and, with that, the straightening of the S-curve on Lake Shore Drive at Oak Street. He called it a "visionary idea," but one that would alter the look of the lakefront there and potentially create 64 additional acres of green space growing out from Oak Street Beach.
Hopkins called it "a heavy lift to get everybody on the same page," in that it would have to involve state and federal agencies and financing, as well as the city, but he added that the mayor had already "encouraged me to get that ball rolling."
It's not the sort of task usually assigned to a freshman alderman.
Hopkins will need some help on that — and, of course, on anything he wants to accomplish in the City Council. For now, however, he has rejected an offer to join the Progressive Reform Caucus, while mulling the same from the less-confrontational Paul Douglas Alliance, invited by Aldermen Brendan Reilly (42nd) and Joe Moore (49th), who have already established themselves as his council welcoming committee. (Reilly gave abundantly to Hopkins' campaign.)
Hopkins said he's intrigued by Moore's initiative at participatory budgeting for ward residents, although it may take some time to institute it across the new 2nd Ward. Otherwise, he added, "I do want to be independent, at least initially."
Hopkins said, "There's a sense of urgency right now" in the City Council, with the looming pension crisis, and "I think we need less factionalism" and more a sense of everyone pulling together in the same direction.
"For the sake of accomplishing things and getting things done," he added, "I think there's a recognition that we all need to be focused on not getting bogged down in squabbling and partisanship."
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