Incumbent Chicago 44th Ward Ald. Bernie Hansen certainly has staying power. He has fought off numerous challengers in his North Lakefront district, including two successive races against gay activist Dr. Ron Sable. In Sable's first race against the incumbent in 1986, the Cook County Hospital pioneering physician came within a few hundreds votes of making history as the first openly gay alderman in the city. But Sable's next challenge, as he struggled with AIDS-related health problems which eventually claimed his life, was further off the mark.
Since that time, Hansen has remained entrenched as a service- and development-oriented politician. He has been the sponsor of numerous pro-gay and AIDS measures, and he has recently been a big supporter of the Center on Halsted.
Hansen also said that recent comments attributed to him about the Halsted residential developments have been taken out of context, so Windy City Times sat down with the alderman in his Belmont office to discuss his past record, and his plans beyond the 2003 aldermanic elections.
WCT: Can we talk about what the mood was like when you first came into office, and the support your campaign received. Were you aware of the large amount of gay voters in the ward at the time?
BH: Considering I used to work part time in the original Annex 3 [ gay bar ] , at 2863 N. Clark Street, I was pretty much involved in the community.
WCT: Was there a lot of support for your campaign in the gay community?
BH: There was support.
WCT: Was it that there wasn't a lot of organized gay support?
BH: There was not a lot of organized gay support for anyone [ at that time ] .
WCT: In your first term, the gay-rights ordinance was in the City Council.
BH: It had been in the Council for years [ since 1972 ] . ... [ Ald. Cliff ] Kelley and I were in fact talking about it during my first term.
WCT: What was done with the gay-rights ordinance during your first term?
BH: Kelley and I tried to find a way to move it out of committee and back on the agenda. There were a couple other aldermen that were interested, including Jerry Orbach ( 46th, where Helen Shiller now serves ) . We were probably the three main aldermen at the time. Marty Oberman and Burt Natarus were somewhat interested, but not really as interested as the three of us.
WCT: Did you support it because of your experience working in Annex 3 or was it the area itself?
BH: The area itself. Knowing a lot of people from the community and building very personal relationships from living here all my life.
WCT: In the 1980s, there was tremendous resistance based on religious issues, from certain aldermen. How did you approach that?
BH: One of the times I just sat down and talked to them. I explained my thoughts about the gay and lesbian community and their concerns and strengths.
WCT: Dr. Ron Sable ran against youtwiceas an openly gay candidate.
WCT: Yet you were able to get a lot of gay support in the ward. What are your feelings about what happened then?
BH: Let's face itback then, there was a huge movement. It was very popular to be affiliated with a gay candidate the first time. Some people that were associates and acquaintances of mine joined that particular movement. Yet, there were people like Dewey Herrington and some of the other people who were from the same community who said, hey, wait a minute, Bernie's our good friend and we are sticking with him. And they stuck with me through thick or thin. I think that if you review the newspapers back then I made a statement after I won that I would still work hard to stand by the gay and lesbian community no matter what the outcome of the campaign. And I did.
WCT: The first race was really close. The other one was not. How would you attribute that?
BH: I don't know about really close. Most of the elections in the 44th Ward were determined by 1,100 votes or under the last four or five campaigns prior to me running. I won by about 1,800 votes. Much larger after the passage of the Human Rights Ordinance. I hadn't gotten to domestic partnership and other issues that were the community's concerns, and my concerns.
WCT: Can you talk about the original gay-rights ordinance?
BH: It was a lot of education. Back in that particular time in our history there was a lot of homophobia because of AIDS, a lot of misdirection as to the cause and a lot of uncertainty about how to handle the AIDS crisis. People were burying their heads in the sand to address it. I worked very hard with the community and with other elected officials to educate people as to the true crisis and make sure that we worked hard to alleviate some of the disinformation that was being bandied about.
WCT: What role did the City Council play in terms of funding?
BH: The city's health department of course. And people's attitudes in general in regards to education. In the case of AIDSlook at Bonaventure House in the late 1980s, when we wanted to build it over on Wellington, you remember what happened? The neighbors all of a sudden stormed my office and threatened. I had to quash that particular uprising to the point where it was a matter of education. We informed them and educated them and we wound up with a wonderful AIDS housing facility over there.
WCT: What about the AIDS activists at the time like Danny Sotomayor, who were always pushing for more?
BH: Danny, like every other activist, has their own agenda and sometimes their actions were fruitful and sometimes their efforts were damaging to the entire community and the people who were trying to help with the problem.
WCT: Do you think the Council itself had a role in trying to increase AIDS funds?
BH: I think that the Council had a role in trying to provide funding to the Dept. of Health for services to help people that were affected by AIDS. We did try to put in some funding at different levels of different agencies. Sometimes we were successful.
WCT: At the time Ald. Helen Shiller was certainly pushing for more funding.
BH: Helen and I and [ Ald. Patrick ] O'Connor certainly were. A lot of people thought O'Connor wasn't on the team, but he sure was a very, very good person.
WCT: You also had a staff member with AIDS.
BH: Dale Sapper. He worked for me for three years. He had AIDS from the go.
WCT: Was there any concern in the office? Was that something you had to educate people on?
BH: No. We had a staff meeting and we said these are the true facts. This is how you get AIDS and everybody felt comfortable after the meeting and everybody loved Dale. We had a little mass for him. He was a big part of our team and he was a great help. He was an administrative assistant.
WCT: Now, after the gay-rights ordinance passed in 1989, how soon after that were you working on hate-crimes or was it parallel?
WCT: And was there the same kind of resistance, or what kind of work was needed on that?
BH: Once again, I met with as many aldermen individually as I could and then when we had the committee hearing, we got into a very lively debate and it was amazing that some of the people that were against the gay-rights ordinance originally were convinced that this would be a good ordinance for everyone and it wasn't just for gay and lesbian people, it was for everybody. They passed it unanimously, you know. ... The enforcement of the hate-crimes ordinance is very visible. In fact, we have instituted sensitivity training in the Chicago Police Department because of that ordinance.
WCT: Now about domestic partners … that would be more about money in terms of challenges. It seemed to happen relatively fast, passing benefits coverage for same-sex partners of city employees.
BH: It took us about eight or nine months. It was a matter or re-educating … revisiting some of the fears. And making sure that the projections from the different department heads were calculated correctly by the budget office. Therefore, because the city is self-insured, what impact would it be on the city budget. And the city budget reflected that we could handle it and it was the right thing to do. We showed it would be a negligible effect based upon the amount of people we thought would sign up for domestic partners and the costs. And those statistics since then have proven that it is not a tremendous impact. [ Mayor ] Daley supported it after sitting down with his administration and we explained our thoughts on it.
WCT: In San Francisco, when they passed domestic partners, they also passed it for contractors that do business with the city, and it sparked this national lawsuit from the airlines because it impacted their hubs in San Francisco. Do you think Chicago is ever going to be in a position to be using their clout with contractors?
BH: I don't think we've ever approached the idea, but my research has pleasantly come up with a number of huge corporations that already have domestic-partner insurance. And I would hope that every private company would take into consideration, and that these insurance companies would already have, domestic partners as part of their policies.
WCT: So that's not something necessarily you see the city playing a role in?
BH: Not at this point. It's the right thing to do, absolutely. I think the insurance companies and Congress should work out a formula so it's part of every policy.
WCT: Do you have a position on gay marriage itself?
BH: I think a lot of people who are progressive and forward thinking realize that it is not only a goal but it should be a reality. People who live together for many, many years and share responsibilities and share their lives together are living together as couples, whether same sex or opposite sex.
WCT: Do you support gay marriage?
BH: If it were to come to a vote in the City Council, I would vote yes. It is not within our jurisdiction. It has to come from the state.
WCT: Does the City Council have any influence in trying to get gay rights passed on a statewide level?
BH: Each individual council member has the opportunity to lobby legislators that affect the district that they have. I am very pleased that the legislators that service the 44th Ward and even some of the wards surrounding are very pro-active when it comes to making sure everyone has equal rights. And it's wonderful that these people in the legislature have the same views as I do.
WCT: Let's talk a little about this ward and how it has changed over the years. Many years ago a policy of 'no new liquor licenses' was implemented.
BH: It was spearheaded by the Mayor and Winston Mardis, who is the mayor's liquor czar. They are the people that designated who was going to get them and who wasn't based upon the concentration. It depends on the zoning. In the B and C zoning people can acquire two types of liquor licenses. One is incidental, or the primary purpose of the establishment is for food service and the consumption of alcohol is a secondary or an auxiliary use. A primary license where you need a C classification is permissible to have a liquor license, for the establishment does not have a primary use of serving food. The primary use is consumption and sale of alcohol.
WCT: What was impacted when the change happened?
BH: What happened along Halsted Street, because of some of the concerns of the community groups, we entertained the possibility of downzoning Halsted two or three times in 1980s. The community organizations met with the business organizations and both times there was an agreement not to downzone Halsted Street.
WCT: So it never came?
BH: No, because that is what the community, they had their hearings, and this is what they decided upon.
WCT: So while the zoning stayed the same, the issue of new liquor licenses…
BH: Well, there was some debate whether new liquor licenses should be based upon the applicant and the zone. But if you take a look along Halsted, there are as many or more liquor licenses now than there were 20 years ago when we started.
WCT: So another new bar could open?
BH: It has happened.
WCT: The whole redistricting on how the wards were re-drawn this past year [ based on the new U.S. Census ] … what lobbying happened on your part in terms of how the ward was going to be redesigned?
BH: It starts with downtown. They have to make adjustments based upon demographics, census count, census tracks. It is done by the finance committee and the rules committee and is done by computer to try to adjust based upon the impact of the entire city. In the three re-districtings that I have been involved with, I have always tried to maintain as close to the original boundaries that we have so we have as little change as possible, therefore fewer problems.
WCT: How much clout do the aldermen have in the ultimate process?
BH: I wouldn't use the word clout, I would use the word influence. And we have the ability to make recommendations and of course the chairman of the rules committee and the mayor have the final recommendation. If the aldermen do not like the final recommendation, they can vote no.
WCT: Were you concerned with any of the parts that were changed and lopped off this time around?
BH: Since it was such a little change, it was insignificant. I voted yes.
WCT: Talk about that area that is not in your ward anymore and what you recall about that particular property [ the residential condominium development the Dakota ] and the hearings that occurred in the neighborhood. You were involved as alderman before the development? Was there a lot of resistance to it?
BH: There was not a lot of concern from anybody because they were building according to zoning.
WCT: But certainly a lot of people that bought in there are gay ... that is what is interesting about this debateit is a lot of gay residential versus gay club owners. There are other residential developments on Halsted now that are very large, for example next to Steamworks and the one across from Little Jim's. How do you see that trend affecting Halsted Street?
BH: It is real clear that three years ago when we did all the renovation along Halsted Street ... the effort that went into the designing of the pylons along Halsted Street to recognize the contribution by the businessmen in the areayou'd have to be unrealistic not to see that this was a very active business strip that catered to the gay and lesbian community. If those people coming into this area would observe what the area is before they spend $300-400,000.
WCT: Do you think there is a role the developer needs to play or 'buyer beware'?
BH: If you are intelligent enough to make that kind of money, you ought to be intelligent enough to spend it. And that project took eight months to a year to build. So if you were buying in there and you were coming over to see and look around at what you were buying into you'd have to be, I don't know, I don't want to use some nasty words ... to not notice that it's a very heavily gay and lesbian business district? And all the publicity that has been in the newspapers, not only local but major newspapers, about the wonderful [ gay ] Center that we are going to have across the street.
WCT: Is what's pushing and pulling Halsted Street right now residential versus clubs? The noise at night?
BH: The noise or the people that are visiting these bars … we've developed that over the past 20 years. It just isn't something that happened two weeks ago.
WCT: You think they should have known about the noise?
BH: Absolutely. It doesn't apply just to Halsted Street from Belmont to Grace. It applies to Halsted Street all the way down past North Avenue. You have a number of eating and drinking establishments on Halsted that are causing controversy in the 43rd Ward. If you want to establish a code, that people are buying along a commercial strip, so be it. But to just say we have to develop it for North Halsted Street, is that reasonable? Different parts of the city have many viable, exciting strips.
WCT: You come from a real estate background. What do you see as a potential solution for Halsted to maintain its gay character at the same time absorb these massive residential developments?
BH: I think it's doing just fine. Let's face it, how many of the businesses in the area that came in here and started growing their business have bought the buildings, have expanded their business, have really become a much more stable part of the community, having more vested commitment to the community, not just as a renter? How much more commitment can I myself and the mayor and the other members of City Council do to designate the area as we did, improve the area as we have, bring in a multi-million-dollar community center.
WCT: How long did the Center on Halsted take, and what was the resistance?
BH: The problems of making sure that we got that Center was that certain people in the gay and lesbian community aren't necessarily in this ward and they wanted to have that Center somewhere other than this area. Some of them even work for government and they tried to subvert the efforts of the community and go around me. I wasn't very happy about it. Some of the people that worked for the different organizations that were spearheading this were less than 100 percent going toward locating this facility in our area. Once the team was established, one that made a full commitment to making sure the Center was going to be located in the area where it belonged, and the nonsense between certain factions of the gay community that were trying to compete with each other … once we got that under control, we had full cooperation. And I got very involved and we were able to, along with full cooperation from everybody along with the mayor, finally produce a formula that will make this dream come true.
WCT: Are you happy with the progress since then?
BH: Oh yes. Very much. It's been only a couple of years and to get a project funded and to the point where we're at, I am extremely pleased.
WCT: You knew that the site of the old Annex on Clark was the site of a potential Rodde [ gay community ] Center property and you knew the owner of that property?
BH: [ Former Rodde Board President ] Michael Harrington came to me and I put him in touch with that person, but if you want to talk about Rodde Center, where they were originally located over on Sheffield … . You may not be aware of this but I put that deal together and the only way that deal finally was consummated was because I put it together. I was offered a real estate commission and I turned it down. I said no, put it toward the Rodde Center and that is what made the deal [ to buy the 3223-3225 N. Sheffield property ] .
WCT: What's your recollection about the Clark Street property? [ This was a last-ditch effort by the Rodde board to find a permanent home after the Sheffield property had been sold years earlier and funds were drained to pay rent on office space in the Uptown Bank Building. ]
BH: I just got him [ Harrington ] and the owner together. That was it.
WCT: The deal fell through because they didn't come up with the down payments?
BH: They were looking for a location in the ward. I got it.
WCT: How do you compare that to what's happened with the Center on Halsted?
BH: I don't think [ Harrington ] had the support of the entire gay community and it was unfortunate.
WCT: Chinatown and Greektown are two very different models of how a city designation has worked. What do you think will happen with the Halsted district?
BH: I think we are there. I think you'll see what has happened over the last 20 years was the growth of the neighborhood both residentially and commercially. We have managed to come up with a formula to keep everybody working together peacefully … co-existing for the benefit of everybody. I think you know that we have a smaller population of gay residents than before, but the gay residents that are here are active. They make a wonderful contribution to the community. I'm talking about the residents, not just the business people. I think it's important to see that we have created an atmosphere of trust and working together, which has always been my motto "working together for a stronger community."
WCT: Do you think the community has come very far since the acrimony over the pylon design a few years ago?
BH: Some of the people that were the biggest objectors to some of the proposed original designs were gay people, saying 'Hey, Bernie, I don't want to walk around with a target on my back.' One [ gay friend of 30 years ] said, "Bernie, I'm not a flamer, but I don't go around to everyone saying I'm gay, but I don't go around saying I'm not. It's just the way I live. The neighborhood's wonderful, you treat everyone the same, that's why I love it here, why I bought property here, that's why I stay here. And I don't want some outrageous [ design ] ." When we came up with the final design with the pylons and the streetscape and the flower beds, and I said to my friend, 'I think this is really good.' He said, 'Yeah, this is fine.' ... Twenty years ago when I first got elected he was one of the supporters to stay with me, [ even ] when Dr. Sable ran against me.
WCT: What about the Dakota condo development in its battle with the Circuit gay bar over noise?
BH: The comments that I said were taken out of context. I think that anybody who knows me and knows my record or commitment to this neighborhood for my entire adult life knows, No. 1, I am not homophobic. It's a real joke. No. 2, that I have done everything to foster relations between businesses and harmony throughout the entire community, and I have defended many of the gay and lesbian residents and people who have been discriminated against. This is where the clarification is. I will defend anybody whether they are gay, straight, Black, white or brown against any type of discrimination because I am against any type of discrimination. And I refuse to discriminate based upon gender, sex, religion whatever … I think it's ridiculous. And for someone to pit me against the straight community in favor of the gay community is wrong. That's where people get confused as to my stance. I don't side with anything. I side with what the law is and what is good for the community. For a few people ... to cause such a controversy is unhealthy and for those people to use that and exploit that, they are not doing the neighborhood and the people and businesses in this neighborhood a service by taking something and blowing it out of proportion, something that really isn't there.
WCT: Do you see a solution for the Dakota residents?
BH: If they don't like what has happened here, they have an opportunity to do what everybody else who makes a bad decision can doif they don't like it, they can move. They moved here, they can move out. It's unfortunate that they made a bad decision. They are probably nice people, but did they make a bad decision and then try to blame it on somebody else? That's probably what happened. Now, the Circuitare they making every effort to try to solve the problem? I hope so, because I would expect any business, gay or straight, to try to work out any problems with any of their neighbors.
WCT: This brings up a big issue about zoning. Should the city play a role in allowing a commercial district to include such large residential developments right next to clubs?
BH: The problem is the rights of property owners. There are a lot of gay property owners along that street that for years, as we were developing Halsted Street, didn't want a downzoning. There is a downzoning proposed, but it does not cure the problems of what happened at the Dakota.
WCT: Can you explain the downzoning?
BH: When you have a commercial zoning, C2, C3 are still commercial, the second part of that formula the 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 determines the amount of residential that can be built above it. And when somebody buys property, they go to the bank and they get a loan based on what can be developed.
WCT: The downzoning is related to not the C designation but the 1, 2 or 3?
BH: C actually determines what goes on the first floor. So when you have that, the new building that is being built on the corner of Halsted and Cornelia could, under the current zoning, go higher. But I went to the developers, and I said, with the controversy along Halsted Street, we want to keep it lower. If you promise to build at a lower level, it would be good for the community. And he did. And he is not going up six stories, which he could have.
WCT: Do you think there is ever a risk of the Pride Parade and the heavily gay Northalsted Market Days having a problem with the changing neighborhood?
BH: As long as I am the alderman, that parade and that fair will happen.
WCT: Do you ever get pressure from the city about that parade, because it is the largest?
BH: Absolutely. Constantly. And we have been trying to make changes over the years. It is becoming a very important part of recognition of the entire community, not just a few outrageous individuals.
WCT: What kind of pressure is there?
BH: So long and so large. We limited it to 250 this year, and it will be that or less next year. We are going to try to combine some contingents if we can. The key to the whole thing is the organization, the timing and cooperation between the participants and the police and people who marshal.
WCT: There are some meetings starting about making it a whole weekend, like a lot of other cities have. In the city itself there is a hold on doing anything because of Taste of Chicago happening at the same time. Do these Pride Fest people have any hope of getting new park permits?
BH: We'd have to sit down and talk about the expansion. As you know, people start coming in on Thursday [ of Pride week ] from all over the country. We have a wonderful relationship with all the businesses, gay or straight. It's a four-day event.
WCT: People have been told by the city that no other type of fest could happen during that timeframe.
BH: Because of the strain on manpower. It's not totally out of the question, but like with the parade, we have to keep making adjustments.
WCT: What role are you playing on passing the gender-identity amendment ( so that trans individuals are covered in the city's Human Rights Ordinance ] ?
BH: I'm 100 percent in favor. I'm one of the sponsors
WCT: How long is it going to take?
BH: I don't know. Let's face it, we have [ state and federal ] elections in November [ and then city elections early in 2003 ] . I think [ trans activist ] Miranda [ Stevens-Miller ] and some of the aldermen and I foresee that in the springtime it will be a reality. It is importantwe have to make sure that we continue to work with the legislators and senators from the state to make sure that they keep coming forward in getting more educated, more in tune with what really has to be done on a state level.
WCT: Do you think it has a realistic possibility of happening in 2003?
BH: In the City Council it does. I constantly talk to aldermen about it. Some people are still a little on the fence, and I have to convince them that this is the right thing to doand I will.
Transcription by A.M.