By Igor Studenkov
For the Bugle
DePaul University student and Chicago native Bushra Amiwala is only a sophmore, but her ambitions go far beyond most of her peers.
Since March 2017, she has been running for the Cook County Board of Commissioners seat currently held by Larry Suffredin (D-13th). The district spans Skokie, Morton Grove and the Niles Township portion of Niles, as well as most of the county’s North Shore suburbs near Lake Michigan and Chicago’s Rogers Park and West Ridge neighborhoods. If elected, Amiwala would be the board’s first Muslim-American commissioner.
As Amiwala explained to the Bugle, she felt that she could bring a fresh perspective to the board, work to improve transparency and figure out ways to reduce expenses while improving the quality and effectiveness of services. As of Nov. 3, Amiwala had around twice the number of signatures legally required to get on the ballot, and she’s aiming to get enough to put her at three times the legal minimum. And while her campaign was only able to raise “a little over” $2,000 so far, she is hoping that a fundraiser scheduled for Nov. 13 at Morton Grove’s Marylin’s Restaurant at 7 p.m will help.
Amiwala is a life-long resident of the 13th District. A daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she was born in Rogers Park and spent a few years there. By the time she was 10, she and her family moved to Skokie. As she explained to the Bugle, living in two different communities showed her just how much the place where one lived could affect opportunities and access to resources, especially when it came to education.
As she got older, Amiwala became more and more socially conscious.
“At first, it was issues that affected me, issues regarding my gender and regarding my faith,” she said. “And then, I got into [issues related to access to food], and how hunger and poverty affects a lot of people. I noticed we focused on issue only on Thanksgiving, even though it’s a problem year-round.”
That is why, in November 2016, she got involved with Northside People Organized to Work, Educate and Restore (Northside POWER), an organization established by A Just Harvest, a Rogers Park-based non-profit working to end hunger in Chicago and the North Shore suburbs.
“ I worked with political side of hunger with Northside POWER [to lobby against] a legislation that was debated, that would be cutting funding for food stamps and government benefits,” Amiwala recalled. “I remember realizing that the amount that’s being set aside for those people was already limited, and [the legislation] was extremely detrimental to this population.”
Her campaign website also mentioned that, while volunteering with Northside POWER, she also lobbied for more educational funding.
Amiwala told the Bugle that her experience with the organization made her realize just how important legislation was in average people’s lives.
“I realized that Cook County, especially Cook County board, had officials who had there for long time,” she said. “And [Cook County Commissioner] is one of those positions that is often overlooked. Just having that link, [between] community members and someone who is already in power – I felt that link was missing. And I felt Cook County was a good place to start.”
One of the major reasons why she was running, Aniwala said, was that, as a young Muslim woman and a daughter of immigrants, she could bring a perspective that no one else on the current board has.
“We have same people making decisions that people feel don’t speak on their behalf,” she said.
Another major priority for Aniwala is saving money and improving services – something that, she said, goes hand-in-hand. The Cook County Jail, for example, is one of the county’s largest expenditures, and she would work to reduce it. Helping former inmates find stable, productive lives, so they are less likely to return to crime, would be a major part of it.
“When people are let of jail – there’s no way to really get back into society,” she said. And that’s one of the things Cook County should provide – jobs opportunities and programs that should help them assimilate into society.”
Amiwala also feels that the county board needs to take a hard look at its programs to see if the money is being spent effectively. She cited CountyCare, a Medicaid expansion program run by the Cook County Health and Hospitals Systems for individuals whose income isn’t low enough to qualify for regular Medicaid, but isn’t higher than the 133 percent of federal poverty level threshold.
(In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter is enrolled in CountyCare)
“CountryCare, iss not being utilized to the fullest extent,” Amiwala said. “[Many DePaul students I spoke to] didn’t know it was resource being offered or even exists. If it isn’t a resource that is being utilized, where is this money going?”
That is why, she said, she was in favor of more transparency in Cook County government. If the resource is there, Amiwala added, residents should be aware of it.
When asked about the Cook County minimum wage increase, which was approved last year and while Suffredin vocally supported, Aniwala said that she supported it as well.
“I think min wage increase is actually a good thing. I think current [state] minimum wage is not a living wage. I don’t think it hurts small business in long run. I think minimum wage increase is necessary, especially for people with low incomes who have to work multiple jobs just to make a living.”
When asked about the recently repealed Cook County sweetened beverage tax, Amiwala said that she opposed it because she felt it disproportionately affected low-income residents, for whom every penny counted.
“The [rationale] behind this tax is that it helps end and prevent childhood obesity,” she said. “What happened instead is that it take money from people who already could not afford it.”
However, Amiwala added that she refused to take a large contribution from Citizens for a More Affordable Cook County Political Action Committee because its major backers were large soda and beverage companies such as Coca Cola and Pepsico.
At the time Amiwala started her campaign, she was the only candidate running against Suffredin, so whoever won the Democratic Party primary would have won the general election by default. Since then, former Village of Niles trustee Chris Hanusiak entered the race as a Republican. Amiwala admitted that she wasn’t familiar with his platform, but, generally speaking, she didn’t believe a Republican commissioner was right for the district.
I don’t think a Republican in this district is solutions to the problem, especially someone who doesn’t understand the background in segregation and discrimination, and understands that it’s a system,” she said. “We need someone [who does], not someone who’s exactly like any other person on the county board.”