Q&A: Evanston’s New Mayor Daniel Biss Talks Recovery From The Pandemic, Affordable Housing and Social Justice

Downtown Evanston Overhead view

As Daniel Biss began his new role as mayor of Evanston he shared a few thoughts on plans for the city’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, middle class housing affordability and young activists.

Daniel Biss Headshot Evanston Mayor
Daniel Biss

Biss, 43, moved to Evanston in 2006 with his wife, Karen, and the family grew to include two children who today are 11 and 12 years old. He began his career as a math professor at the University of Chicago and said, with a laugh, he then suffered a “mid-life crisis” which led him into politics. Up until 2009, Biss served eight years as an Illinois legislator. Biss made the leap into politics because “The world was spinning out of control … I had to stand up and do something about it. It wasn’t enough to be disappointed so I started organizing and that led to running for politics.

“If you would have asked 15-year-old me (if he would have gone into politics) I would have said ‘no way in the world,’ but life is surprising sometimes.” 

Today, he works as a clean energy campaign consultant for The Energy Foundation, a national non-profit focusing on climate work.

We asked Biss to share a few more thoughts about Evanston and his plans for his time in office.

What are your top priorities for Evanston as you begin your role as mayor?

Merrick Rose Garden Evanston Fountain
Merrick Rose Garden in Evanston

We are coming out of a pandemic and recovery from that has to come first and that means physical health, mental health and social togetherness. Look at what happened to older adults living in total isolation and children out of school, that social and mental health recovery is critical as is the economic recovery. There are a lot of storefronts to fill. I am anticipating a robust recovery, stronger than before. I was moved to run for mayor based on issues of reimagining public safety and policing and really tackling affordable housing. Evanston is fortunate in that people want to move here and they want to stay here and they can’t always afford to do so. We need to make Evanston desirable to those different groups of people.

What’s something great about Evanston that people who don’t live there might not know?

Grosse Point Lighthouse Evanston
Grosse Point Lighthouse

We have a really long tradition of a strong, tight-knit Black community that has been here for the better part of the century. This is a community that has built up a cultural institution and a real social fabric and a sense of history and pride. This is something that makes us who we are and makes us a city that I love. We are working on reparations, it’s a big project. I am proud of that and the whole country is watching. We are a town of 75,000 people and part of leading a conversation across the country that our country needs badly and that we take a lot of pride in.

What’s something that needs improvement and how will you address it?

There are a lot of middle-class families that would love to live in Evanston, and we don’t have enough housing affordable for truly middle-class, working families. If we could solve that problem that would solve so many other problems. It would grow our tax base and solve some budget problems and make Evanston more culturally vibrant, more diverse.

If you had a day to spend in Evanston and the weather was perfect, where would you go and what would you do? 

Fountain Square Downtown Evanston
Fountain Square in downtown Evanston | Photo courtesy of Patrick Hughes Jr.

I would go for a bike ride with my family all around town and visit all the beautiful spots around our community.

Who is someone in Evanston who inspires you and why?

The incredible young activists in Evanston, especially those who have taken hold of the conversation after the murder of George Floyd. They are totally clear in their minds about what is right and how important it is to fight for what is right and I find that incredibly inspiring.

What is your favorite charitable cause or causes? 

At the end of each year we sit with our kids and discuss what we want to focus on. We often donate to causes focusing on issues of racial justice or justice for the LGBT community especially transgender and non-binary people.

What do you want the residents of Evanston to know about you as you step in to your new role? 

I am completely, fanatically, half pathologically committed to the idea that governance is a collective activity. I am incredibly honored that they voted for me to take on this role but now comes the real collaboration. I just hope people are willing to be a part of this transformation that we want to make in Evanston. It will not work if just officials are dictating, it will only really work if it is a partnership across the community. Hold me accountable, let me know if I miss something. I am only going to do this well if I know more a year from now than I do now.  

What is a fun little-known fact about you?

Cardboard City Daniel Biss Evanston Mayor

Last summer, before I’d given much thought to run for mayor, my 12-year-old son said “Daddy, let’s build a city together out of cardboard.” We embarked on this project … and wound up making a whole city out of cardboard and in the middle of that I decided to run for mayor. Also, in high school I was a semi-professional juggler in a local circus in Indiana.

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Amanda Marrazzo lives in the northwest Chicago suburb of Algonquin. She has been a news reporter for 25 years, including 17 years writing for the Chicago Tribune. She is married with two adult daughters and two dogs.

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