Chicago’s City Hall could be in line for some big changes. Come April, when the aldermanic races are over, there’s a heightened likelihood of a shake-up in the City Council with a still-unfolding federal corruption scandal, a handful of significant retirements, and a national movement within the Democratic Party toward more progressive policies.
Voters could shift political power dynamics within City Hall in fundamental ways, kicking out the old guard in favor of a new approach. One place where this choice is playing out is in Chicago’s 30th Ward.
Below are a few key themes in that Northwest Side race that reflect larger trends in this year’s local elections.
Progressives take on the Chicago Machine
Jessica Gutierrez, the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, is challenging one of Chicago’s longest-serving Latino aldermen. Ald. Ariel Reboyras was elected 16 years ago with the help of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization. He worked in city government for years before that.
“I’ll have 40 years in city government in April,” Reboyras said. “I’ve been through probably five mayors and seven departments. I was a deputy commissioner when I ran for alderman, not knowing I was going to run for alderman. It wasn’t my idea, but here I am, enjoying every bit of it.”
Reboyras has an old-school approach to the job of alderman, focusing mostly on neighborhood issues, like keeping the streets clean. Political strategist Xavier Nogueras described him as a “make no waves” kind of guy.
But Gutierrez and many other young, progressive candidates across the city want to broaden the job of alderman far beyond constituent services. They’re highlighting the legislative part of the job, pushing citywide policies like a $15 minimum wage and an elected school board.
“We need aldermen that are not set to auto approve,” Gutierrez said. “The only thing I want set to auto is my alarm clock in the morning, you know, wake me up at the same time every day. If we’re going to have an auto-approve alderman, let’s send a robot and save our tax dollars.”
There are several other wards where the same dynamics of old vs. new are at play. Ald. Ed Burke, 14th, has been in office 50 years and now faces two young Latino challengers, 38-year-old Jaime Guzman and 28-year-old Tanya Patiño, who, like Jessica Gutierrez, is backed by U.S. Rep. Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia.
Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), the second longest serving alderman, has four challengers, three of whom are under 40 and backed by different progressive groups.
And in the 25th Ward, the retirement of City Hall veteran Ald. Danny Solis (25th) created an open race with five Latino millennial candidates vying for his seat.
Of all the young, progressive candidates, Gutierrez doesn’t represent the cleanest break from the past. After all, many sons and daughters of Chicago politicians have gotten into office by appointment. Gutierrez said she wasn’t interested in that. “I’m going to win because the people are going to chose me.”
Luis Gutierrez also stands apart because he is popular in Chicago for his progressive politics, particularly in the ward where his daughter is running.
But with so many people running as “progressives” this election, what does that word mean? Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, chairs the City Council’s Progressive Caucus and has been keeping an eye on many of these candidates.
“There are a lot of people running right now that say they want to be progressives,” Waguespack said, adding that not everyone who calls themselves progressive is actually talking about the same issues.
While Reboyras and other longtime aldermen hope their records on neighborhood services are enough to hold onto their seats, many recognize there will be changes.
“It’s going to be a different day, different world in City Council here in Chicago,” Reboyras said. “The entire city could change.”
Lots of Latinos, millennials running for office
Chicago’s Latino population has grown rapidly over the last several decades and, with it, so has the number of Latino elected officials.
There are currently a dozen Latino aldermen. There’s also a Latina city clerk. Two of the 14 candidates for mayor are Latino — Gery Chico and Susana Mendoza — and a few dozen of the 160 aldermanic candidates are Latino. (Candidates don’t declare their race or ethnicity to the board of elections, but many do with voters via their campaign materials.)
The number of Latino candidates is pretty similar to 2015, but many of this year’s candidates are millennials, as well. According to data provided by the Chicago Board of Elections, about a third of all aldermanic candidates are under 40. Two are running in the 30th: Gutierrez, who is 31, and 23-year-old Edgar ‘Edek’ Esparza.
Reboyras is happy to see young people — particularly Latinos — involved in politics but wants them to get some experience in city government first.
“We need more of them, but I think we all have to start from the bottom and move our way up, and I think that age group just wants to go right to the top,” he said.
Nogueras, the political strategist, said Latino voter turnout tends to lag as a percentage of the total vote in Chicago elections, but the population has grown enough that they can’t be ignored.
"There’s no doubt that Latino, young Latino voters are finally coming into the fold,” Nogueras said. “They’re going to have their day. There's a new generation coming up and they’re going to start questioning some things. And we don't know. Everyone assumes that they’re going to be more progressive. But they may not be.”
The 30th Ward, like five others, has only Latino candidates running, guaranteeing Latino representation for those majority Latino neighborhoods in City Council for the next four years.
But that could change in four years. That’s because, in 2020, there’s a little thing called a census. And after everyone is counted, the new mayor and members of the newly seated council will embark on a big political effort known as a remap. This means all the current ward boundaries, including the 30th, are likely to change.
The last remap has been criticized for the way some wards ended up gerrymandered. The City Council’s Black Caucus focused on preserving representation despite a dramatic drop in the black population. In the end, the Black Caucus lost two wards and the Latino Caucus gained two. That shift is likely to continue in the next remap and, as most remaps go, there will be drama in the map room.
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.