By Justin Agrelo
More than 200 people piled into the basement of St. Pius V Church in Pilsen, braving snow and frigid Chicago temperatures. They came to hear five young candidates vying to be the next 25th Ward Alderman speak about housing issues.
Candidates, community members, and media all gathered at a public forum in late January hosted by a collective of community organizations from around the city.
The 25th Ward aldermanic election has been one of the most talked about city races this year. And at the center of all that talk is the ward’s current alderman, Danny Solis. A 22-year incumbent, Solis made headlines for wearing a FBI wire that aided the feds in their criminal investigation of Ald. Edward Burke (14th). Burke has since been charged with extortion for an alleged shakedown of a Burger King in his ward.
Solis upstaged the housing issues at the forum, even though he wasn’t there.
The spotlight on the 25th ward’s election began last November when Solis unexpectedly announced he would not be seeking re-election.
Solis’ departure came not long after his longtime friend and political ally Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he too would not be running for re-election.
Solis’ and Rahm’s unexpected departures have ushered in a pivotal moment for Chicago politics, bringing a city that has long been plagued with inequity and violence to a crossroads.
With two of the city’s longtime and most powerful political titans leaving office, a new political era has brought many younger candidates to these and other races across the city, with 14 candidates running for the mayor’s spot alone.
For the 25th ward, which represents Pilsen, Chinatown, Tri-Taylor and parts of Little Italy, the West Loop, Heart of Chicago and McKinley Park, this new era means that the next alderman will be a millennial who, based on Thursday night’s conversation, claims few ties to Chicago’s political machine.
At the forum, the five aldermanic hopefuls—researcher Byron Sigcho, former school principal Aida Flores, nurse Alex Acevedo, scientist Troy Hernandez, and educator Hilario Dominguez—all used their time with community members to distance themselves from the now disgraced Alderman Solis. In late January, the Chicago Sun- Times reported that Solis seemed to have agreed to wear the FBI wire to shield himself from charges for allegedly receiving sex acts, Viagra, and campaign contributions in exchange for political favors.
Sigcho, a longtime Pilsen resident and community organizer, used his opening statement to position himself .
“So often times they said that we are ‘radical’ or whatever Alderman Solis used to say about us,” Sigcho said. “I wasn’t writing nice statements congratulating the alderman for the nice work that he’s done. I was there [years ago] to hold him accountable. This is a personal fight. This is a fight for survival in our city. This is a fight for the working class.”
The mood in the room shifted when the questioning opened up to audience members.
Lifelong Pilsen resident and Sigcho supporter Victoria Romero, pressed candidates (with the exception of Sigcho) for not being active enough at community meetings with developers. Romero said she believed candidates “haven’t been walking the walk” and that they were “just talking the talk.”
The room lit up in applause as Romero explained what she believed to be problematic behavior from the candidates in community meetings.
“I have to say that the majority of the candidates up here – I’ve never seen them at those meetings,” Romero said. “At these community meetings where some of you have shown up, why don’t you ever speak up against the developers who want to come in and take advantage? You sit there and let the one agency take the heat and stand up for the community while the rest of you sit idly by waiting for your opportunity to get to the dinner table. My question is where have you been?”
In response to Romero’s question, each candidate took turns explaining their connection to the 25th Ward.
“I’ve been an educator,” Flores responded. “I’ve been in schools the past nine years. my focus has been directly on serving students and their families.”
Hernandez, who is a volunteer director of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (P.E.R.R.O.), listed his work on the school council at Pilsen Academy. Acevedo highlighted his lifetime Pilsen residency along with helping create a community watch group. Hilario Dominguez recalled a walk-out he led as a 17-year-old high school student to fight for more school funding.
When the microphone reached Sigcho, he too listed his community work, but quickly critiqued his opponents for spewing off examples of volunteer work in response to a question about government transparency.
“It’s not only about your work,” Sigcho said. “I also sat on school councils in my free time. What I will not tolerate is to speak about transparency [while being] linked to Alderman Solis. That I will not tolerate. That is disgusting. This is about transparency.”
Following Sigcho’s critique, another community member asked Aida Flores and Hilario Dominguez for what she believed to be their public support of Solis.
She asked Dominguez about a march in 2017 where he and Solis were both in attendance and where Dominguez seemed to be “supporting” and “promoting” the alderman.
Dominguez explained that the event was meant to hold Solis accountable to upholding a 21 percent affordable housing mandate plan, not to promote Solis. “The purpose of that march was never, ever to highlight an alderman,” Dominguez said. “The purpose was to hold him accountable. We wanted to have him to (promise) loud to everyone so we could hold him accountable. That’s all that was.”
Flores was asked about photos where Flores is allegedly standing “arm in arm” with Solis.
Flores said she jumped into the race long before Solis announced his retirement and that her campaign has never been about “bashing the alderman.”
“This community has already been fragmented for so long,” Flores said. “I fundamentally believe in my heart that you don’t lead with anger. You have to lead with love.”
Some audience members disapproved of Flores’ answers shouting “not in politics” as she spoke about leading with “love.”
“This is not about being divisive. This is not about bringing people from different sides [together] or love,” Sigcho rebutted. “This is about fighting corruption. That’s what this is about.”
The night carried on with several audience questions and ended with a chance for audience members to meet each candidate.
Chicagoans go to the polls to vote for a mayor and aldermen on Tuesday, Feb. 26.