While passing out campaign signs as a volunteer for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s 2015 mayoral bid, Aaron Ortiz bumped into a few of the political workers who’ve controlled his neighborhood for decades.
They were foot soldiers in the 14th Ward Regular Democratic Organization of powerful Ald. Ed Burke. They wanted Ortiz to know he was on their turf. And they advised him he might have brighter prospects with them.
“Burke’s precinct captains told me, ‘We have the strongest organization in the city of Chicago,’” Ortiz recalled this week. “They said, ‘Bring your resume. We’ll get you a job.’”
Rather than accepting the offer from the 14th Ward precinct captains and angling for a patronage job, Ortiz is running for office for the first time in next month’s Democratic primary — challenging Burke’s brother, state Rep. Dan Burke.
The incumbent took office 27 years ago. Dan Burke, 66, was first elected before Ortiz, 26, was even alive yet.
The Chicago-born Ortiz says his Mexican immigrant parents — dad is a forklift operator, mom a school lunch lady — guided his path in American politics by teaching him that the democratic process in Mexico is essentially “rigged.”
“Understanding that the same system is here in Chicago, it wasn’t something I wanted to be part of,” Ortiz says when asked why he spurned his chance to join the 14th Ward Democrats.
The race between Ortiz and Dan Burke is one of several battles this primary season in the long-running war between independent, progressive Latinos and their rivals who have aligned with the white establishment in Southwest Side Democratic politics.
Ortiz is part of a coordinated campaign effort led by Garcia, the Cook County commissioner who’s a candidate to replace Luis Gutierrez in Congress. Also on the same team are Alma Anaya, the Garcia aide who wants to succeed him on the County Board, and Beatriz Frausto-Sandoval, an immigration lawyer running for judge.
The Southwest Side’s power brokers claim to work for the whole community, Ortiz says, even though “it’s all about them empowering themselves.”
Ortiz says he’s especially offended that Ed Burke’s law firm has represented the Trump Tower in property-tax appeal cases since 2006.
Sun-Times reporter Tim Novak has detailed how Ed Burke has shaved more than $14.1 million off the Trump Tower tax bills and is suing for deeper cuts for Trump.
“The people who understand this is occurring feel very disrespected,” says Ortiz, who went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and now works as a college counselor and soccer coach at Back of the Yards High School.
“When you’re representing a district that’s predominantly Latino, and you have a president that’s bashing Latinos, I expect you to ask your brother to stop representing [Trump],” Ortiz says of Dan Burke.
Dan Burke replied that he has “nothing whatsoever to do with my brother’s legal business” or Trump — but he said Ed Burke’s firm has ceased representing Trump.
As of Friday, court records indicated that Ed Burke continued to represent the Trump Tower. Neither Ed Burke nor the Trump Organization returned messages seeking comment Friday.
Dan Burke says he’s confident he will win re-election again based on his “remarkable” record of accomplishments. The first thing he boasts of: Supporting a $98 million grant in 2009 to build new United Neighborhood Organization charter schools, which serve mostly Latino students.
But state officials froze the last $15 million from the grant because the Chicago Sun-Times revealed insider deals paid for with the taxpayer subsidy. And UNO later settled civil charges of defrauding bond investors in a federal case brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Dan Burke also suggests Ortiz is far too green to do the job and is presenting unattainable proposals.
Though the district is 67 percent Latino, Burke noted that the boundaries have been redrawn since he was nearly defeated by Rudy Lozano Jr. in 2010. The district was more heavily Latino at that time, before the predominantly Mexican Little Village area was moved into another district.
“I have no issue with people of the majority seeking public office, but not characters like this Mr. Ortiz,” Dan Burke says. “He knows no one in the whole legislative process. It’s kind of bizarre.”
The state representative might have found it less bizarre if Ortiz had joined him, his brother and the rest of the 14th Ward’s regular Democrats.
Instead, Ortiz wants to beat them.