Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) and Daniel Solis (25th) are heading out the door with their reputations in tatters, tarnished by scandal and federal allegations.
Vying to replace them in the April runoff election are two activists, a teacher, and a nurse.
Whoever comes out on top in each ward will have the future of rapidly changing neighborhoods in their hands. They’ll also have to reunite fragmented communities that have learned to distrust City Hall.
In the 25th Ward, organizer Byron Sigcho-Lopez will face off against Alex Acevedo, a registered nurse and son of former state Rep. Eddie Acevedo.
The ward encompasses Chinatown, Little Italy, Pilsen, and swaths of the Near West Side and West Loop.
In November, Solis said he would not seek re-election in 2019, bringing an end to his 23-year tenure at City Hall.
Two months later, the Sun-Times revealed that Solis was cooperating with federal investigators in the corruption probe of Ald. Ed Burke (14th). No charges have been filed publicly against Solis, but a 2016 federal affidavit lays out the case against the veteran alderman, alleging that Solis had for years received sexual favors and campaign contributions in exchange for his help with city business.
The specter of Solis loomed over the February election. Sigcho-Lopez, a fierce Solis critic for nearly a decade, came out on top with 28 percent of the vote to Acevedo’s 22 percent.
Both candidates enter the runoff with political baggage.
On Election Day, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office opened an investigation into alleged vote buying by some of Sigcho-Lopez’s supporters.
Sigcho-Lopez has denied any involvement.
“I’m very certain those efforts have nothing to do with my campaign, and I’m certain that’s what the [attorney general] is going to find,” he said.
Acevedo carries the stigma of being the son of a politician with ties to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s old tainted Hispanic Democratic Organization in a year when progressive outsiders made large headways across the city.
Acevedo said his family’s political past is irrelevant.
“I chose a path of service as a nurse in healthcare. I didn’t follow down the same path as my father. I chose to be a nurse … because I wanted to make a difference,” he said.
Sigcho-Lopez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He believes the organization, which supported Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful New York congressional campaign, will help him in his City Council race.
“Those ideas are highly popular among the 25th Ward — Bernie Sanders received 60 percent of the vote in the 25th Ward,” he said. “We have seen many DSA members who are now in run-offs, and our responsibility is not with ideology — at the aldermen level, our responsibility is to make sure we are responsive, that we are a government that restores trust in the public.”
Gentrification weighs heavily on the minds of many 25th Ward residents. Skyrocketing rents and property taxes have chased out thousands of residents over the last decade, especially in Pilsen.
Sigcho-Lopez has vowed not to take campaign contributions from real estate developers, arguing it would “open the door to corrupt, quid-pro-quo practices of the past.”
Acevedo makes no apologies for accepting donations from developers, including $10,000 from Jim Letchinger, who has built some of the city’s most expensive high-rise apartment buildings and condominiums.
“I will not be beholden to anyone or any single developer,” Acevedo said.
Unions have helped finance Sigcho-Lopez’s campaign. The Chicago Teachers Union has contributed $27,500, and SEIU Local 73 has given $25,000.
When asked about a possible teacher strike over the next four years, Sigcho-Lopez said he would not bow down to the unions’ demands.
“I will be on the side of the residents of the 25th Ward,” he said.
In the South’s Side’s 20th Ward, voters will choose between two women to replace Cochran, a 12-year incumbent facing a 15-count indictment accusing him of fraud, extortion and federal program bribery.
The candidates are Jeanette Taylor, a longtime activist best known for leading a month-long hunger strike to save Dyett High School from the wrecking ball, and Nicole Johnson, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and self-described “community development consultant.”
Taylor took 28 percent of the vote on Feb. 26 to Johnson’s 21 percent. The ward includes parts of Woodlawn, Englewood, Back of the Yards and Washington Park.
The ward has weathered decades of disinvestment and high poverty rates. Both candidates are eager to help bring greater economic development to their communities and to be an outspoken champion of neighborhood schools at City Hall.
“I’m running because we deserve better — we deserve exceptional schools, economic empowerment, and safe communities,” Johnson said.
On the east side of the ward, a new hotel funded by the University of Chicago near the proposed site of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park promises to deliver many jobs for area residents.
But the mega-projects also carry fears of displacement of longtime community members.
Both candidates back a proposed ordinance designed to get the university and the Obama Foundation to invest in nearby schools and public amenities.
Taylor has been at the forefront of protests calling on the Obama Foundation to sign on to a laundry list of community demands.
“There’s always talk of me being against the [Obama Presidential Center], but that’s not it — it’s about the community having a say on what comes to our community,” she said.
Johnson has received financial backing from state Sen. Mattie Hunter and Chance the Rapper.
She was also recently endorsed by mayoral candidate Willie Wilson, who carried the ward in the February election with 29 percent of the vote.
Taylor has received nearly $130,000 in campaign donations from labor unions as well as $21,500 from United Working Families.
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.