There’s never been a Chicago politician who quite fits the profile of Andre Vasquez, the former battle rapper and current democratic socialist who just took down veteran 40th Ward Ald. Patrick O’Connor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s city council floor leader.
That probably scares some people.
But those folks might want to nod to the wisdom of the 54 percent of voters in the North Side ward who waded through an onslaught of attack ads and concluded they have nothing to fear from the 39-year-old AT&T account manager, his music or his politics.
I stopped by Vasquez’s campaign office to satisfy my own curiosity about this new breed of aldermen. Vasquez will be part of a Chicago City Council bloc of at least five, probably six democratic socialists who, if nothing else, will alter the debate on a range of issues.
Vazquez said he understands democratic socialism as “just injecting a healthy dose of democracy in a system we already have.
“Where we see the influence of big money and corporations in our government, where we see the corruption in the council, where we see elected officials as bought and paid for, to me, democratic socialism is providing a counterbalance,” he said.
Vasquez also reminded me that generalizing about democratic socialists is as foolish as generalizing about Democrats.
“I think even within democratic socialism there’s such a spectrum of different folks, right? I tend to be a counterbalance to some of the louder stuff, the louder hardcore, what some would view as extreme,” said Vasquez, noting that he sometimes takes flak within democratic socialist circles because he’s never read Marx and doesn’t “bleed rose red.”
“Everyone’s got their part to play,” he said. “Somebody’s going to be the loud one in the room because you need that kind of impetus to move things forward. And someone’s got to be the one who’s making deals on legislation. You can’t have ideological fights and think you’re going to come up with solutions.”
Though Vasquez prefers the dealmaker role, his background suggests he also could get loud if the occasion demanded.
Until he decided it was time to do something else with his life around 2010, Vasquez was a battle rapper who performed under the stage name Prime. He had enough success to pay the bills for a while, touring nationally and appearing on MTV’s “Direct Effect” and HBO’s “Blaze Battle.”
For old people like me who are unclear on the concept (begging the pardon of the rest of you), battle rapping involves performers trading insults in rhyme put to music.
“Then, imagine you have a crowd around you,” Vasquez explained. “And now people are cheering you on, and the insults are getting more vicious and intricate, and it becomes a sporting match. Right? So, in that arena, you’re getting heralded for how well you can insult the person in front of you while rhyming and improvising all as this stream of consciousness is coming out.”
I suggested a battle rap might occasionally be just the antidote to the drudgery of a council meeting, but Vasquez wasn’t amused.
The problem with battle rapping, as 40th Ward voters were reminded ad nauseam during the runoff campaign, is that the genre relies heavily on crude insults invoking disrespectful terms for women and LGBTQ individuals.
“The issue is toxic masculinity plagues everything,” said Vasquez, who obliquely fronted an apology for his past verbal misdeeds early in the campaign — and more directly when hit with a barrage of negative mailers detailing a greatest hits of his transgressions.
A lesser candidate would have been toast at that point, but Vasquez had girded himself in advance through his door-to-door organizing.
By then, enough 40th Ward residents knew who Vasquez really was — the son of Guatemalan immigrants, a city kid from the neighborhoods who had become a family guy with two young kids and a late-discovered talent for politics — that they couldn’t be scared off.
Vasquez, who lives in Edgewater, was introduced to politics when he felt the Bern in 2014 and volunteered for Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. A left-leaning community group, Reclaim Chicago, then recruited Vasquez to expand upon his organizing talents — and taught him how to build a classic grassroots campaign.
The result is a new Latino alderman in a ward where fewer than one-fifth of the voters are Latino. And a Democratic Socialist representing a ward previously ruled by Emanuel’s floor leader.
“I’m not trying to plant a flag,” Vasquez said. “I’m trying to make sure that people can live here and not be forced out.”