Two years ago, a last-minute boost in the Hispanic population of the Southwest Side’s 23rd Ward — from 54 to over 60 percent — sealed the deal on a new Chicago ward map that passed the City Council without a vote to spare.
Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), a nearly 20-year veteran and former president pro tem, became the sacrificial lamb, in part, because of persistent rumors that he would not seek re-election.
On Wednesday, Zalewski put those rumors to rest as loudly as he possibly can.
The Aviation Committee chairman declared his intention to seek re-election to a fifth term in the City Council with a rare public endorsement from powerful Il. House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).
“I am endorsing Mike Zalewski because he has been a strong and effective leader for our community…Ald. Zalewski has a proven record of getting things done,” Madigan was quoted as saying in a press release issued by the alderman’s office.
The voting age population of Zalewski’s newly re-drawn ward is 62 percent Hispanic, up from 47 percent under the old boundaries. The eastern third of the ward is totally new, having picked up seven precincts in Madigan’s home 13th Ward and two precincts each from the 14th, 15th and 16th Wards.
Zalewski bitterly opposed the changes and felt dis-respected by them. But, he firmly believes he can and will win in the majority Hispanic ward that now runs all the way east to Kedzie and includes portions of West Lawn and Marquette Park.
He also wants to stick around to help confront the city’s $20 billion pension crisis.
“It’s easy to be a City Council member when there’s plenty of money like in the `90’s. But, when tough decisions have to be made, you need people who have experience and aren’t afraid to make those tough decisions,” he said.
Next year, the city will be required by state law to make a $600 million contribution to stabilize police and fire pension funds that now have assets to cover just 30.5 and 25 percent of their respective liabilities.
Emanuel wants the Il. General Assembly to put off the balloon payment until 2023 to give the city time to negotiate cost-cutting pension reforms with organized labor.
Zalewski, whose Southwest Side ward is home to scores of police officers and firefighters, does not support that delay.
“If we put it off, the public looks at you and says, `You guys are just trying to get past the next election,’ “ he said.
“I’m ready to be part of a solution in the City Council.”
Last year, Zalewski raised red flags about the privatization of Midway Airport, which is located in his Southwest Side ward.
He was concerned that a private contractor might shoehorn more late-night flights into the land-locked airport, making life miserable for Southwest Side residents whose homes did not qualify for city sound-proofing.
Two weeks later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel grounded the privatization of Midway after one of only two remaining bidders dropped out of the high-stakes competition.
On Wednesday, Zalewski said he does not believe his opposition played any role in the collapse of a deal that could have left the city with $500 million to shore up city pensions, even after airport debt was retired.
And the alderman said he’s not sticking around just to prevent the Midway privatization deal from being revived.
“The deal fell apart on its own. And the mayor has told me he doesn’t think it’s ever coming back. I agree. The window of opportunity for Midway is closed,” he said.