Chicago’s March primary will feature 17 contested races for Democratic Party committeeperson

People might not know why the party post is important. But the candidates who are running say they see it as a way to be more inclusive and maybe make a statement about corruption, too.

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Illinois Representative Aaron Ortiz leaves a campaign flyer between the door and the frame at a home in Chicago’s 14th Ward during his canvas of the 14th Ward for his election campaign for the 14th Ward Committeeperson, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Chicago. Ortiz estimates he’s been to hundreds of homes in this neighborhood so far this election cycle. | Tyler LaRiviere/For Sun-Times

First-term state Rep. Aaron Ortiz ousted former state Rep. Dan Burke nearly a year ago to win his seat in the Illinois House. Now, in a David-vs.-Goliath fight, he’s aiming to end the reign of Burke’s brother, indicted Ald. Edward M. Burke, as 14th Ward committeeperson.

The 14th ward race is one of the highest-profile of the 17 contested races for Democratic ward committeeperson that will be on the March primary ballot.

Former Ald. Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the role used to involve largely moving in lockstep with whatever former Mayor Richard J. Daley wanted. Loyalty was rewarded via patronage, putting friends or family members into city jobs.

Though patronage has been curbed thanks to federal decrees barring political considerations in hiring decisions, aldermen still want the post of committeeperson to help make sure the Cook County Democratic Party doesn’t endorse anyone else to run against them, Simpson said.

Dick Simpson.

Dick Simpson.

UIC

The responsibilities of the post largely involve slating candidates and getting people registered to vote and to support the party’s slate.

But that’s changed, according to Simpson, as more political progressives have been elected to the party’s ranks who are “changing the style and the way the party does business — but not in every ward; only in some of the wards.”

In the 14th ward, Ortiz is playing the corruption card, pointing to the federal racketeering and bribery charges that Burke is facing, among them being accused of using his powerful city post to get private legal business.

People “don’t trust someone under a cloud of corruption,” Ortiz said. “People are tired of the same old corruption.”

Beyond that, he points to the heavily Latino makeup of the ward, saying, “The 14th Ward is 85 percent Latino, and I believe the current ward committeeperson doesn’t reflect the changes in the community that have happened in the past 30 years.

“I’ve seen many older Latino women who remind me of my mother, who can’t vote, but someone not being able to vote because they’re not able to understand the language is a form of voter suppression,” Ortiz said. “They need to understand why the process is important.”

Burke didn’t respond to efforts to reach him. Nor did the other candidate in the ward race, Alicia Elena Martinez, who’s also running against Ortiz for state rep.

Among the other contested ward races, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) and Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th) all face challenges to keep their Democratic Party committee posts. Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) will have to fend off two challengers to succeed former State Rep. Luis Arroyo in that ward.

Cleopatra Watson, a former aldermanic candidate who’s running against Beale, is promising “new leadership.”

Juan “Johnny” Elias, who hopes to unseat Reboyras, said the incumbent “has had years to make a difference, and he hasn’t. Instead, he’s used his position to do anything Joe Berrios and Toni Preckwinkle wanted.”

Reboyras said Elias has “no clue what he’s talking about” and is “just looking for something he can run on, and that’s fine.”

The March primary — in which voters can vote only for the committeeperson to represent their ward —also will feature a rematch between Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and state Sen. Antonio Muñoz, who also faced each other for the post in 2016, when Muñoz won.

Cardenas said the Democratic Party has “lost some of the luster” that used to get people excited to vote. He promises more town hall meetings, saying, “I want people to be engaged and energized to be part of the democratic process.”

Munoz points to his record working to support public safety and looking out for the community. He said he’s “looking forward to facing Ald. Cardenas again, and I like my chances.”

Ald. Daniel La Spata (left) and Ald. Felix Cardona Jr., seen before the start of their first Chicago City Council meeting last May 29, are among new aldermen running for Democratic Party ward committeeperson posts.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (left) and Ald. Felix Cardona Jr., seen before the start of their first Chicago City Council meeting last May 29, are among new aldermen running for Democratic Party ward committeeperson posts.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Freshman Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), who is one of the Democratic Socialists on the Chicago City Council, is facing Jay Ramirez, a former police officer and frequent volunteer for former Ald. Joe Moreno’s organization, and Lauren “Young” Weber.

La Spata said he’s aiming to “build a real independent political organization and really vest a lot of that power” in the community when it comes to picking who to slate or appoint.

“It’s an opportunity to build a civic, political analysis for communities to make sure people are turning out to vote because they see a new vision for what our city and state can be,” La Spata said.

Ramirez, who said he has lived in the neighborhood his entire life, was a volunteer in Moreno’s ward organization. He said he wants to make sure the ward has “enough resources” to “make elections work better than they have.”

Newly elected Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) will face former aldermanic candidate and community organizer Maggie O’Keefe for that ward’s party post. They are vying to replace former Ald. Pat O’Connor, who still holds the party committeeperson post but isn’t seeking reelection.

“We need to have more voices in democracy, not fewer,” O’Keefe said. “It’s important that the offices remain separate because we haven’t had that in over 35 year.”

Maggie O’Keefe.

Maggie O’Keefe.

Rich Hein / Sun-Times

She said she would endorse candidates who embody the values that are embraced by the ward’s residents, including protecting reproductive rights and the LGBTQ community, and supporting candidates to make “our city more progressive and active.”

Vasquez said the main concern of the committeeperson should be making sure residents are represented.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th).

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th).

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

“What people are more concerned about are conflicts of interest,” Vasquez said. “It’s not necessarily one person being in both [posts]. It’s: How does that unfairly game the system? How are you benefiting yourself, rather than representing folks? And that’s why we wanted to make sure we have a model where neighbors are part of a board or a council that votes on endorsements, votes on filling in vacancies and votes on slating of the judges.”

Vasquez pointed to the neighboring 47th Ward and the 49th Ward as models to emulate for involving the community in elections. He said he would hold town hall meetings and poetry nights to try to reach a broader swath of ward residents.

Other new aldermen running for the party position include Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Ald. James “Jim” Gardiner (45th) and Ald. Felix Cardona (31st), who would replace former Cook County Democratic Party boss Joseph Berrios, the former county assessor.

Simpson said he thinks many of the progressive aldermen running for committeeperson could win and that that would result in “more debate and more discussion” in a party that’s already seeing a great deal of change.

Ortiz said winning his race is “going to take a lot of work” and that people have asked how he thinks he can defeat the well-funded Burke.

“I didn’t have as much money as Dan Burke either,” Ortiz said. “Ed Burke is under federal indictment.

“Unfortunately, people have lost trust in their government because of actions Ed Burke has taken.”

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