The evening of January 28 was cold and snowy, but around 150 people made their way up four flights of stairs to the grand auditorium in the Pui Tak Center in Chinatown for a 25th Ward aldermanic forum. The center serves as one of the hubs of the community, hosting English and computer classes, services for new immigrants, and a Christian school. With its terra cotta facade and handsome, finely detailed interiors, the building is listed on the register of Chicago Landmarks and in 2007 placed first among twenty-five sites across Chicagoland to win a $110,000 preservation grant through wide community support.
The forum was organized by Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC), an association of community organizations across Chinatown and Chicago. The coalition has historically focused on voter registration and has expanded its tactics to encourage political engagement in Chinatown, where the 2018 elections saw about thirty-eight percent turnout compared to the city’s overall sixty-one percent turnout. Before the last census and redistricting process, Chinatown was split into four different wards. After the 2012 remap, all but a tiny sliver of Chinatown was drawn into the 25th Ward. CBCAC Community Development Coordinator Debbie Liu says that since then, “I think people are trying to really understand their place and how it fits into this bigger ward picture and bigger city picture.” The city is gearing up for another redistricting process in 2021, which could determine whether Chinatown remains a minority community in a Latinx ward or becomes a political power base of its own. But first, Chinatown residents need to vote for their next alderman, and their options are all Latinx millennials based in another neighborhood, Pilsen, which makes up the voter base of the 25th Ward.
All five candidates were in attendance at the Chinatown forum: former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) principal Aida Flores, IBM data scientist and environmental activist Troy Hernandez, former CPS teacher Hilario Dominguez, nurse Alex Acevedo, and former Pilsen Alliance executive director Byron Sigcho-Lopez. The candidates answered questions on education, housing, and public safety that were submitted by committee from the thirteen organizations hosting the forum.
The first question was about the candidates’ plans for K–12 education in Chinatown. Chinatown residents have long advocated for a high school in the neighborhood, and a 2017 community research report found that creating a high school in closer proximity was a high priority for students, adults, and community organizations in Chinatown. Residents nearly got their wish this year, with the controversial plan to convert National Teachers Academy (NTA) into a high school for Chinatown and the South Loop, which some Chinatown leaders, like Liu, supported because it was the only plan put forward by CPS to alleviate Chinatown’s lack of a high school. This plan was stopped in its tracks when a judge found that the decision to close the predominantly Black NTA was discriminatory. Most of the candidates expressed direct support for a high school, with Sigcho-Lopez adding that he would like to fund a high school using “TIF dollars”—money collected from property taxes in particular districts and then used for development projects in “blighted” areas. In recent years, TIFs have come under increasing scrutiny because the city has interpreted the word “blighted” very generously, and used TIF dollars to subsidize corporate developments in already well-resourced areas like the South Loop and Navy Pier.
One issue that revealed division was whether candidates supported the Chinatown Special Service Area, SSA #73, which taxes a commercial strip of Chinatown in order to fund neighborhood beautification and security. Chinatown support for the SSA was divided, with business owners worried about paying an additional tax and upset at what they considered a lack of transparency. Sigcho-Lopez was the only candidate who opposed the SSA, arguing that small businesses shouldn’t have to bear that burden when big businesses do not. “Why is it a big developer gets $700 million [in TIF funding] without benefiting the community, while the small businesses have to pay for all the developments around it?” Sigcho-Lopez asked, referring to the 78, Related Midwest’s proposed sixty-two-acre development just north of Ping Tom Park. The city’s Community Development Commission just voted to create a new TIF district that would encompass the proposed site of The 78, to be used for infrastructure projects supporting the development, like a new Red Line station.
The candidates agreed on most topics that were raised at the forum. Another question noted that the 78, which is just north of Chinatown’s Ping Tom Park, would block Chinatown’s views of downtown, and asked how candidates would ensure that the development would “support rather than hurt Chinatown.” Candidates all said that the pace of approvals should be slowed down and expressed support for a community-led process. Specifically, Sigcho-Lopez suggested using a community benefits agreement, and Hilario Dominguez suggested a community-driven zoning process. Notably, for the upcoming redistricting, all candidates said they would support a ward remap in 2021 that would give Chinatown its own majority-Chinese ward. Later, in an interview, candidate Aida Flores explained this position, saying it would allow Chinatown the same benefits that Pilsen residents are demanding. “If we want that for ourselves—a community school, pride, preservation, representation that looks like you that has your experiences—why wouldn’t we want that for our neighbors next door?” she said.
This race could have looked very different had it not been for the current alderman Danny Solis’s plan to retire at the end of this term, and the subsequent revelation that Solis was cooperating with the FBI in an investigation into city hall corruption. The FBI scandal shook the city, and Solis’s retirement meant that for the first time in decades, there would be an open race for leadership in the 25th Ward.
Solis has served as alderman of the ward since 1996, after being appointed by Mayor Richard Daley to fill the seat left by Alderman Ambrosio Medrano, who resigned due to corruption charges. “This is really the first time in a really long time that the community gets to vote for someone,” said CBCAC Community Outreach Coordinator Angela Lin.
The ward is one of the most economically and racially diverse in the city, comprising parts of West Loop, South Loop, Pilsen, and Chinatown. Demographically, the ward is twenty percent white, fifty-six percent Latinx, and fourteen percent Asian. At only a fraction of the population of the ward, Chinese Americans cannot determine the outcome of an election alone but instead need to build cross-ethnic coalitions. This occurred on the district level in 2016 with the election of state Representative Theresa Mah, who won the 2nd District Democratic Primary with 51.2 percent of the vote through a coalition of Chinese-American and Latinx voters, helped along by prominent endorsements from then-U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez and his successor Jesús “Chuy” García.
The race was a culmination of years of effort on the part of community organizations in Chinatown to make votes in the neighborhood matter. Starting in 2010, the CBCAC, which was founded as the Coalition for a Better Chinatown with the intention of creating a single city, county, state, and federal legislative district for the Chinese community, started a campaign to bring awareness to the upcoming census, leading to a bump in the response rate among residents. In 2011, armed with results of the census, CBCAC successfully pushed for the passage of the Illinois Voting Act of 2011, which requires districts to be drawn so that minority populations are able to influence the outcome of an election or create cross-ethnic coalitions to elect a preferred candidate. The subsequent redistricting made it possible to elect Mah, the first Asian-American State Representative of Illinois and the first Chinese American to represent Chinatown at any level of government.
It was the most prominent example of the Chinatown community having the political will to fight for what they want, despite the reputation Asian Americans have for being politically inactive. But there are other recent examples of Chinatown flexing its political power. In 2010, 400 people attended a community town hall discussing the need for a Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library, which successfully opened in 2015 and is now the busiest branch in the system. More recently, 200 to 300 people flocked to attend a town hall about the need for a high school in Chinatown. It was also a community effort that won the preservation grant for the Pui Tak Center, in which the 25th Ward candidate forum was held.
But there are still many obstacles to achieving widespread political engagement in Chinatown, an important one being language. “The language barrier is the biggest barrier, just for any kind of civic engagement,” said Lin. Even while doing voter mobilization or awareness campaigns, finding volunteers who can discuss politics in Mandarin or Cantonese can be difficult. “In the past a lot of our high schoolers would [volunteer] with us, but even the high schoolers don’t necessarily know how to talk about politics in the language,” Lin explained. At the Chinatown aldermanic forum, each question posed to the candidates, as well as each candidate’s response, was translated from English to Cantonese. The service allowed the forum to be accessible to more people, but the translation took up almost half the total time. By contrast, the aldermanic forum in West Loop ran roughly the same amount of time but was able to cover more questions and allowed each candidate to provide more depth in their responses, giving attendees a clearer picture of their distinctions.
In addition, many residents don’t understand the structure of government and get discouraged by the often confusing political system, such as the different layers of government and the seemingly endless rounds of election cycles. “They maybe don’t understand why there’s so many elections, the difference between a primary and a general election, the difference between a state election and a federal election,” Liu said. “They just hear of elections all the time and think, ‘well, this is [another] election, it doesn’t really matter.’”
Another barrier to political engagement is that people have trouble relating politics to their daily lives. In the beginning the CBCAC was mostly centered around voter registration. “Registering people to vote, that was like a ten-year process,” said Lin. “But then it turns out that even if you register people to vote they still won’t vote because they don’t know anything about why they should or who the candidates are.”
It might help that Chinatown now has a popular leader in Theresa Mah, who can bring visibility to other candidates. In the 25th Ward race, she has endorsed Hilario Dominguez for alderman, saying in her endorsement video that Dominguez “has built coalitions, and has proven himself to be someone who cares about making sure everyone has a voice.” This endorsement makes sense considering that Dominguez also has the endorsement of Chuy García, who supported Mah in her first run for state rep.
To meet the need for political education in Chinatown, CBCAC started giving Civics 101 presentations during the last election cycle. In the weeks leading up to the aldermanic elections Lin gave several presentations, walking attendees through slides on the branches and layers of government, and explaining how each of them can impact residents’ lives, as well as providing a primer on how voting works. Turnout at the presentations ranges from forty audience members to just a couple.
In 2015, CBCAC published a vision plan that detailed recommended projects for Chinatown to undertake in order to grow and remain a vibrant community. “Over the years [CBCAC] kind of morphed into more community development,” said Liu. One community development project that came from the vision plan was the walkability report, which had volunteers conduct walkability audits of streets and sidewalks, and surveyed residents about what changes they thought would make walking and cycling better in the community. Residents were encouraged to contact their representatives to push for changes based on the findings, which also illuminated the impact of politics on their daily lives. “That’s something that we’ve been really adamant about, to make sure that whatever topics people have that are a concern, that it is a community-wide effort instead of the pressure being on CBCAC or on a different organization just to do it, which really shouldn’t be the case,” said Liu.
At the forum, the five candidates sat on stage between a pair of traditional Chinese red banner poem couplets. Audience members settled down into their seats with heaping plates of fried rice, bok choy, and fried chicken from the buffet, where a representative from the city’s Board of Election Commissioners circulated, recruiting bilingual election judges. Booths were set up and covered in election materials, with voter registration forms, information on early voting, and voting by mail advertised in both English and Chinese. It was a full room, but Lin noted that many of the attendees were already affiliated with community organizations in the neighborhood. “Even though it was a good turnout and there were a lot of organizational people, I do wish we had more grassroots people,” she said.
ORIGIN, the CBCAC youth-led group consisting mostly of high school students, is trying to address that very problem by connecting more with everyday Chinatown residents. ORIGIN president Derek Lau says that members engage with the community in various ways, from volunteering to help with voter registration and raising awareness about upcoming races, to painting murals, to surveying community members about issues important to them. “I really want to continue this mission to empower people to be civically engaged,” said Lau. “I really just want to start with the youth, setting them up so that when they grow up they can be leaders themselves and encourage others to be active citizens.”
Tammy Xu is a contributor to the Weekly. She last wrote for the Weekly in January about the City coding bootcamp program at Chicago City Colleges.