Residents of the 14th Ward have formed a new political group that they hope can challenge longtime Alderman Ed Burke, whom the organizers see as corrupt and unresponsive to the community’s needs. Members of the 14th Ward Independent Progressive Organization say Burke’s office has repeatedly failed to make good on promises to fulfill residents’ requests for basic city services and refused to answer their calls. In January, federal prosecutors charged Burke, the city’s longest-serving alderman, with extorting the owners of an Archer Heights Burger King franchise. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, whose anti-corruption campaign received a boost after the charges against Burke—who had ties to many of the other mayoral candidates—were announced, has repeatedly called for Burke to resign; he has refused. The new IPO hopes to build the kind of independent political partnerships and voter base that could sweep him out of office once and for all. (Burke’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment by the time of publication.)
Independent Political Organizations have scored victories in city council races where formerly powerful aldermen retired in scandal. In 2018, Danny Solís, who was the 25th Ward alderman for over twenty years, announced his retirement after taping conversations with Burke on behalf of federal investigators. In the five-way race that ensued, former Pilsen Alliance executive director Byron Sigcho-Lopez won largely with the help of that organization. And when Ricardo Muñoz announced he was retiring in 2018 after more than twenty-five years as alderman, the 22nd Ward Independent Political Organization—one of the city’s oldest—was instrumental in electing Michael Rodríguez, the organization’s former president, to the seat. Should Burke resign, the 14th Ward IPO could be positioned to do the same.
The IPO’s inaugural meeting included educators, organizers, community members, activists, students, and political hopefuls. Two candidates for Illinois’s Third Congressional District, which bisects the 14th Ward, also attended: Abe Matthew, a partner at Matthew & Drnovsek Law, and Marie Newman, who came within three points of defeating incumbent Dan Lipinski in 2018. Jose Torrez, one of the IPO’s organizers, is also a one-time political hopeful; he ran against Burke in the 2019 aldermanic election before dropping out to endorse Tanya Patiño, who was also backed by U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García. (Burke beat Patiño with fifty-four percent of the vote.) Torrez, a thirty-three-year-old City Colleges student adviser, said García, who has served as 22nd Ward Alderman, state senator, and county commissioner, and has waged a public electoral battle against the Burke family for the last two election cycles, has been a political mentor to him since he was young. “I grew up in the 22nd Ward Organization,” Torrez said. At eighteen, he said, García walked him around his precinct and taught him how to knock on doors to get out the vote.
Torrez said his campaign for alderman underscored the importance of building independent political power to counter the vestiges of the once-invincible Democratic Machine—particularly in the 14th Ward, where Burke is not only alderman but also oversees the ward’s still-formidable Democratic organization, which can be counted on to turn out votes during even the toughest of election cycles. “There’s no community-based political organization who rivals that,” Torrez said. “And so when I [ran for] alderman, one of the biggest hurdles we ran into was building a people-power organization that could help get our message out, establish new connections with members in the ward… and be able to rebuild a coalition of progressives on the Southwest Side.” The 14th Ward IPO could fulfill that sort of mission, he said, eventually throwing its support behind candidates in multiple political offices. Asked whether he plans to run for office again, Torrez said he would “continue to consider” doing so.
In the near term, the IPO’s focus is on helping residents connect with city services, which they claim Burke has been unwilling or incapable of doing. Torrez said the federal extortion charges have made Burke, who IPO members described as reluctant to help connect residents with city services in the past, downright unable to do so. “With all the corruption scandal that’s going on, [Burke] has lost a lot of his ability to do that,” Torrez said. He also said Burke only agrees to meet with community members who voted for him. “We think that is wrong, and that needs to change,” he said, adding that the IPO wants to provide an alternative route for residents to connect with city services.
At the meeting, members adopted bylaws and agreed on dues before giving the floor to Allison Tingwall, the principal of Curie High School. Tingwall described the state of disrepair of Curie’s athletic field, which she said is desperately in need of renovation. The field serves not just the school but the community; on weekends, amateur soccer leagues play there. According to Tingwall, the school cannot host many games there because of the field’s condition. Assistant principal Brad Gill said that when he was coaching the sophomore football team a few years ago, another team nearly forfeited rather than play on the field. Jasmin Patiño (no relation to Tanya), a parent of a Curie student, said she has asked Burke’s office for help with the field for two years; she said he initially promised to help, but ultimately did nothing, and began ducking her calls. Despite being the city’s largest non-selective-enrollment school—and the third largest overall—Curie felt “forgotten,” Tingwall said. The IPO agreed to make the field a key part of its organizing efforts.
The organizers also discussed partnering with the Southwest Collective in a voter registration drive ahead of the 2020 elections, with a goal of registering about 1,000 new voters.
“I want people to get involved,” Torrez said. “Anyone who feels underrepresented, anyone who feels they have not been heard by the alderman, any business that feels they have been extorted, or any individual who just wants to voice their concern, we’re here to listen and we’re here to help you.”
The 14th Ward IPO’s next meeting will be Wednesday, September 25, 6pm–8:30pm, at El Mesón, 4631 S. Kedzie Ave. The group can be contacted via their Facebook page, facebook.com/14thWardP.
Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor.