Katie Hill

I met up with Troy Hernandez at his house in Pilsen during the polar vortex in late January. He’s been rehabbing it for the past few years, and workers filed in and out as we sat near a wood burning stove in the living room.

Hernandez first ran for 25th Ward alderman in the 2015 election, but withdrew from the race in late 2014 after his petition signatures were challenged. He currently works as a data scientist for IBM and serves on the board of directors of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO). The group was involved in the effort to shut down the Fisk Power Plant, has distributed lead water filters to Pilsen residents, and brought attention to pollution from metal shredders.

In the contentious race to replace now-disgraced 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis, Hernandez has become something of an outlier. While his opponents fall into predictable categories of progressive and moderate, Hernandez’s platform is more nuanced. He has expressed support for an elected school board and ending TIF funding, but has questioned the effectiveness of progressive causes like rent control and community-driven zoning.

He’s also not afraid to speak his mind. Over the course of our interview, he was candid about his disdain for fellow candidate Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who he first met through the Pilsen Alliance.

Hernandez repeatedly brought up a Pilsen metal shredder owned by Sims Metal Management, which he says funded Pilsen Alliance in exchange for political support. (Sigcho-Lopez ran Pilsen Alliance from 2015 to 2018, and denies they had any financial relationship with the company.) Sims was recently fined $225,000 by the U.S. EPA for violating federal air emission regulationsThis interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Tell me about your journey to running for 25th Ward alderman.

My family comes from around this area. Before Mexicans were in Pilsen, they were up on Taylor Street in what is known as Little Italy. That’s where my grandparents and great grandparents landed in Chicago. My mom grew up in Bridgeport and then my Dad and Mom both moved to the suburbs in the 60s.

[During college] I had to get a bunch of jobs, the economy was just not good. King of the side job, is what a friend called me because I was selling t-shirts at concerts, working as a barista, working as a tutor. Every job that I could find I was doing it. Meanwhile, I was playing in a band and going to school full time. So it was a lot of work…and then 2008 hit and my two sisters each lost the house and my brother lost his house and one sister was able to keep her house…which was a good thing because my mom was still living in the basement at that point. I’d always watch The Daily Show and stay abreast of politics but when that hit I just became, [more interested in politics].

I started to become aware of the work that PERRO was doing about the [Fisk] coal plant. They talked about this Harvard study that showed that [emissions from] Fisk and Crawford were killing [forty-one] people a year. And I think it was in 2009 or 2010, I got a flyer from the union at the coal plant that said like, ‘This provides 150 good jobs’ and I quickly did the math of like well, okay, [every] four years, one guy gets to work and somebody has to die. And then I started to dig into the campaign finances and Danny Solis is taking five grand a year from this company like clockwork… people are dying like clockwork! So that got me very angry.

My ability to engage early on, you know, I was in grad school so I could show up to marches and be a body in the protests but in terms of being a hardcore organizer, that just was not in the cards at that point. So I graduated [with my] PhD in 2013, moved to China to do a postdoc, when I joined the stats department at UIC.

I came back in December 2013. I was literally making like, $15,000 a year over there, it was not enough to live even though cost of living is cheaper. I’m looking and I’m like, well, you know, there’s an [aldermanic] race coming up, and I thought about running. I’m looking at the ward boundaries, and I’m like, they kind of drew this ward for me! It’s a half-Mexican ward. I’m half Mexican. We’ve got a bunch of young tech professionals in the West Loop and that’s me too. We got Chinatown. I’m sitting in China’s preeminent university, all my colleagues have been Chinese for years…[Solis is] kind of forcing me to to run against him and this could be fun.

How would your work with PERRO inform your agenda as alderman?

Pretty substantially. You know, I’ve laid into some reporters for not understanding aldermanic prerogative, and I’m glad it’s now become something that people recognize as a force in Chicago politics, because for the last five or ten years, it was just a mystery. I would be happy to use my aldermanic prerogative — if it still exists in this next city council — to enforce some of these things. So it’s mostly about enforcement. The City of Chicago, when Rahm came, in ended the Department of Environment, so I would push for the Mayor to reinstate that, I’d use my aldermanic prerogative, and this is why I ran against Solis [in 2015]. He could have used his aldermanic prerogative to say, you know, there’s a clean air ordinance [we want], it only affects my ward and Little Village, I’m going to use my aldermanic prerogative and we’re going to pass this. Bam! Either they clean up or shut down. Problem solved. 42 [more] people alive every year.

So those sorts of actions is how I would approach it. I played in a hippie jam band for fifteen years so I’ve had my fair share of hippy dippy bullshit and I don’t have a strong tolerance for “everything should be green.” It’s not realistic, man. People need jobs; this is the City of Chicago…so I don’t think we should turn all of Chicago back into a swamp because it’s carbon neutral. I think we should have jobs. That’s why when they were hinting at the Fisk Plant being sold, I was talking about that for months, like “hey guys, something’s going on here. We got to organize now…” so it’s a little frustrating to see that not happen.

Yeah, and now Hilco is potentially planning to convert the Fisk plant in Pilsen into a data center, for which they’re seeking a zoning change. How will you handle that request if elected alderman?

It’s a negotiation. And it’s not a negotiation that’s gonna require any campaign contributions, because I won’t take any campaign contributions from corporations or special interests. I want to negotiate on behalf of the neighborhood. What can I extract from from Hilco…in terms of green space, green jobs, in exchange for them bringing jobs here? You know, it’s sitting vacant. Can we get them to shut down or turn the peaker plant into a battery power peaker plant, [add] solar panels, those sorts of things, and still get them to build the development. So [with] the data center, all the diesel traffic is not going to be there. They want to build next to the river because they can use the river to cool down their data center. That seems like a much better proposal than a distribution facility. [Ed. note: Hilco plans to turn the Crawford power station in Little Village into a distribution facility.]

There’s now a requirement for a thirty-foot setback from the river. Can we get a little bit more of that so that we can have a little bit bigger park? Along with the Throop Street park they’re trying to use to distract us.

Does that focus on negotiating extend to your philosophy on development and affordability in the 25th Ward?

Yeah, we [need] to increase the housing stock. If you want people to stop buying up these old buildings, and they do need to be rehabbed…I’m not against people rehabbing them. I would like to see middle class homeowners be able to rehab them, and keep them affordable and we can do that. Rahm had a pilot program last summer, I think it’s the Opportunity Investment Fund, and I would like to see that expanded so you can subsidize [home ownership] through either grants or low interest rate loans. Right now the program that Solis proposed for 18th and Peoria was basically exactly what [the developer] wanted with a lot of machinery to obfuscate that. [Ed. note: the developer might disagree; it is currently suing the city over Solis’s decision to downzone the lot at 18th and Peoria to prevent it from building on it.]

I’m calling for [more] owner occupied buildings, subsidized owner occupied, middle class folks buying these buildings that—like me—know how to swing a hammer and can actually maintain a building, to help them out with either their down payment or their interest rate. So they can afford a three-unit building. Because I have a lot of friends like that, middle class people, they would love to buy a two- or three-unit building. They either don’t have the down payment or the month-to-month because the interest rates they wouldn’t be able to afford. So let’s subsidize them, get middle class people into a house, have a requirement that they keep the other units as affordable housing, and there you go. We’re not giving money to rich developers. So that’s part of a solution.

There’s creative ways to do public policy that don’t involve like, “well now we need a forty percent affordable housing requirement on site.” Like, dude, that’s not not realistic. These people are running a business, they need to make a profit. If they don’t make a profit, they won’t do anything. The vacant lot does nothing for us. It does nothing for anybody. I’ll negotiate with [property developers] in good faith, you know, is a zoning change appropriate for the neighborhood? Let’s ask the neighborhood and actually listen. I’m not going to stack up a board with people who provide me political cover. [Ed. note: Solis currently works with an advisory board called the Pilsen Land Use Committee, which many activists say operates as a cover for Solis’ zoning decisions.]

I can self-fund my campaign. You know, data science is very lucrative. My pay has tripled in five years. So, I don’t need anybody to finance my campaign. I’m going to take a pay cut, should I [get elected], a significant one, which is hard to do. But you know, I grew up poor so I don’t need all that money.

So do you support community-driven zoning?

At the end of the day, interested parties are the ones who are going to provide the most input. This is a representative democracy. And we have this because people don’t have all day to study politics, not everybody’s a grad student. And this is what frustrates me…like “we need transparency and accountability.” These words get thrown around and it’s just platitudes, it’s garbage, because on the Local School Council here, [at] Pilsen Academy, there’s [only] five or ten people there because people have jobs, and that’s just not realistic. And so people want to vote in [an alderman] who’s competent, who they think is going to be working their best interests. And, you know, I would love to have community input, but I know it’s going to be mostly special interests. And so I think people need to understand in the city of Chicago with aldermanic prerogative as it stands today, the buck stops with the alderman. Anybody who says anything different about community driven zoning, is just trying to gain themselves some political cover.

What’s an issue in the race or in the ward in general that you think isn’t getting enough attention?

Two things: Sims. This just kills me. General Iron up north was [fined by the EPA] and they were on TV, they had multiple articles published in the Tribune…. Sims [was] fined by the EPA $225,000 a couple weeks ago…silence, radio silence, from Block Club Chicago, reached out to them about it, nothing. The Tribune, always writes about these things… nothing. Channel 7 News, where are they? The feeling I get is Lincoln Park’s dogs are more sympathetic to the news audience than Pilsen’s Mexican high school students, and that’s fucked up. So that’s one thing, like, sorry that it that it would help my campaign and hurt Byron’s, but you know it’s an issue for the high school kids and the teachers there…lung cancer!

Two: I’ve made my campaign explicitly about corruption in 2015 and this cycle. Campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, all these things, and it’s convenient now to talk about it but when it was a boring, wonky subject, I was the only one talking about it. I would like it if some of the reporters could actually cover that. I have a long history of that. Not just attacking Danny Solis as a person. My campaign announcement was “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” And it’s not just Danny Solis, it’s how all of Chicago politics works.

So yeah, it’s convenient that people attack and have been attacking Danny Solis. But he’s just a symptom, and you know, I’ve had the solution, I’ve been talking about it now for five years and that has yet to be covered.

[We need] to get an independent commission to draw the ward boundary lines, which is going to happen for this next alderman, and to get public financing for campaigns. These are solutions that have worked in New York and I’ve been calling out this and it seems to be falling on deaf ears, and it’s frustrating. It’s not just Danny Solis, this is a systemic issue.

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Quinn Myers is a freelance radio and print journalist based in Chicago. He also co-reported a longer story about the 25th ward race which appears in this issue.

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