Interviews | Politics

Meet the Challengers: José Rico

The Weekly sits down with the nonprofit executive and former principal running for alderman in the 12th Ward

Katherine Hill

I met with José Rico on the first floor of La Catedral Cafe & Restaurant in the heart of Little Village, where we discussed Rico’s long history as an educator and activist in Little Village, his vision for the 12th Ward, and the longtime incumbent, George Cardenas. Later, we heard that Cardenas himself was having a late breakfast just upstairs.

Rico worked for Obama’s White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics before returning to Little Village in 2014. He now serves as the Senior Vice President of Community Interest at United Way, where he oversees funding and coordination of services in underserved communities.

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You have an impressive background as an activist and educator. Can you tell me about how that background led you to decide to run for alderman?

I’m like a lot of people in this neighborhood, I came to Chicago as a child. [My brother and I] actually crossed the border as children, unaccompanied minors, with a coyote, in the backseat of a station wagon. When I came [to Chicago] in the late seventies, and in the eighties, there was a lot of immigration raids in the neighborhood. For almost twenty years I was undocumented and I remember, as a child, seeing these green busses from INS (Immigration Naturalization Services) block streets and then just haul people in and deport them. And I remember being really nervous because I knew I was undocumented—I knew I was here “illegally.”

But then I saw community organizers. Somebody I look up to is Rudy Lozano Sr., who at the time was organizing against immigration raids, and then soon after ran for alderman. It was him, and the organizations that actually fought racism that made me realize: I could live my life in fear, I could live my life pretending that I could hide under the shadows, or I could be somebody standing up for myself and standing up for other people.

What is it about this moment in time that made you feel the need to make the step from activism into politics?

Since I came back from D.C. and Trump got elected, neighborhoods like ours here in Brighton Park and Little Village have been targeted to systematically deport as many people as possible [and to] cause fear. It really brought me back to when I was a kid and had an emotional and spiritual response that said: “I’m not going to let that happen.” So, what I ended up doing was [working with] a group called La Villita Se Defiende, which is an organization that organizes neighbors to really defend other neighbors who are going to be deported.

The second part is that I’ve seen, especially in Pilsen and other parts of Chicago, gentrification really moving working families out. You know, [Chicago] never felt like home when I was younger. But in my twenties I started to feel Chicago, and particularly the Southwest Side of Chicago, it felt like home. I remember this moment…It was as this old blues bar, and I saw this eighty-year-old man with a Mexican tejana hat and a Mexican belt buckle—one that my grandfather would wear. And it just struck me that the music he was playing was exactly the same music I grew up listening to in my parents’ home, in the rancho that I was born in, and it just struck me: shit, you’re home. Chicago is home. And there are very few places in the country where you could find a Black family from Mississippi, a Mexican family from Michoacán, half a mile away from each other, listen to the same music, dress the same, and really have this feeling of home.

For me, as Chicago has been changing, I see that being eradicated. I see a lot of the policies—especially around TIF, especially with taxes, especially with the school closings—a lot of the families, a lot of my neighbors who I’ve known for twenty years, they’re feeling the pressure to leave. And for me, I feel that I could do something about that, because the alderman—especially in a ward like the 12th Ward—could either slow down gentrification or promote it. And I see that the current alderman is promoting [it].

The real moment for me was that, a year ago in November, my son was in the crossfire of a shooting. That was a moment where I had to make a decision of whether I was going to leave the neighborhood or whether I was going to make a stand here and fight for what I thought was right. We couldn’t find metal health services for him, we couldn’t find a psychologist for over nine months. And then I started reaching out to friends…and I told them what happened, and almost every one of them have a similar story.

And so when I started researching why this was the case, I saw what happened with the mental health clinics about six years ago. And I saw that my alderman was the chair [of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection] when that happened and he approved that. [Ed. note Cardenas’s office initially announced that hearings would be held, before quickly reversing the decision. To this date no public hearings have been held.]

And when I had conversations with my neighbors, they were like “look, the reason why [Alderman Cardenas] has been in office for so long is because there isn’t anybody that has the public service credentials that could actually go toe-to-toe with him around the issues of serving people. And at the end of the day, you’ve been a teacher in a neighborhood, you’ve been a high school principal in the neighborhood. You’ve been a funder in the neighborhood. People trust you.”

So it wasn’t like “now I want to run for office.” It was really a moment where I felt: If I don’t do this, what the hell is going to happen to my neighbors? The stand I took for my kid, I felt I needed to take for my neighbors.

How would you explain the role of alderman to somebody who really does not know what their alderman does? What is the role the alderman plays now, and what should it be?

Most people believe that the alderman is there to line their own pockets, right? The history of the alderman in this ward is that—that’s what he’s doing now. And remember that the previous alderman, [Ray Frias], got indicted through Silver Shovel. So most people believe that an alderman, that public service, is for personal gain. I’m…trying to counter the negative history of fifteen years of pay-to-play politics and unresponsiveness for the needs of the people here.

So what I tell [constituents] is, “Look, what is it that you and your neighbors really care about? What is it that you believe are the things that need to be addressed?” The number one answer, for most people in the neighborhood is: “I want to make sure that my kids go to a quality school.” Right under that is: “I want to make sure that my kids are safe and we figure out we can walk safe and we get done with the gang violence.” But for those two answers, very few [constituents] draw the straight line of how the alderman is able to influence school funding or how the alderman could actually help in providing opportunities for young people so they won’t join gangs.

The 12th Ward is a very diverse patchwork of neighborhoods. I wonder if you could talk a little more about the coalition you’re trying to build, how you’ve reached out to other parts of the Ward?

Over the past five years, through my work with United Way, I’ve been able to partner with close to eighty community-based organizations, and citywide organizations in Little Village and Brighton Park. For example, there’s a group called the Marshall Square [Resource] Network that I helped fund where there was about twenty-five organizations that have a health and wellness coalition that is preparing teachers and community-based organizations to identify the root causes of social-emotional wellness and provide training for parents and teachers to be able to provide resources for social-emotional wellness.

Have there been challenges reaching out to communities that you don’t engage with through your work at United Way?

No, no. So, for example, United Way does not fund environmental justice, because that is advocacy, right? Yesterday I was at the city’s hearing for modernizing the industrial corridor and what they want to do—bringing more trucks and more industry to a heavily industrial[ized] corridor—is ridiculous, right? So I stood up there and I just basically told the city, “this is ridiculous, you guys have to stop. There is no way you can justify bringing more industry in a very polluted area.” And the environmental justice organizations and the people that were there afterwards were like “how can we work with you?”

I think the benefit of what I bring to the table is that I’ve been a teacher in this community for over twenty-five years. So there are very few places that I don’t know students, or that my students have kids that now know the work that I do, and understand that my life is public service.

If you do become alderman, how to you plan to remain accountable to these groups?

So the 12th Ward has the second lowest number of voters in the city of Chicago. That’s not a coincidence, right? What the current alderman has done is basically discourage civic participation and civic involvement by targeting the menu funds in areas that are just for people that vote. And not to encourage new people to vote.

And here’s the flip side of that: Little Village and Brighton Park and McKinley Park have some of the most active community groups in the Southwest Side. What I want to be able to do is provide those civic organizations that currently exist—and any new ones that want to be able to organize—I want to give them power over the menu funds that the alderman currently has. I also want to make sure that those organizations help determine what my public policy is at city council.

The menu funds are very important because that’s what determines where the stop signs go, how the potholes get filled, and what the business corridors beautification projects are. There’s other capital funds around neighborhood opportunity zones. There’s other capital funds around school improvements. I want those civic groups to actually have power in what my public policy is going to be.

I want to make sure that at the end of my three years I get a report card of how I’ve [been] accountable to them. And if they feel that I have not been accountable to them, let’s find somebody who is. I don’t want to make a career out of this. I already said that I’ll be here for two terms max. I want to make sure that I build the civic infrastructure and the civic power that [allows] the neighborhoods and the civic organizations [to] decide who is the person knows their needs, or has a policy solutions and the results to be able to do that.

When you total up your proposals, it comes out to $4.5 billion—that’s a lot of new spending. How are you going to assure working families in the 12th Ward that the burden for this new spending isn’t going to fall on them?

It’s not, because you can’t tax, fee, and boot people $4.5 billion, right? This has to come through state revenue and city revenue, and you have to be able to then leverage other funds from the federal government or the corporate community. We have to make choices of where we’re going to start and where we’re going to get the revenue.

Now the question is: who’s gonna pay for it? And I believe that we need to be able to get more revenue from people that have it. So I’m for a progressive income tax, I’m for a tax that if you make over a certain millions of dollars, you’re gonna get taxed at a way higher rate. I don’t understand why rich people complain about [the possibility of] getting taxed eight percent in the city of Chicago. That is fucking ridiculous. You should be taxed at forty percent if you are earning multi-million dollars. [Ed. note: The current income tax rate in Illinois is 4.9 percent (a flat rate for all taxpayers) but some public finance groups are pushing for a progressive tax in which higher levels of income would be taxed at a higher rate. For example, the Center For Tax and Budget Accountability has proposed an 8% tax rate for taxable income above $400,000. Conservatives in Illinois oppose this plan, and a progressive income tax is currently prohibited by the state constitution.]

Let’s dive into the major pillars of your policy proposal, starting with health and wellness centers. For somebody who is not familiar, what is a health and wellness center and what services do they provide?

It can be a park district, it could be an early childcare center, it could be a botánica on 26th Street. When you go there, there’ll be somebody on staff that is able to assess mental behavior and your wellness needs, refer you to a living-wage job, provide you with income assistance, and then ensure that everybody in your family who is eligible for after-school programs, early childcare programs, whatever—that you’re able to get those programs. What they require are paid professional staff. What they require are the capacity for the local Esperanza center, and the local healthcare [center], to get the funding to actually do the sustained case management work.

You’re also calling for increased funding for employment training and public works programs. Can you explain how your proposal would address the issue of unemployment in the 12th Ward?

Every union apprenticeship has a certain number of jobs that…can open [each] year. And they’re all on different calendars. The majority of the people that go into [workforce development programs] don’t get union apprenticeships because they don’t know how.

If you want a union apprenticeship, you’re gonna have to do the apprenticeship without getting paid, you’re going to have to buy your work boots, you’re going to have to have a car, and you have to piss clean.

So, what I did with the Chicago Federation of Labor and [a group of workforce development programs] is, I said: “Let’s create a program where we actually create very clear pipeline [for] somebody looking for a job.” We provide that. We do the training and we get the boots, we make sure we pay for the tests for them to piss clean, and we provide the tutoring. They go through the union apprenticeship program [and] we pay them a stipend. Then once they go through the pre-apprenticeship program, they go into the union and then they start working apprenticeship union wages, which is $20 an hour. It’s doable, right? It’s about creativity. It’s about actually putting the pieces together.

Another issue gripping the 12th Ward is the threat of gentrification. Redfin recently named McKinley Park one of the “hottest affordable neighborhoods.” How would you approach the issue of gentrification? How would you ensure that the 12th Ward remains affordable and accessible to residents who live here now?

Well, the first thing is not bringing in luxury condos like the current alderman is trying to do on Pershing Street. The same developer that gentrified Logan Square and Wicker Park is coming over to bring luxury [apartments to McKinley Park]. [Ed. note: Aberdeen Development Inc. is the developer.] Nobody wants luxury condos on Pershing Street besides the developer and the current alderman. Any zoning that’s going to be done in the neighborhood around housing development—let’s make that transparent, so there’s no kickbacks [from] developers.

The other part is, we need to build more affordable housing. So discouraging luxury multi-level housing, encouraging affordable multi-level housing. I want housing developers to make a profit, but they don’t have to make a profit at the expense of working class families. If you’re not going to replace one-to-one the affordable housing, I don’t want it in the ward, and frankly, I don’t want it in the city. We have so much luxury housing already in the central district. That’s fine, right? We’re not displacing people there. Let’s ensure that our neighborhoods, and the people that live in Chicago, and that make Chicago what it is—let’s make sure that those neighborhoods stay.

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Ian Hodgson is a contributing editor to the Weekly

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