Interviews | Politics

Meet the Challengers: Pete DeMay

The Weekly sits down with the union organizer and environmental justice activist running for alderman in the 12th Ward

Katherine Hill

Pete DeMay has spent the majority of his career as a labor organizer, having worked for a variety of unions including United Auto Workers, SEIU, and Actors’ Equity. He is also a founding member of both the 12th Ward Independent Political Organization and Neighbors for Environmental Justice.

This isn’t DeMay’s first time running against 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas, who’s held the office since 2003. DeMay challenged Cardenas in 2015 but was kicked off the ballot, leaving Cardenas to run unopposed. This time, DeMay has survived the ballot challenges, along with two other candidates taking on Cardenas.

The Weekly sat down with DeMay at his home in McKinley Park to discuss his ideas for the ward, the city, and the role of alderman. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Tell me a little about your background and what led you to run for alderman.

I never considered running for a local office until six years ago when we had our first son, and I started thinking more about school issues. And that’s when I hooked up with a small group in McKinley Park that was starting to hold workshops around school issues, around running for local school councils (LSC)—the McKinley Park Progressive Alliance. So I started meeting LSC members on the Southwest Side, and starting to fully understand what Rahm was doing to schools. This was around the time of the teachers’ strike. I think when you have kids, at least in my case, it made me focus a little bit differently on how I viewed politics.

How do you see the role of an alderman today, and what do you think the role of an alderman should be?

I think the role of an alderman today, as practiced by most, tends to be one of a little mayor who’s basically shaking down people for campaign contributions in exchange for zoning, and it just tends to be perpetuating yourself in that role for as long as—as Burke shows—until you die or you’re indicted. What it should be, I believe, you should be the lead community organizer in your community. You’re given some funding; if you’re doing it right, you should be able to start to lead some fights against capital in a way that are gonna benefit your constituents.

You’ve proposed community input into zoning decisions as well as infrastructure spending. What would the democratic process for these decisions look like in your mind, and how would you ensure participation from all residents throughout the ward?

I like the idea of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) survey that was started in McKinley Park [in 2018 after] the [McKinley Park Development Council] got funding for it. What I didn’t like about that process is, I think the development council is very much a self-selecting group. Not to mean that they’re not well intentioned, but I think we need to involve everyone in those processes cause zoning affects everybody. So I would say a CMAP-like process where there’s a heavy door-to-door component and which ensures that responses match up with the demographics of the neighborhood in this case. But I think we should do the same thing in the other two neighborhoods in the ward, Brighton Park and Little Village. I think it’s a little bit unfair that we had a CMAP process here just because, to some extent, some residents demanded it. I think everyone should have a say.

You support a number of new elected bodies, such as the elected representative school board and the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). What’s the importance of these boards, and how do they fit into a broader vision for participatory democracy?

In terms of the school board, I think we’ve seen the consequences of not having a representative elected school board. We had one CPS CEO, I think she’s in jail—it’s such a long line of scandals. I think Chicagoans are a people capable of democracy even though sometimes it feels we’re being denied those opportunities. I think with an elected school board, you’d see less disparity in the education kids receive based on their geography. I’m not a fan at all of per-pupil funding because poorer schools and poorer wards need to do more because of the long term disinvestment of the city in those neighborhoods and in those wards. In poorer schools you’re gonna need more school counselors, you’re gonna need more social workers, you’re gonna need more wrap-around services. And I think that’s something that an elected school board is gonna raise. I’ve watched six, seven years of videos of people going to the appointed school board—you can’t tell me people have a voice in those meetings. So I think that’s important.

In terms of CPAC, which I support, I believe that you’re gonna see neighborhoods policed differently when you have community input, and you’re gonna have more trust in the police. I think this might be a bigger issue in South and West Side neighborhoods, but even in our neighborhoods, you go to Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Little Village, people don’t tend to know their officers, they don’t have a say in how their neighborhoods are policed. I think CAPS in McKinley Park is a very good CAPS chapter, but it’s an opt-in—CAPS participation isn’t necessarily reflective of the neighborhood. And I think people would be a lot more satisfied with how their neighborhoods are policed if they had some civilian input into it.

In your 2015 run, you supported hiring more police in response to requests from residents in the ward. I’m wondering if that’s still your position, and do you see any tension between that and your support for CPAC and No Cop Academy?

I think just the increase in activism in the city around policing in the last four years has led to my evolving on that issue… My campaign was very closely aligned with Chuy’s last time. And I think I had to step back and analyze that after the campaign. It’s tough when you’re hearing it on the doors day after day after day, you know, ‘We need more cops, we need more cops,’ coming from constituents. It’s hard to ignore that, and I think all of us on the left were rallying behind a change from an evil villain in Rahm Emanuel, and [with] Chuy I think the “we’re gonna add a thousand cops” resonated with me.

I would say, in general, we need to change how policing happens. I think it’s less about staffing levels. I wish we had a force of social workers we could deploy in certain neighborhoods to connect people with services. I wish we had fully funded services to connect people with the help they need, whether it’s around addiction, whether it’s around domestic issues, I think something like that would be worthy of more funding. But I would say at this point, no, I’m not on that, I’m not on a thousand more cops; I’m on, let’s fully fund programs that are really going to help people. Policing the way it’s currently structured is not the way forward.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a map of Chicago showing that the 12th Ward has one of the highest cumulative burdens from environmental pollution in the city. Environmental justice is one of your policy planks. What are your plans to ensure that people living in the 12th Ward have clean air, soil, and water?

We’re gonna move that asphalt plant. People have made their feelings clear on that. I think the increase in diesel traffic is not acceptable to people. That people were excluded from that process is not acceptable. I’m gonna bring whatever pressure to bear that I can on the asphalt plant to make sure it moves.

That being said, in terms of environmental justice, I think there are places that are certainly worse in terms of the particulate matter. Near the [BNSF] intermodal on Kedzie is definitely [one of those] places—where you’re right near the Stevenson, you have freight coming from around the country and around the world. BNSF is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which is owned by Warren Buffett. You know what, Warren Buffet is one of the richest men in the world. He can sit down with our community and figure out a way to start converting some of those trucks from diesel to electric power. There’s no reason that the [third] richest man in the world can’t start taking steps to do that. So we can engage. We have to have those fights because if we’re not gonna have them, who’s gonna fight those on our behalf?

Lead service lines is an issue we need to address ‘cause we need to get lead out of our water. Lead’s really bad for kids…They’re finding eighty-eight parts per billion of lead in daycare centers on the South Side. [Ed. note: The Environmental Defense Fund’s report on lead in childcare facilities across Chicago finds a range of lead levels in the water from zero to 91 parts per billion.] How can we have ignored this for so long? How can George Cardenas, the chairman of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection, have ignored this for so long? We have to address this now. We have to get the lead out of the water. And we just have too much unemployment and too many jobs that pay too little. Now is the time to leverage the funding for this work, get people working, start a Green New Deal in Chicago.

Redfin just listed McKinley Park as the “Hottest Affordable Neighborhood” in the nation. Gentrification and displacement are growing concerns in the ward. What policies would you support to ensure that the 12th Ward remains an affordable neighborhood for current residents and working-class families?

If there’s any new housing I’m gonna insist on thirty percent affordable housing. I’m gonna tie that to a local Average Median Income (AMI) as opposed to the citywide AMI. If you look at the citywide AMI, all of McKinley Park is affordable, right? But I think we know the reality, people here, they make less money; there’s a lot people living in poverty. I want to see developers come to the table with thirty percent, with no opt-out. [Ed. note: Chicago’s city-wide mandate for new housing developments requires ten percent affordable units, but allows developers to “opt out” and build the affordable units off-site at another location.]

As a city we’re going to spend money on affordable housing. Should it be going to a developer to build all new units? Why don’t we invest in some people who own these two- and three-flat buildings, which have historically been the affordable housing in our neighborhood? Let’s do that. I’d like to see some sort of affordable, forgivable loans for people that are two- and three-flat owners in exchange for maintaining their buildings, doing certain improvements to them, and renting them out at an affordable rate, that they’d have access to these forgivable loans where part of the loan is forgiven over time.

I want to lift the ban on rent control, too. Because I think we need common sense rent control. Especially in Little Village.

Tell me about work that you’ve done in this community in the past few years to advance some of the policy goals we’ve discussed.

Over time I’ve been working in and out of McKinley Park and Little Village neighborhoods as a union organizer. In terms of economic justice, one of my first campaigns as a union organizer was organizing workers in the industrial laundry industry. Rough job, it was people that wash hospital linens, people that wash hotel linens—not easy work—and the majority of them were Latinos living on the Southwest Side. Low-wage work for undocumented Mexican women really knows no ward boundaries, but I remember a lot lived in Little Village, a lot lived in Brighton Park. That was very important work to me upon my arrival to Chicago, [figuring out] how can these people get a decent raise for the first time, how can they get bereavement days for the first time, and I think we had lots of good wins. And so I’d say in terms of Southwest Side work, getting to know people over the last twenty years, that’s certainly one way, through my union organizing work.

I was a founding member of Neighbors for Environmental Justice. It’s pretty amazing how it just took on a life of its own. When we knew the asphalt plant was coming in, a lot of us in the 12th Ward Independent Political Organization (IPO) started talking about it, and the organization Neighbors for Environmental Justice just took on its own. So many people wanted to be a part of it, so many people were really upset about how that all went down. I think one of the good things is there’s an organization to fight against that sort of development in the future. The bad thing is it took something like that to get it going.

Also I’ve canvassed through the IPO around rent control in Little Village. Through the IPO we’ve held workshops around what sustainable development would look like. A lot of canvassing around Neighbors for Environmental Justice issues. In terms of the IPO, we’ve done our best to support candidates who were sort of in line with the vision I just outlined for you, and we’ve been successful.

If you become alderman, what will you do to ensure that you remain connected and accountable to your community?

I would say the participatory budgeting, participatory zoning I think are very important issues, and I think it’s gonna require a lot of facetime on the doors. In terms of staff in the ward, I definitely want to hire people from within the ward. I think if we’re lucky to pull this off it’ll be because of activists in Neighbors for Environmental Justice, it’ll be because of activists in LVEJO, it’ll be because of activists in the 12th Ward IPO, and I’m pretty sure they’re gonna let me know if I’m not doing things right. If I’m straying from those principles, I will hear it in no uncertain terms, and that’s the way it should be.

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Joshua Falk is a contributing editor for the Weekly and lives in McKinley Park. His last piece was an interview with musician Akenya.

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