At the intersection of 51st Street and Washtenaw Avenue in Gage Park rests the political fate of the 14th Ward. The northeast corner is home to the office of its alderman, Edward Burke, who holds a number of other important distinctions: longest-serving alderman in Chicago history (since 1969), largest stash of aldermanic campaign funds ($12 million), until recently chair of City Council’s Finance Committee (considered by many to be one of the most powerful positions in city government), and, as of a couple weeks ago, the latest Chicago alderman to be charged with corruption by the federal government. A towering, two-story sign reads “14th Ward Regular Democratic Organization,” lest you forget who still runs this place.
A little past the southwest corner, in a nondescript building you’d miss were it not for the countless campaign signs in the windows, lies the office of Tanya Patiño, one of his challengers. When I came to interview Patiño, she was finishing up a meeting with community members—a few final minutes of conversation and a group picture at the end.
Last year, Patiño served as an area coordinator for Aarón Ortíz’s successful underdog campaign to unseat Burke’s brother, Dan Burke, in a state house district covering Archer Heights, Gage Park, Chicago Lawn, and Garfield Ridge. (Ortiz also happens to be her boyfriend.) She announced she was running for alderman on December 21, relatively late in the game—José Luis Torrez and Jaime Guzmán entered the race in August and October, respectively. But within a couple weeks, she had acquired the coveted endorsement of now-Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García and United Working Families, a union-backed political organization that works with Black and Latinx candidates invested in “racial, social, and economic justice.” Though all three—Torrez, Guzmán, and Patiño—had worked with García in some capacity prior to this race, his endorsement of Patiño elevated her chances of winning in many people’s eyes. Last week, Torrez announced that, after conversations with García, he was dropping out of the race, supporting Patiño, and stepping in as co-chairman of her campaign.
Despite these prominent endorsements, there was little information about Patiño’s positions and ideas for the ward—unlike Guzmán and Torrez, her website didn’t contain a platform. The Weekly sat down with Patiño to hear about her vision for the ward and why she thinks she can be the one to unseat Burke. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
If you were to explain the job of alderman to someone who doesn’t follow local politics, how would you describe it? Please start by explaining what the role of a Chicago alderman is now. Then tell me what you think the alderman’s job should be.
I get that question on the doors. A lot of people don’t know what an alderman does. I say that the majority of an alderman’s job is the city services and the upkeep of the neighborhood. But I also let them know that an alderman makes decisions that affect our public education, our infrastructure, our programming and where our money goes in terms of taxes.
I think that’s the basic need of our community and what an alderman should do. That’s not something that Burke is doing. He picks and chooses which areas he’s going to provide these services to. It’s not equal throughout the 14th Ward. That’s one of the number one concerns that people bring up.
The other thing that I want to bring in is participatory budgeting. Residents like the idea. They like that they’re going to be part of the decision-making. They like that anyone in the ward can vote. They just have to be over sixteen and live in the ward—they don’t have to be registered voters, they don’t have to be citizens. They’re really excited because they’re going to actually be heard.
I went to a class with the Great Cities [Institute], it’s part of UIC. They help out in the training and development of participatory budgeting. So they’ll come out to the ward and they’ll show the community how it works. And then from there, you build a committee that’s going to go door to door and they decide how they’re going to go about the voting. There’s ideas like setting up outside of grocery stores, for people to come vote there, or setting up a Google form online. There’s logistical things that I still have to think of, but I want to make sure that in this process we’re including everyone or the majority of the ward.
What’s another thing you’ll want to accomplish as alderman?
Spaces or places where the community can go and feel safe. You don’t really have libraries big enough to fit all the children and residents in the ward. And they’re also not open long enough. So I’d extend the library hours.
And then try to see if I could bring a community center to the ward, because right now I can’t think of one. I know that there’s many students that actually pay for a membership at LA Fitness so that they can go do their homework there because they have WiFi.
A big issue to a lot of the families I’ve talked to is an increase in violence and gang activity in the 14th Ward in the past eight to ten years. But we can’t advocate for violence to stop if we don’t give our youth other alternatives to invest and engage their minds in.
So after-school programming is definitely something that is needed in our schools. Most of these schools have your basic programs like sports, but there are many kids that don’t like sports. So can we bring in arts, can we bring in music? Can we bring in all the types of programs because not every child is an athlete.
What have you done in the community in the past several years to further some of the things on your platform?
My father and I started a soccer club four years ago. We don’t say no to anyone. The reason I decided to do this was because growing up it was difficult to find a club where I could play because my parents couldn’t afford it.
So we do all different types of fundraisers and raffles just to cover the costs of their uniforms, of the registration. I try to [ease] the burden of any fees so as to not put it on the parents. At this point we’ve become a family.
My dad and I also help the parents if they have any other additional needs. Some of them are undocumented and so they don’t trust going into Burke’s office. They don’t trust their government. And so they come and ask us different questions, and we’re a resource to them because we’ll be advocates for them if they’re scared to go talk to anyone else.
You mentioned violence in the ward getting worse over the years. At the same time, I’ve heard about youth complaining of over-policing. How will you address that?
So actually, when I’m talking to residents, they say that there’s a lack of policing in this ward. So it’s the opposite of what is being said or represented across Chicago. I just finished meeting with the parents and they want more routes around schools because they see drug activity happening. I’m here because I want to do what my community wants and what my community needs, regardless of my opinions.
But I do think that I want to advocate for community policing, making sure that our officers build a relationship with our community. So that it’s a two way street but both sides can feel trusting of one another.
In other wards, progressive candidate are usually advocating for a decrease in policing. You’re saying that because residents in your ward seem to want more policing, that’s what you will be advocating for. How will you navigate that potential conflict?
The parents want a police presence more so because of the traffic. So the alternative that I’ve been bringing to them is having someone from OEMC be there to do traffic control. And they want police presence because our youth are selling drugs. But if we give our youth different programming, different activities to do, then they won’t need that police presence. So I think that they want that right now because this is what they’re seeing. But in the long run, if I bring all this programming and it changes our youth and our youth can become involved in that, then we won’t need that police presence. And so then that’s how I can meet halfway with other wards that say that there’s too much of a police presence.
What’s your stance on the police academy?
I would have to look at the numbers. That money could be invested in our schools. But I also think that a big part of why the city loses revenue is because of all these police settlements. So I definitely think that they also need better training, because if we minimize the settlements, we get more money. I don’t know if a $95 million-dollar cop academy is the answer. I will have to see if there’s a way that we can invest in training our police officers but also invest in our schools.
What’s another issue that voters in the ward have raised and how will you address it as alderman?
Traffic. Some of our schools are located really close together, so within like a block radius, there are three schools. That causes a lot of traffic, and the parents are advocating for either a stop sign or having someone from OEMC, like traffic control, be there during drop off and dismissal because they’ve witnessed people almost getting run over multiple times.
Another is because we have so many industrial zones in our ward, that not only adds traffic because of all the semi-trucks, but it also destroys our streets quicker than in most wards. As alderman, I want to make sure that we invest in our infrastructure, our streets and our public transportation to make it more accessible for our communities to get to and from their jobs, to get to and from school.
Gentrification hasn’t hit the 14th Ward as much as it has places like Pilsen, but with the Park District moving its headquarters to Brighton Park, some people are worried it will lead to displacement and demographic changes.
So like you said, it’s not as common here in the 14th Ward. You still have a lot of residential homes. Overall when I’m talking to people, they’re in favor of the [soccer] fields and the Park District bringing that because they don’t have that in too many of the parks. And so this idea of bringing this excites them, but obviously with some reservations, if it’s going to bring all the developers that might start displacing our families. As alderman, I don’t think I would allow that to happen.
My platform is based on keeping our families here. Because when I’m having these conversations, some people are already thinking about leaving. They think that when once a kid finishes high school or once their kid finishes eighth grade, they’re going to leave because of violence, because of crime, because of lack of jobs. So I want to make sure that I bring good funding for our schools, that our parks look the best that they can look, and that our roads and our streets and our transportation are the best that they can be so that our families can stay here and be happy here.
What’s your stance on the four exemptions in Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance? And what will you do to protect and support immigrants in your ward? (Ed. note: the ordinance forbids Chicago police from assisting ICE in investigations unless the person ICE is pursuing has an outstanding criminal warrant, has been previously convicted of a felony, has a felony charge pending against them, or has been identified by law enforcement as a gang member. Some mayoral and aldermanic candidates have said they will get rid of these exemptions so that Chicago police don’t assist ICE under any circumstances.)
My platform is to make sure that the welcoming city ordinance has no carve outs. We need to get rid of that and we need to make sure that we make this city an actual sanctuary city for our immigrant families. Another thing I would push for at a state level is the Student Access Bill, which will allow for DREAMers to qualify for the MAP grant. (Ed. note: the bill as proposed would allow undocumented students to apply for financial aid to four-year public universities in Illinois, but would not allow them to qualify for the MAP grant.) Because what ends up happening with a lot of our DREAMers and a lot of immigrant families is that they don’t have the funds to continue onto higher education.
What kind of coalition are you building to support your race and what is your strategy to strengthen that coalition and beat Burke?
My main focus is community building right now. I am knocking on as many doors as I can. I’m averaging 200 doors Monday through Friday and triple that on the weekends. Meet-and-greets like the one you just saw now, house parties. Just building with my community, that’s my priority.
I’m not going to be able to compete with the $12 million that he has.I want to have enough funds to amplify my message, but if they don’t come in, then it’s going to be just groundwork. That’s what scares Burke, you know. The FBI, he’s already been through many investigations, that doesn’t scare him. What scares him is us building and coming together as a community because that’s the way we’re going to win this.
How will you work with other progressive aldermen to advance a broader agenda in the city and not just in your ward?
Some of the issues that I mentioned are city wide issues. When we’re talking about public transportation and streets, we need to work together to make sure that we improve all these different systems in the city of Chicago. I was also endorsed by Brand New Council and they’ve endorsed progressive candidates across the city. And so I’ve met and interacted with them already. We’re already having these conversations during our races. We’re talking about what we’re doing, what’s working at the doors, what’s not. So I’m already interacting with who I hope are going to be my future colleagues.
Why do you think García endorsed you instead of Guzmán or Torrez, who started their campaigns months before yours?
Jesús “Chuy” García has been a mentor for so many of our youth, including Jaime Guzmán, Luis Torrez and myself. We didn’t put him in an easy position. But I think that the reason why he endorsed me was because of my work ethic. In the last election cycle, I was the area coordinator for six precincts in the 14th Ward. And so I already had built something with those precincts. This community is not seeing me for the first time. Some have seen me for the third or fourth time already. I was working full time and then after work I would knock on doors for five hours. I did that every single day of this last election cycle, and I think Chuy García saw that.
What would you say to someone who is worried that if there’s a new alderman without all the connections and influence and money, it will mean fewer things will get done in the ward?
He has money and power and connections and the ward should reflect that, but it doesn’t. Are you investing in the ward or are you investing in yourself and all your friends?
The next 14th Ward aldermanic forum, hosted by the 14th Ward Independent Political Organization, will be held on Saturday, February 16, at 1pm. Location TBD. bit.ly/14thWardAldForum