I met with David Mihalyfy on a warm summer night in Bridgeport. We were originally supposed to conduct our interview at First Base, a now-closed sports bar, but realized soon after arriving it would be too loud to conduct an interview there. We relocated to some chairs outside Scoops Ice Cream on 31st Street and continued over a strawberry Italian ice (for me) and a chocolate-covered frozen banana (for him).
What became clear over the course of the conversation was that Mihalyfy—a home healthcare aide, labor activist, and writer—is not a conventional, polished political candidate who will push a party line (the ward already has one of those), nor is he a firebrand member of the opposition: he stressed throughout that he would be a consensus-minded alderman above all. (Perhaps this independence partially explains why he is, as of his latest filing with the state Board of Elections, his campaign’s only donor to have made a donation above $150, the reporting threshold for state elections.)
It will likely be difficult for Mihalyfy to overcome the clout, name recognition, family loyalty (in some parts of the ward), and, above all, fundraising power of the one-term incumbent, Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson. But Thompson’s reelection is no sure thing; he was forced into a runoff last time around by John Kozlar, the mostly-unknown then-president of the Canaryville Little League now running for mayor—and if Mihalyfy can rally the newer, younger constituents of Bridgeport, Armour Square, and Canaryville and parts of University Village, Pilsen, and Back of the Yards around his platforms of taxing the rich, youth empowerment, and solar energy, he might give Thompson another real race. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Are you from the 11th Ward?
I’ve been in Chicago for twelve years, and moved to the ward as soon as my work allowed. My parents are both from Downriver Detroit. My dad’s a Hungarian immigrant, came here at five. My ma’s side of family is Polish.
I’ve been here a number of years now and the important thing is that I’ve been working in low-wage, unstable jobs and like most everyone else in the ward, I’ve been directly affected by the wrongheaded values in City Hall where it seems year after year after year, the one percent and the fat cats are getting away with more murder than ever. And working families are getting squeezed harder because of the property tax increases, the garbage tax increases, ComEd, Peoples Gas. I get that, I’ve lived that, and I want to take that on.
Part of your platform is advocating for a newly-built neighborhood high school, even though Bridgeport was awarded seats in the high school that will replace the National Teachers Academy in the South Loop.
Just all across the city, people in power are playing favorites and the high school and NTA closure situation is a perfect example of this. It’s favoritism intersecting with favoritism intersecting with favoritism. NTA is like a level one-plus school. Eighty percent black, seventy percent low income, and that shows favoritism because there’s been this history of these school closures that have disproportionately affecting African American and less well-off communities.
The reason we’re in this situation in the first place is because the voices of the Chinese-American community has been ignored now for years. The Chinese-American community in general has been advocating for a newly-built high school at the north end of the ward, so Chinatown, Bridgeport, Armour Square, which is the perfectly correct answer and which would have avoided this mess in the first place.
You have to ask who benefits [from the NTA replacement], and the answer is the rich South Loop condo owners who are going to benefit from this high school and then they’re going to throw a few crumbs this way. The worst part—because it does get even worse—is we have an unelected school board, so us as voters cannot even hold the highest levels of CPS directly accountable despite the utter havoc that their favoritistic decisions are wreaking in the lives of the children of this community. With our current Alderman Daley Thompson, we have lost years of advocacy now for a newly-built high school, and we’ve lost years of advocacy for an elected school board, though the both of those are the right things to do. We have to keep it open. We have to build a new high school and we absolutely must have an elected school board.
What do you think you can agree with Alderman Thompson on?
You know, he comes from a family with a long history of public service. That’s the mayors and it’s also Maggie Daly. She did wonderful stuff with After School Matters, which is a gift that kept on giving to the city and has uplifted youth. I thank Alderman Daley Thompson myself [for] the viaduct lighting. That’s great. But in general I think we could be doing more.
Like the rest of Chicago, even though it’s very diverse, the 11th Ward is segregated. How have you been approaching that as you campaign, and how would you tackle it as an alderman?
In general, it’s very important for communities to have moments of encounter. Part of the mural projects for which I’ve been advocating, an important part of that is to create space for youth to come together even more than they already are. All genuine encounter is relationships. It comes from relationships, it’s bottom-up, and that would create an arena for that. Part of my larger investment program for youth, besides the advocacy for the high school and the mural projects, is reopening the Ramova Theater as a nonprofit, which is very doable if we are careful with budgeting and I think that would be very, very wonderful and healthy for the community. It would be someplace where people could take their kids, second-run movies for date night. Also a place for local artists. You could also have films in Chinese and Spanish. I was talking with a gentleman from the Chinese-American community. His ma’s 90, lives in the ward. She basically, her and her friends say there’s not enough to do in the evening, and she Netflixes Jackie Chan movies. If you had that up on the big screen, that would be cool. That would attract a ton of folks.
Bridgeport and much of the 11th Ward hasn’t yet seen many large-scale residential developments the way neighboring areas like Pilsen have, and home prices are still relatively low compared to other parts of the city. How would you approach housing as alderman?
Right now, the city’s course as a whole is unsustainable. The families that are well-off are getting so much more extremely well-off, and everyone else is getting screwed, and it’s just getting worse year after year after year. It’s the ComEd stuff, it’s the Peoples Gas, it’s the property tax, it’s the garbage tax. We need to worry about families first and then development. When we have good jobs can take care of everything else. This is a multipronged approach. There is no clear answer.
First off, you need to honor our pension obligations by taxing big banks and luxury goods and not just automatically going to property tax and garbage tax, like our current alderman chose to do in 2015, although options like luxury tax were on the table. That will help with the problems of housing affordability right there. There’s also more we can do in terms of municipal labor ordinances. There’s also things we can do to bring down housing costs, like the home solar program, which is also one of my centerpieces. This is like they’re already doing in Cleveland. Effectively we would help folks install home solar. It pays for itself in time. It lowers their energy bills. Interestingly too, there’s been a lot of cool stuff happening since Pope Francis wrote his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, which has incurred motion on this. People get this viscerally really in all corners of the ward.
These are very delicate questions. We would need to do surveys with folks, impacts of parking and other things. We could probably pick up the density a little bit, especially in your CTA stops. And this isn’t like, you know, huge twelve-story buildings. This is more like the missing middle of three- to five-flats and that would help overall by increasing the tax base more. That would be more people here and more economic activity which would help with business. I would also love to explore more creative options for local storefronts.
Some of the things that you advocate for, like home solar panels and municipal labor ordinances, might face some opposition. How would you go about pushing this larger legislation through?
It’s going to be very likely that there will be more City Council members advocating for these types of common sense policy initiatives that help out everyday people. So in terms of practicability, I think there’s going to be a lot more possibilities in 2019 than there is this year. At all times I will be collegial; however there are some make-or-break issues. And right now that is cost of living for people here. And it is simply unsustainable.
That includes holding other aldermen accountable if they make the wrong decision and sell out to wealthy interests. Let’s say another property tax increase goes through. I wonder, could we make sure to have a publicity effort where every single voter in their ward gets mailed their concrete decision on their wrongheaded vote. I would not do that for every issue, but this is such an important make-or-break issue. I would try to hold the other alderman accountable with their voters on a future property tax increase.
What do you view the job of alderman to currently be, and what do you think it should be?
The job of the alderman usually is to serve as the direct face of city services for constituents and being highly organized to make sure that people are hooked up with city services. In general, it’s to have a little bit more vision in terms of city legislation and larger programs. So, for example, using part of our menu money to fund the larger scale mural projects. It would also be, instead of rubber stamping Mayor Emanuel’s desire to raise property taxes, to actually dig and figure out viable ways to tax luxury goods and big banks. There are wonderful ideas to tax the big banks’ vacant foreclosed properties. These banks were engaging in financial speculation; working people paid the price. Then the properties end up in the hands of big banks, and they’re not even taking care of them, which brings down everyone’s property values. We should basically move forward with plans to tax property like that, because that would then either get revenue or they would have to put it back into the rental housing market.
You know, I’m not money. I don’t come from money. I get that working people are getting a raw deal because I’ve lived that. During this time, I’ve been part of two unionization campaigns on my own time because it’s the right thing to do. I’ve also done freelance writing on the student debt crisis and the role of self-enriching administrators lining their pockets while they’re leaving a generation saddled with debt. I’ve worked in teaching. I work in elder care. I live to do good, I do good, and I think people can appreciate that. I think they can appreciate the effort I’ve been making, trying to get out there, to talk more about how we can have fairer public revenue systems and how we can do more investing in youth. These are wide consensus issues that really cross constituencies on every corner of the ward.
For example, the home solar program makes complete financial sense, it would help a lot of people out by lowering electricity bills. But public development money is being squandered on the one percent. So for example, the River Point office complex up on the corner of the Chicago River with the little arch, that got thirty million dollars in public subsidies. They have a Gibson’s steakhouse with $125 rib-eyes. What in the heck was that money being used for where we slid them thirty million dollars? That should have never happened. That could have funded materials to install home solar for around 2,000 families. That would have helped out 2,000 families in this ward.
Are there processes that you’d put in place, or things you’d otherwise to do ensure you stay accountable to the people of the ward?
This is something that comes up a lot because people see that aldermen tend to sell out to wealthy interests. I’m accepting campaign contributions from individuals, progressive political action committees, and labor unions. I am not accepting contributions from businesses so that I can remain fair and impartial if there are zoning issues, as with the heliport decision, because any contributions from businesses muddy the waters too much, and you tend to end up with zoning decisions that affect the community. I would also like to point out that, even though for years I’ve been working short-term in low-wage jobs, I’ve stuck by my values. I’ve fought for unionization, I’ve had employers retaliate. People can always change, but I have a track record of integrity and I do hope people realize that I am always happy to speak with any constituent about issues, including disagreements, if we can discuss in a respectful, productive manner.
Correction 10/10/18: This article was updated to reflect information regarding Mihalyfy’s campaign donors.
Sam Stecklow is a managing editor of the Weekly. He lives in Bridgeport.