The 12th Ward, Chicago. Illustration by Cam Rodriguez

In the race for the 12th Ward City Council seat are Mayor Lori Lightfoot-appointed alderperson Anabel Abarca—endorsed by former alderman George Cardenas, who in November 2022 stepped down after serving five terms to work as Commissioner of the Cook County Board of Review—and her challenger, Julia Ramirez, a community organizer and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) social worker born and raised in Brighton Park.

The 12th Ward encompasses most of McKinley Park and Brighton Park. Before redistricting, some parts of Little Village also belonged to the 12th Ward. These Southwest Side neighborhoods are working-class with a majority-Mexican Latinx population of over seventy-five percent, followed by an Asian population of fourteen percent and a white population of seven percent. 

Anabel Abarca. Photo provided.

Historically, the area is known for being a part of Chicago’s Central Manufacturing District. The area drew immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s for work at factories including Wrigley, Goodyear Tire, and the Union Stock Yards and meatpacking factories in the neighboring communities. But while the ward and neighboring communities were dominated by these industries during the first half of the 20th century, it has since undergone largely residential and recreational uses. 

Despite this, the zoning codes haven’t changed which allowed for MAT Asphalt to build near schools, a park, and homes. This has been a hot button issue for years as residents have filed over a hundred pollution complaints with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and the City. The plant has also been cited several times. 

Many residents who are concerned about the environment say former alderman Cardenas didn’t engage with the residents before the plant came in. A 2020 email provided to the Weekly by Neighbors for Environmental Justice suggests that Cardenas and owner Michael Tadin Jr. had begun discussing the plant as early as February 2017. What is more, in 2015 Cardenas accepted campaign contributions from MAT Leasing, a waste transfer business owned by the father Tadin Jr.

Abarca was raised on the North Side, attended Chicago Public Schools and has been living in McKinley park since 2005. Her current employer is Faegre Drinker Biddle and Reath, where she works as a construction litigation attorney. Until recently, she was Cardenas’ chief of staff and strategic advisor. 

Candidate Julia Ramirez has worked as a community organizer with Little Village nonprofits Latinos Progresando and Instituto del Progreso Latino. Most recently, Ramirez was a social worker and restorative justice practitioner with CPS. 

Most of Abarca’s work experience is in law, representing development and construction firms. She has also worked in city government with the Chicago Department of Public Health and Chicago Board of Elections. When she was Cardenas’s chief of staff from 2013 to 2016, Abarca managed the annual budget of $1.3 million and “led all ward zoning” and “assisted real estate developers in moving developments through municipal processes,” according to her resume

Some of Abarca’s donors are in the real estate and  trucking and manufacturing industries. One of her donors is The Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance, a group of nine development associations across the city. Her top donor, REALTORS®, is a political action committee (PAC) which donated $10,000 to her campaign in early January. Notable donors and endorsers include George Cardenas himself, City Clerk Anna Valencia, and several labor unions such as Local 134 Chicago International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Chicago Plumbers Local 130.

Ramirez’s work experience has primarily been on the ground—as a community organizer and social worker, helping immigrant communities access resources and mitigate crime. Ramirez helped raise money for street vendors during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as a volunteer for Increase the Peace. She previously worked with the organization BUILD, a gang intervention, violence prevention, and youth development organization based on Chicago’s West Side. 

Julia Ramirez. Photo provided.

Her top campaign contributions are from SEIU PACs equaling over $40,000, as well as a donation from Mijente, an organization fighting for Latinx rights, and the Cook County College Teachers Union. The rest are donations from individuals. Ramirez’ endorsements include United Working Families—which also endorses Brandon Johnson for mayor—The Sunrise Movement, Urban Environmentalists, and the Illinois Nurses Association, among others. 

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Both candidates were invited to attend the February 9 12th Ward candidate forum at Kelly High School organized by community groups Neighbors 4 Environmental Justice (N4EJ), Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, and McKinley Park Development Council. This reporter and McKinley Park resident was invited to moderate the forum. 

Ramirez confirmed her attendance, but Abarca declined to attend, alleging the forum did not meet the requirements of “fairness and impartiality.” She added that some of the people in those organizations were backing Ramirez. 

“We are disappointed that Alderwoman Abarca has declined to attend the 12th Ward Candidate Forum…,” said N4EJ in response to her public letter. “We have not endorsed anyone in the 12th Ward race, nor will we do so; in preparing for this event, we declined to partner with any group endorsing a candidate. Our members are, of course, free to support whomever they feel is best, when not acting on behalf of our organization.” 

In a statement, Ramirez said, “As candidates, we must hear out all community stakeholders’ concerns, not only those who we align with. It’s disappointing to hear our opponent discredit the good work that community organizations have done in our neighborhoods for years and is further evidence that she is not ready to represent the 12th ward.”

Cardenas also declined an invitation to a candidate forum in 2019.  

A Twitter user responded with: “Engagement with community members wherever they are is critical. Not surprising if this is what you learned from your former boss.” 

In the letter, Abarca said she was instead going to attend a separate forum moderated by a Block Club Chicago journalist, claiming the organization is “nonpartisan” and “objective.” 

When the Weekly reached out to Abarca’s campaign office for comment, they sent the same statement, adding that the comment on the “fairness and impartiality” of the event was not directed at the Weekly

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Both aldermanic candidates attended the January 26 BlockClub candidate forum where they addressed affordable housing, public safety, transportation infrastructure, the environment, and more. 

There, Abarca said she wants to expand the Accessory Dwelling Units Ordinance, a pilot program, to include the 12th Ward. In 2020, the ordinance re-legalized backyard house or interior ADUs (attics and basements for housing) as an affordable housing solution. Ramirez said she also wants to promote more of these types of units, but not just stop there—she also wants to work with the state to ensure rent regulation and pathways for residents to become homeowners.

Both said it’s in their plans to make Archer Avenue safer. Archer Avenue has many roadblocks to safe walking and biking. “I want to make sure we start prioritizing cyclists and pedestrians because for way too long we’ve been prioritizing cars,” Ramirez said. Abarca said she started working with the Department of Planning and Development as well as the Department of Transportation to have bike lanes on Archer, Western, Kedzie and 35th Streets and Pershing Rd. 

Abarca wants to rezone 35th street in McKinley Park for new businesses as the corridor has been vacant for years. While Ramirez said “she’s happy about this,” she mentioned it’s important to get the input of the community before making those types of decisions. “We need people who have been deeply disenfranchised from their communities to be asked what they want,” said Ramirez.” She added it’s “beyond opening” a business, stating they also need help “to stay open.” 

The Department of Planning has begun vetting three proposals from developers looking into reusing City-owned property along Pershing Road’s industrial corridor. One of the proposals is a $121 million plan from IBT Group for mixed-income housing, offices and retail space; a $95 million plan from LG Pershing Sound Studios for movie studio and retail and commercial space; and a $90 million plan from Quartermaster Outpost for a movie studio and commercial space as well.

At the forum, Ramirez brought up concerns about MAT Asphalt and the Amazon distribution center emissions generated from trucks. She advocates for community engagement when it comes to developers going into the ward. “Why do they put them in our communities?” she asked rhetorically, referring to big developers and making it clear that she will support closing down MAT Asphalt. 

“I am not going to tell you something that you want to hear, but tell you what is actually possible,” Abarca said. “I’m not going to take a stance and tell you that [MAT Asphalt] is going to be closed on day one… instead, I’m going to tell you that we are going to do everything humanly possible to enforce the actual regulation of the asphalt plant.”

Abarca said she wants to create a zoning council made up of community residents and organizations. Her opponent is interested in first educating people on how zoning works and that especially disenfranchised residents should be part of that process.

Ramirez said she wants to approach public safety by expanding opportunities for young people through the One Summer Chicago Program, as well as funding intervention programs. Money going to the Chicago Police Department (CPD) is something she also wants to keep her eye on and that “it’s working where we need it to.” Abarca said she wants to host events like CPD’s Catalytic Converter Deterrent Events to address thefts and thinks homeowners should be able to talk to police officers on the streets in order to “build trust.”

During the forum, attendees were not able to clap or cheer. They used green cards to express agreement or red for disagreement. But after both candidates gave their closing statements, the event concluded and the crowd overwhelmingly cheered and chanted for Ramirez.

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Alma Campos is a senior editor at the Weekly.

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