Six months ago, 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis’s grip on power was starting to feel a little shaky. After serving in City Council for twenty-two years, aligning himself closely with Mayor Richard M. Daley and then Rahm Emanuel, criticism of Solis was reaching a fever pitch. While longterm ward residents faced increased property taxes and skyrocketing rates of displacement, Solis greenlit new developments marketed toward young white professionals. Community organizations were fueling a swell of anti-gentrification activism, with Solis cast as the central, money-grubbing villain. And candidates were lining up to run against him in 2019, with five challengers ending up on the ballot.
But Solis was still a formidable incumbent. He was chairman of the City Council’s powerful Zoning Committee, had hundreds of thousands of dollars in his war chest, and was one of Emanuel’s closest allies. (According to analyses by University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson, Solis has voted with Emanuel one hundred percent of the time since 2015.)
But then in November, seemingly out of nowhere, Solis announced he was retiring. “It’s time to enter a new chapter of my life,” he said in a statement, “and pass the baton of public service to another.”
It felt like there had to be catch… and, of course, there was. In late January, the news broke that Solis had collaborated with the FBI to secretly record conversations with Alderman Ed Burke and broker a meeting between a developer and Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan. And then came the alleged details of why he collaborated in the first place, including serious debt, shady real estate deals, and illicit trips to a massage parlor. Solis has been missing in action from City Hall ever since.
Now, in the race to replace him, even the loosest association with Solis has become a political third rail, overshadowing substantive policy debates. “I think it could have shifted [the conversation] towards the issues if it was just a retirement,” said candidate Hilario Dominguez, “but the scandal is the sexier topic for media… We have to do better at the forums and moving forward to prioritize issues.”
And while the five Pilsen-based candidates on the ballot in the 25th Ward agree on much, like stopping the displacement of working-class Latinx families and keeping the ward affordable, Solis’s abdication has also exposed a deeply embedded factionalism, dredging up simmering feuds and bad blood.
Some of the ward’s divisions are structural: the 25th Ward is wildly gerrymandered. It stretches from the northeastern corner of McKinley Park through most of Pilsen before curling narrowly north to parts of the West Loop. Conspicuously avoiding much of UIC’s campus, it then slopes down to a stretch of the South Loop and most of Chinatown.
But the fragmentation is also potent among a slew of community organizations and power bases in Pilsen (which makes up the majority of the ward), many of which have butted heads for years. Each candidate is aligned with one of these factions, whether it be an activist group like Pilsen Alliance; a demographic, like middle class homeowners; or a political family. These affiliations, perhaps more than any platform or public statement, illuminate the distinctions between the five candidates hoping to replace Solis.
Andrew Herrera, president of Dominguez-aligned group Unite 25, put it bluntly:
“It’s not candidates that win,” he said. “It’s organizations that win.”
Notably, the factions in Pilsen don’t arrange themselves along typical Chicago binaries, like independents versus Machine or left versus center. Even among progressives who have been criticizing Solis for years, there are sharp divisions.
This is the base Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Hilario Dominguez are courting. Both candidates have garnered endorsements from left-leaning politicians and groups across the city, and they overlap on many issues. But in spite of their similarities, or perhaps because of them, the competition between the two candidates is particularly fraught.
Sigcho-Lopez first ran for 25th Ward alderman in 2015. Since then, he has built support through his work with Pilsen Alliance, where he served as executive director from 2015 to 2018. The group is best known for its anti-gentrification work in Pilsen, and has vocally opposed Solis and his stance on development in the ward for decades.
Rosa Esquivel, currently Pilsen Alliance’s board president, describes the group as a social justice organization. “Here in Chicago, there’s a lot of inequality when it comes to communities of color,” she said. “We don’t have homes for the homeless, the rents are rising, the taxes are rising. So we want some type of reform that will alleviate all the pain that people are going through.” In particular, she says, Pilsen Alliance is fighting so that low-income people of color will be able to stay in Pilsen, “You know now we have a neighborhood that is more diverse, but we want everybody to enjoy it, and not just a few people that can pay for all the services,” she said. “We want people that have been in the community for years and years to enjoy what they have invested. You know, they have invested their lives here in the community.”
Under Sigcho-Lopez’s leadership, Pilsen Alliance was a founding member of the Lift The Ban Coalition, which has been lobbying to change a state law prohibiting rent control in Illinois. Pilsen Alliance has participated in a number of other citywide social justice movements: they are an endorsing organization for both the #NoCopAcademy movement and the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), and Sigcho-Lopez first became involved with the group when they were organizing against the 2013 school closures. All of this coalition work means that Sigcho-Lopez has staunch progressive allies across the city. He has been endorsed by Chicago DSA and received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73.
Within his own community, however, it’s a different story. Sigcho-Lopez and Pilsen Alliance hold a hard line: If you are with Solis, you are against us. That means many of the neighborhood’s prominent businesses and nonprofits contribute to what Sigcho-Lopez and his supporters call a “pay to play” culture in the ward. In particular, Pilsen Alliance has targeted the Resurrection Project (TRP), a housing nonprofit which develops and provides affordable housing for Pilsen residents (including some members of Pilsen Alliance), but which has a close working relationship with Solis. TRP is a part of the Pilsen Land Use Committee (PLUC), a council made up of neighborhood nonprofits, that advises the alderman on development projects. PLUC’s members were hand-picked by the alderman, and Pilsen Alliance has long held that the group serves only to provide political cover for Solis’s pro-developer agenda.
Sigcho-Lopez says his long-standing opposition to Solis is one reason he’s uniquely qualified to serve as the next alderman. He certainly has a strong base of supporters who agree. In 2015, he got over eighteen percent of the vote and came the closest of any candidate to forcing a runoff with Solis. But Pilsen Alliance’s hard line has ruffled some feathers in the neighborhood, and Sigcho-Lopez’s opponents frame the candidate as too divisive to lead effectively.
To this criticism, Sigcho-Lopez countered, “The bad blood comes from the associations with Alderman Solis and let’s be clear, anybody associated with Alderman Solis should really look into themselves and [ask] where is the bad blood coming from? And they have to answer that.”
At twenty-five, Hilario Dominguez is the youngest candidate in the race. He grew up in Pilsen, and often talks about how dealing with gang violence and domestic abuse as a kid will inform his policies and vision as alderman. Like Sigcho-Lopez, he supports an elected school board and civilian oversight of the CPD. Over the past few months, he’s picked up a series of high-profile endorsements, including from Chance the Rapper and U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García.
Dominguez is a former special education teacher and campaign organizer for progressives like Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya and State Representative Aarón Ortiz, both young candidates supported by García. He also worked for six months as an organizer at TRP; Dominguez now regards the nonprofit with ambivalence.
“I think overall, nonprofits are born to fight for the world as it should be,” he said. “But systems are created that make it really difficult for them to do that sometimes. And in terms of TRP, there’s a system that allows them and ultimately forces them to be in direct relationship with leaders like the alderman or the mayor, which prevent them from fully fighting for the world as it should be and essentially staying close to the world as it is. And those are the things that I was critical of. They have to fight for the limited funding that exists in the state and that includes compromises that, to me, I wasn’t okay with. I’m happy I [left]. But I’m also proud of what I was able to do while I was there, to be able to fight back against gentrification.”
Dominguez has also received substantial criticism concerning a 2017 community march he organized that was attended by Solis. At a recent candidate forum at St. Procopius Church in Pilsen, he was repeatedly asked about Solis’s presence at the march, which Dominguez says has been misunderstood.
“It was a classic organizing technique, get people there, get the elected official there and have him say to our face what he’s going to do to address the displacement issue and then hold him accountable to it,” he said in an interview. “The strategy was really for him to tell us that he was going to abide by the twenty-one percent affordable housing mandate [in Pilsen], so that we can then hold him accountable moving forward in the future.” This strategy backfired. The march was met with a group of protesters from Pilsen Alliance, and Solis stayed only for the photo op, leaving before the rally where he was expected to speak. “And now the perception is that he was some sort of champion that we were defending,” Dominguez said, “which is completely wrong.”
The fact that the march—a single event almost two years ago—has had so much staying power in the race is a testament to how toxic any affiliation with Solis has become in Pilsen.
A group Dominguez is aligning himself with is Unite 25, a political organization started by former members of the 25th Ward Independent Political Organization (IPO), which is supporting Sigcho-Lopez. “Consider them my accountability group, consider them my checks and balance group,” Dominguez said. “That if and when we are elected, they will hold me to all the things that we’ve been talking about on this campaign.”
Unite 25 has organized for various progressive candidates over the past two years, mostly on the Southwest Side. In an interview in early February, the group’s president, Andrew Herrera, said its goal is to create “a democratically-minded base, that’s going to not just articulate the needs of the people but go out there and continue talking to people, bringing them to a forum where they can express their ideas, concerns and grievances, and we can politicize those issues, and bring [them] about in City Council or on the state or county level.”
Herrera said that in the race to replace Solis, Unite 25 offers organizational support for Dominguez that other candidates already have. And since September 2018, it’s donated at least $15,000 to Dominguez’s campaign.
“A base not only holds [politicians] accountable, but makes them efficient, right?” he said. “Because they need help and they need support to get things passed, and they need people to help organize community meetings and get people there, and all that stuff. Organizing never stops. And so, how do we get that to not only help Hilario, but help other people, and make sure we’re building a progressive fortress?”
Since Unite 25 split from the 25th Ward IPO in 2017, each organization has acted as a conduit for their aldermanic candidates and the deep-seated tensions among left-leaning Pilsen activists.
Independent Political Organizations (IPOs) were invented during the heyday of Chicago Machine politics as a way to provide an organizing base for candidates running against the Machine, which had its own ward-level organizations. According to Esquivel, the 25th Ward IPO was first established by the same group who founded Pilsen Alliance in the late 1990s, as a way for the founders to get involved in elections (as a 501(c)(3) organization, Pilsen Alliance cannot directly support candidates). Though Pilsen Alliance persisted, the IPO dissolved as some of its core organizers moved away. It was resuscitated in 2015 to build on the momentum from Sigcho-Lopez’s last aldermanic run.
Herrera volunteered on that campaign and was one of the organizers who helped restart the IPO. But he left and co-founded Unite 25 after growing dissatisfaction with the IPO’s direction.
“We’ve had IPOs in the city, but not enough,” he said. There hasn’t been a grassroots level organization that’s looking out for the broad interests of the constituents of that district. And so that was the idea behind the 25th Ward IPO. And the reason that we founded Unite 25 is because the 25th Ward IPO was failing in that mission. And it was failing because it had failed to become more than Byron’s campaign operation.”
As with so many grassroots organizations, the conflict within the IPO started over mundane details like the drafting of bylaws. But the demographic changes in Pilsen played a role, too. Esquivel, who now sits on the IPO’s steering committee, says that the organizers who now make up Unite 25 come from a place of more systemic privilege than the Pilsen Alliance members who were also involved in the IPO. “We go through those struggles everyday,” she says. “I feel that when you are privileged, sometimes you don’t see the struggles the same way.”
These differences compounded into a fight for control—and ultimately, a schism—between Sigcho-Lopez’s supporters and Herrera’s. Esquivel didn’t want to discuss the details of the conflict. By way of explanation, she simply said, “There was a point that we had to defend ourselves and the organization.” As a result, the 25th Ward now has the dubious distinction of containing two separate IPOs supporting separate candidates in an aldermanic election.
Beyond the simmering tensions between their supporters, Dominguez and Sigcho-Lopez have similar progressive platforms. One notable difference is their stances on PLUC. Dominguez has called for expanding the committee to include more community stakeholders; Sigcho-Lopez says it should be scrapped entirely and replaced with a more transparent and participatory zoning process, which allows anyone from the community be involved (much like participatory budgeting).
And then there’s Troy Hernandez. A data scientist at IBM and director with the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO), Hernandez has become something of a foil in the race, an outlier who’s self-funding his campaign.
With PERRO, Hernandez has opposed Pilsen metal shredders and the Fisk coal plant, and drawn attention to lead in the city’s water pipes. He has also served on the Pilsen Academy Local School Council, and ran for alderman in 2014 before withdrawing when his ballot petitions were challenged.
Hernandez’s outlier status is perhaps seen most clearly in his platform, which doesn’t fall along established ideological lines. He’s called for reforming TIF funding and establishing an elected school board (and more specifically, including educators on the board), but opposes rent control as a solution to the 25th Ward’s affordability crisis.
“I tend to be progressive on most issues, but progressives tend to be really bad at economics,” he said at a candidates forum in January. “And this is one of those cases, where rent control just destroys markets. If we want Pilsen to be the destination for immigrants, the landing [spot] for immigrants, rent control will kill that. Because you can’t move in—the only people that are going to be able to move in are the wealthy.”
Hernandez said a more viable path to creating affordable housing is to support programs that provide subsidies for homeowners and future homeowners. “Let’s subsidize them, get middle class people into a house, have a requirement be that they keep the other units as affordable housing, and there you go,” he said. “We’re not giving money to rich developers.”
A hallmark of Hernandez’s campaign has been his willingness to speak frankly about ward issues and his opponents. He’s been brazenly candid in interviews and on his blog about his personal history and dislike for Sigcho-Lopez, whom he met through Pilsen Alliance several years ago.
Part of that tension concerns a Pilsen metal shredder owned by Sims Metal Management, which was recently fined $225,000 by the EPA for violating federal air emission regulations. Hernandez says the company has in the past funded Pilsen Alliance in exchange for political cover, and that the group has been duplicitous about the connection. “That’s why I don’t like Pilsen Alliance, that’s why I don’t like Byron,” Hernandez said. “Because that’s what they traffic in. It’s old machine politics, with a new progressive face.”
Sigcho-Lopez and Esquivel both deny there was any financial relationship between Pilsen Alliance and SIMs. They say the organization’s only connection to the company is that they jointly filed a lawsuit against Pure Metal Recycling, which wanted to open a metal shredder in Pilsen. And despite Hernandez’s open criticism, his organization, PERRO, actually has a history of collaborating with Pilsen Alliance; the two organizations were part of a 2004 coalition that advocated for a Pilsen community zoning board (the result was the Pilsen Community Zoning Board, which Solis shortly dismantled to make way for PLUC). And Esquivel said she’d be interested in collaborating with PERRO again. “I think both organizations, if we start talking with each other, I think we have more common ground and and more common goals than when we have differences,” she said. “And that’s why we have to get over that personal stuff in order to move forward and to help the community?”
Of course, these divisions among community organizers and left-leaning groups are only one part of the story, and may have little to no significance to the average 25th Ward voter. While Byron and Hilario fight over the ward’s young, progressive base, Alex Acevedo and Aida Flores are maneuvering for the votes of more moderate homeowners, and the financial support of business interests. (Hernandez, well—he doesn’t appear to have a base.) Both Flores and Acevedo have taken money from developers, construction firms, and realtors, which Sigcho-Lopez and his supporters say is a disqualifier for any candidate running in Pilsen.
Acevedo is the son of former state Representative Eddie Acevedo, who was a longtime friend and political ally to Danny Solis. Both men were put in office thanks to support from the powerful Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO), which was instrumental in consolidating power behind former Mayor Richard M. Daley and his allies through a combination of patronage (rewarding supporters with city jobs) and intimidation tactics.
Back in 2016, Eddie Acevedo chose not to run for reelection, and unsuccessfully attempted to have his son Alex be appointed in his place. Alex instead ran in the election with Solis’s endorsement. He lost to progressive newcomer Theresa Mah, the first Chinese-American to represent Illinois’s 2nd House District, which includes Chinatown and Pilsen. (She is also the first Asian-American ever elected to the Illinois General Assembly.)
Now, Alex Acevedo is running for alderman, and he is quick to distance himself from the incumbent. (After his loss three years ago, he and his father reportedly had a falling out with Solis.) “Really, he wasn’t involved in my  campaign,” he said, “[Solis] didn’t give me a single penny, no resources.” When asked about his dad’s ties to machine politics, the younger Acevedo said he’s proud of his family but insists that he’s his own man: “Look, I’m not my father, he comes from a different industry. He was a police officer, I’m a nurse.” Indeed, Acevedo really wants people to know that he is a nurse. His website and mailers all depict the candidate in scrubs, and his campaign uses the hashtag #AlwaysOnCall.
However, there are a few clear parallels between Alex Acevedo and his father. For example, there’s no question that Acevedo is running as the law and order candidate (though one with a softer, gentler approach than his father). He has the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s largest police union, which only supports candidates who are firmly pro-cop. And then there’s Acevedo’s organizing base: if Sigcho-Lopez has Pilsen Alliance, and Dominguez has Unite 25, then Acevedo has Neighborhood Watch Coalition, a group he started three years ago after a spate of arsons in Pilsen.
According to Acevedo, the group started with only seven people but has ballooned to 7,000 people who are part of the email list, phone tree, and Facebook page. He says the group is a coalition of veterans, parents, small business owners, and park advisory boards. He estimates about half the group are longtime residents while the other half are younger newcomers to the neighborhood. Though its main focus is public safety, Acevedo emphasizes that this is not a police group: “We work with them as a coalition, but we take their stats and some of the crimes that are being recorded, and we share the information with the community at large, because we want people to come to us.” Acevedo believes the coalition is a trusted outlet for people who might not feel safe going to the police or calling 911 because, he said, “they’re afraid of vengeance” from gang members.
Acevedo also has many of his dad’s same endorsements—powerful labor unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Teamsters Local 700—and financial supporters, like the Mexican American PAC (which has also supported, and received money from, Ed Burke) and the Realtor Political Action Committee.
That latter PAC is one of Acevedo’s top supporters (it gave him $15,000 in 2016) and hints at the candidate’s more conservative stance when it comes to housing policy. He dismisses the idea of rent control, saying it will have an adverse effect on homeowners in the area. “If you look at the amount of homeowners who live in Pilsen, who actually live here, that’s only thirty percent,” he said, “and if we implement rent control today, that thirty percent is only going to go down.” Acevedo’s housing solutions—such as a property tax freeze and funding support for rehabbers—prioritize the needs of homeowners rather than renters, whom he says are mostly young and transient newcomers to the neighborhood. Of course, there are renters in Pilsen who are longtime residents—low-income and working Latinx families that are quickly being priced out and that groups like Pilsen Alliance aim to protect. For those folks, Acevedo envisions a transitional housing program, which provides job placement, financial education, and ultimately helps families go from renting to homeownership, “because that’s what everyone wants, right?”
Lest you think the factionalism is limited to the ward’s left-leaning groups, the Acevedo family is also known for aggressive and threatening behavior towards political opponents. In 2016, Acevedo’s supporters—including some family members—disrupted a press conference for Theresa Mah with threatening tactics reminiscent of the HDO’s heyday.
That leaves Aida Flores, a former teacher at Pilsen’s Benito Juarez High School, and, most recently, a CPS principal. She has positioned herself as the only truly independent candidate in this race—not tied to any of the ward’s factions—and therefore the only one who can effectively bring every stakeholder to the table, particularly when it comes to housing and gentrification. “Some people like that development and other people are pushing really hard against that development in a way that’s fragmenting us and its not bringing about solutions,” she said. “I really think this is an opportunity to lead in a different direction, with compassionate leadership, with love, and positivity.”
Flores regularly emphasizes the need to lead with love (she even named her own consulting company Leading With Love LLC), but this ethos means she originally took a conciliatory stance toward Alderman Solis. When the alderman announced his retirement, Flores released a statement thanking him for his service. “I believe that despite our significant policy disagreements, we share a deep commitment to improving the lives of working families in this district,” it read, “so I look forward to partnering with him to continue that work moving forward.” (Since Solis’s scandal has come to light, Flores has revised this opinion.)
Flores has the endorsement of Sol Solis, the alderman’s daughter, and Herrera from Unite 25 claims that many of Solis’s staffers are working for her campaign. “That’s indisputable,” he said. “She’s got most of his precinct captains, she’s got a lot of his donors, that’s her organization, that’s who’s going to hold her accountable when she’s in office.” In particular, Herrera said that Danny Moy, Solis’s Chinatown precinct captain, is now working for Flores. (The Chinese-language Epoch Times has also reported this, according to Hoy.)
Flores denies that she has any of Solis’s team on her staff. “No. No one is working on my campaign,” she said. “I have one paid staffer on my campaign and that’s my field director.” That said, precinct captains are not traditionally paid positions. They are volunteers, and in the HDO tradition to which Solis subscribed, they were rewarded with city jobs. (Moy is the 25th Ward’s superintendent for the city Department of Streets and Sanitation.) Flores has received donations from some of Solis’s supporters, including Pacella Trucking Express, which has given thousands of dollars both to Solis’s fundraising committee and the Solis-controlled 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization. With this in mind, Flores’s opponents say her claims to independence are unfounded.
In terms of policy, Flores tends to echo Acevedo’s concern for Pilsen homeowners and similarly does not support rent control. And like Dominguez, both Acevedo and Flores want to keep PLUC, but expand it to include more stakeholders. According to Acevedo, “The people who are in PLUC, a lot of them have done some great work for this community.” The key, he said, is to have PLUC’s decision-making process be much more transparent than it is now.
Flores acknowledges the contention by Pilsen Alliance that PLUC members have aided Solis’ agenda, but she ultimately agrees with Acevedo. “We cannot ignore the fact that we’ve had displacement here,” she says, “but I also know that these organizations provide resources. If we’re gonna fight back and forth about that, what’s gonna happen to those resources?” She says she’d like to to bring more stakeholders into PLUC, including neighborhood school principals as well as groups like Pilsen Alliance.
As voters in the 25th Ward decide who should be their first new alderman in over two decades, the central, omnipresent issue remains affordability. From the West Loop to Chinatown, McKinley Park to Pilsen, the spectre of new development and its potential to reshape neighborhoods hovers over every vacant lot and shuttered small business.
“You have 18th and Peoria, you have El Paseo, you have the 78 — the brand new neighborhood,” Dominguez says. “You have the need for a high school in four of the neighborhoods in this ward, you have redistricting coming up, right? The 25th Ward is in a very sensitive situation right now.”
Maybe that’s the one thing all five aldermanic candidates can agree on: the 25th Ward is at a crossroads, facing challenges that will define who’s able to live in these communities for decades, and who’s not.
And even in his absence, Solis remains a dark cloud over the race. Some candidates and community members are eager to move on and start fresh. But others say it would be wrong to forget Solis’s mistakes, or forgive his associates.
“We had twenty years of a corrupt politician that everybody used to be complicit for the sake of peace,” Esquivel said. “This is what happens. We can love each other, we can have unity, but at the same time, we need to challenge people in the community.”
Byron Sigcho-Lopez agreed. “I’m very aware that we are up against big money,” he says. “[And] I’m very confident that a lot of my opposition are not aware of this, they do not understand what’s at stake. They are being sectarian by trying to replicate the same practices that Alderman Solis implemented for too long.”
But Aida Flores takes a softer approach, in line with the “Leading With Love” message she’s championed over the past few months.
“We’re not going to have the best solutions for these complex problems unless we have somebody who can come in and be a bridge builder because then we’ll allow certain voices to be left out.”
Every candidate, including Sigcho-Lopez, insists that they’ll be able to provide the kind of unifying leadership that the ward needs. But how those bridges will be built, amid contentious factionalism and a missing alderman, remain to be seen. And so long as the community itself remains divided, it will be harder to hold the new alderman accountable, and easier for developers to refashion Pilsen, and the whole 25th Ward, in their own interest.
Next week, the Weekly will take a look at how the race has been unfolding in Chinatown.
Quinn Myers is a freelance radio and print journalist based in Chicago. He also reported the Meet The Candidates interview with Troy Hernandez which appears this week. Ellen Mayer is the Weekly’s Politics Editor. As a contributor, she most recently served as the neighborhood captain for the Pilsen section of our Best of the South Side Issue. Both writers live in Pilsen.