Features | Politics

Will the 25th Ward Send a Socialist to City Hall?

Jorge Mújica runs for alderman

Wei Yi Ow

It has become commonplace to say that Chicago’s Lower West Side is changing. But even as an influx of students, young professionals, and creatives continues to raise the rents and profiles of Pilsen and the area’s other neighborhoods, the economic realities faced by many residents have changed little. Over a quarter of the Lower West Side’s households are below the poverty line. The majority of the area’s employed works in the service and construction industries, fields where, particularly for the undocumented, disputes over workers’ rights and compensation can be as contentious as they were over a century ago, when factory jobs brought German, Irish, and the first crop of Mexican immigrants to the area. It’s a mix of conditions ready-made for leftist politics, and leftist politicians.

Jorge Mújica claims not to be a politician at all. He’s an activist who wants to be 25th Ward alderman. As such, the petition drives, the door-to-door canvassing, and the social media efforts organized by an array of the city’s leftist leaders operating under the banner of the Chicago Socialist Campaign are, to hear him tell it, simply a continuation of his decades of labor and immigrant advocacy. He makes a point of not looking like a politician either. The black jacket and baseball cap he meets me in at Pilsen’s Efebina’s Café are part of the same workman’s wardrobe he led crowds in during Chicago’s leg of the nationwide immigration marches of 2006. 

Those marches, which brought thousands of activists and immigrant sympathizers downtown that spring, were animated by opposition to the “Sensenbrenner Bill,” legislation that would have made undocumented immigrants felons. It was a moment many see as the beginning of a cohesive immigration reform movement in the United States, a movement that Mújica has helped keep alive in Chicago through informal work assisting individual workers at risk of deportation with legal advice and through his work as an organizer with, among myriad other organizations, Arise Chicago, a group that advocates for the rights of impoverished workers, including the undocumented.

This is his second run for office since immigrating to the United States from Mexico in 1987. In 2009, he ran in the Democratic Party primary against Congressman Dan Lipinski in the 3rd Congressional District, a campaign he likely couldn’t have imagined making when he joined the Communist-Mexican Youth at the age of fifteen in 1971. He lost that race handily, but not for want of trying. That effort and this new campaign which, if successful, would unseat Danny Solis, who has served as 25th Ward alderman for nearly twenty years, both represent departures from the kinds of quixotic candidacies voters might expect from outsider figures. Mújica intends to go to City Hall. These are the ideas and concerns he wants to take with him. 

In 2009, you ran with the Democratic Party for United States Congress with a focus on immigration issues. At the same time you say you’ve always been a socialist. Did you think, at that time, there was a place for you and other leftists in the Democratic Party that no longer exists?

No. No, what happened was that in elections, you can simply say, I’m running in the Democratic Party primary without ever having anything to do with the Democratic Party. That was my case. I’ve never had anything to do with the Democratic Party. Never. I’ve never gone to any meetings, I’ve never filed a membership or anything like that.

It was a decision of a whole bunch of activists in the immigration movement that we had to give some opposition to Congressman Dan Lipinski. Dan Lipinski is one of the Democratic Party congressmen who voted in favor of the so-called “Sensenbrenner Bill,” which was the piece of legislation that prompted the 2006 marches. It was the criminalization of immigration. So he was our target. And when election time came, these immigration activists said, “Okay, somebody should run against Dan Lipinski.”

And I was one of the few citizens, I guess, in the movement, and it was decided that I should run. Then the second part of the discussion was, “Should we run in the general election, as independents, or should we run in the primaries?” And we discovered—we didn’t know anything at the time about elections, really—that it was nearly impossible to run as an independent because within the Democratic Party primaries, you only needed 800 signatures, but if you wanted to run as an independent, you needed thousands more. So we said forget it. And the decision was made to run in the Democratic primary.

But again, I’ve never been a member of the Democratic Party, never had anything to do with it whatsoever—and we’ve always criticized both the Democratic and Republican parties. To us, it’s never been an option to go with the Democratic Party as a solution to anything. It’s always a controversy of the lesser evils, but we’ve never thought that the Democratic Party is going to solve anything.

Right now you’re running as a socialist at an interesting time for the left in America. Councilwoman Kshama Sawant has received national attention for being the first socialist to win a Seattle election in nearly a century. There’s talk that Senator Bernie Sanders might run for President in 2016. To what extent is your campaign motivated or influenced by these currents?

Well, obviously, Kshama Sawant had a lot to do with it. But basically, we saw the Occupy movement, with all its flaws. But it was an explosive movement. The anti-war movement, which really had a lot of strength at one point, was [explosive] too. And then in Chicago in particular we had the teachers’ strike, which was half a revolution because of the public support. And then we had the school closings, and that was another half revolution in the community.

And so when Kshama Sawant won in Seattle, many groups on the left did something that they’re not used to doing: get together and talk about something practical for right now, for right here. You know, “Let’s see if we can do this in the City of Chicago.” And that, to me, was fantastic. Socialists from every segment of the rainbow of the left. And they decided to create the Chicago Socialist Campaign, an umbrella to cover all of these socialist, leftist, left-leaning—whatever you want to call them—groups. And then they started a process of researching where to run, what kind of campaign. Did we want to run a campaign just for promotional purposes—just a propaganda thing—or did we want to run a campaign in which we could win? And we decided we wanted the second kind of campaign.

Then, the general conclusion was, let’s do it in the 25th. And of course, you have to live in the ward in order to run for alderman in Chicago elections. So they looked for a candidate who lived in the 25th. But it wasn’t about just running a guy. It was about running a platform and a perspective, and then finding a candidate who was suitable for that platform. So I happened to live in the 25th Ward. On and off, but ever since I got to the City of Chicago, I’ve been around the 25th Ward, because Pilsen is the heart of the Latino-Mexican community. It doesn’t matter where you live, you’re always around here.

So I am the candidate of this campaign, not by personal decision, but as the candidate chosen by this array of leftist organizations. That in itself is, I think, a very healthy process. It was widely discussed, they consulted with many people and everybody said, “Let’s go ahead and try it.” So, that’s what we’re doing.

Why the 25th?

Many, many things. For instance, Alderman Danny Solis is the president of the Zoning Committee of the City of Chicago. That means he deals with the whole City of Chicago in terms of zoning. That means, you want a new business, you want a new building, you want to change your zoning from commercial to residential or from residential to commercial, you have to deal with Solis. But at the same time, he had to run a runoff last time. He couldn’t get the 50% plus one in the first election, so he had to go to a runoff and he only got, in this runoff, about 3,800 votes. That’s incredibly weak for a guy that powerful in the city. Out of over 20,000 registered voters. So we said, “Hell, this is an incredible weakness.”

When I ran against Dan Lipinski, I got nearly 16,000 votes. Of course, it was a Congressional District. It’s not the same thing. But I got nearly 16,000 votes in the 2010 election. So for us to win 3,800 votes—it was like, “Well I think we can do it.”[Laughs] So many things came into play.

Many people are also pissed at the gentrification process here in Pilsen. Not the landowners, of course, but the residents. We have lost like 10,000 Latino residents in Pilsen alone (over the past decade) because of gentrification. And gentrification is directly tied to the fact that Danny Solis is the president of the Zoning Committee. And so everything comes full circle.

In an interview you did with In These Times, you said a lot of the people who might have supported a socialist alderman have already moved out because the community is changing. Given that there are wealthier residents moving in as gentrification continues, can you be sure that a socialist alderman can represent the interests of the entire community? Are you interested in representing the entire community to begin with? 

We don’t necessarily want to represent everyone and that has to be clear. We are here to represent basically the interest of the majority and the majority are poor workers. Pilsen has a high unemployment rate. Most of the working residents are working poor. That’s the majority we want to represent. The minority? Sorry guys. I mean, if you make half a million dollars and you live in the 25th Ward, I am not going to be in City Hall to represent you. That’s the truth. And we want everybody to know that’s the truth.

I am not going to be representing the West, Southwest Loop portion of the ward with people that are making $100,000 and over. I can work with them, I can talk with them, I can address some of their issues, but their issues are not going to be the most important concern of the candidacy and the most important concern of my acting as an alderman in City Hall.

I mean, let’s be realistic. This is not an inter-class kind of thing. We’re not all in the same boat. I’m sorry. The 99% is the 99% and the 1% is the 1%.

Is that class division also implicitly a racial divide? Do you see the process of gentrification through the lens of racial division?

Gentrification is not necessarily about skin color. Gentrification is about social class.

Half of the white people who have moved to Pilsen are not rich. They are poor whites. A lot of them, for instance, are University of Illinois [at Chicago] students who cannot afford their dorms. The University is charging around $12,000 a year for dorms. $12,000 dollars a year in Pilsen gets you a room in a three bedroom apartment. I mean, come on. There’s no mystery there. So they’re moving here.

Unfortunately, that means the displacement of the poor of another skin color. The people doing the displacing are not necessarily rich people. Now, of course, the other half of the white population moving in are the real gentrifiers and that’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the developers.

Because we have buildings that used to have eight apartments renting for $400 dollars each being converted, with the help of the Chairman of the Zoning Committee of the City of Chicago Danny Solis, into four deluxe apartments with $1,200 dollar rent. And Latino residents cannot afford that. And that’s happening in some spots and some segments of the ward, but it’s not all over. It’s not widespread, but that’s the real gentrification.

What voters are going to be the most important for you to reach? And how difficult will it be to sell socialism to those constituencies?

All the Mexican immigrants take it as the most natural thing in the world. Because Mexico has had the presence of the left in electoral politics for the last several decades. In 1979, I ran for Congress in Mexico as a member of the Unified Socialist Mexican Party. The Mexican left has come close to winning the presidency twice since then.

So when people from Mexico hear me say I’m a socialist, they say, “Oh, yeah. Sure. Good. That’s fine.” There’s no questions about it. We also have another segment, which is the people who have been bitching and moaning about “the lesser evil.” They’ll say, “We have to vote for the Democrats again because there’s no alternative out there.” Well, stop bitching and moaning. We are now presenting you with a different alternative. You don’t have to vote Democratic anymore.

Then you have the people who vote consciously for the Democratic Party, believing that the Democratic Party is actually going to solve problems. And that’s the most important segment for us. That’s the segment we have to win. The other two are already won. But this is the segment we have to win. We have to say to them, “Listen. The Democratic Party has done this, and this, and this and has not done all these other things. The Democratic Party is not representing the 99%. The Democratic Party is not representing the interests of the Latino community. The Democratic Party is not representing the interests of the majority of the poor. The Democratic Party is not representing the interests of parents who have their kids in public schools.”

So that’s the segment we’re focusing on, as the ones who can switch instead of just supporting straight Democratic tickets. That could be the swing vote. We can stop doing business as usual and start doing business anew, with a new perspective. One of the arguments we tell them is this: If you look at national politics, it is said that the Republican Party is the enemy. They are the bad guys. And the Democratic Party are the good guys. And the Democratic Party can’t do anything because the Republican Party doesn’t allow them. But where is the Republican Party in Chicago? Is there no enemy in the City of Chicago? So why do we have problems?

If the Republicans are the cause, then we shouldn’t have problems. We have been governed by the Democratic Party for decades. Everything from potholes to closing public schools—that’s the Democratic Party. You can’t blame the Republicans here. Forget it. They’re nowhere to be seen. There’s not a single Republican in City Hall.

And then we have the business community, which would like to have the Republican Party here. But they’re just a tiny minority, so we don’t worry about them. As a matter of fact, I think some of them may end up voting for us. Because some of them have the same idea that the Democratic Party machine is not working. So they want to try something else. And we have found people while gathering signatures who say, “I’m a Republican. But I’ll back you because I want change. If the only option for change is you, I’ll try your change and see if your change works.” [Laughs]

And what kinds of policies are at the heart of your “change”? You’ve talked a fair bit about the tax system and TIFs in the past. Are those core issues for you?

I think the tax system is failing profoundly, in so many ways. I think we have to do away with TIF and create a different way of administering taxes.

Unfortunately, the City of Chicago can’t solve all the tax and the taxation problems. A lot of it has to do with Cook County, and with Springfield and with the Federal Tax System. But I want to take a good look at the whole tax system. And how we collect and what we collect is one part of the problem. For instance, red light cameras and residential parking permits—these are just ways to drain communities of money for what? To pay the salaries of employees of the City of Chicago? The supervisors of supervisors? The guys you always see when you cross a traffic jam because a pothole’s being fixed sitting there watching another three guys actually filling the potholes? I think that’s a waste of money. I’m sorry, but that’s a waste of money.

Aldermen themselves make over $114,000. It’s a part-time job. Many of them work in law firms and other things. They own businesses—the owner of the Ann Sather restaurants is an alderman. So why a six figure salary? For a part time job, it should be half that. If I’m alderman, $57,000 will come directly back to the community to fund community organizations for workers rights.

It’s not socialism. It’s just common sense.

Finally, how do you plan on addressing immigration as alderman? It’s a position that doesn’t give you as much of an ability to effect broad change as a seat in Congress, obviously. What do you intend to do locally for the undocumented?

We have a theme. If you live in the 25th Ward and you work, we are going to try to guarantee your rights as workers. Whether we have to talk to a business owner in Rolling Meadows or right here in Pilsen, your rights as a worker are going to be completely fulfilled.

Workers’ rights are at the center. And undocumented workers have workers’ rights. With a couple of exceptions, they do have the full set of rights of any other workers. We can’t solve the whole immigration conundrum. But at least we’re going to guarantee workers’ rights. And, we may even be able to do it in creative ways that keep you away from immigration problems.

As alderman, I’m going to be a labor organizer. Somebody said to me, “You know, you’ve been a labor organizer and an immigration activist for a long time. Why do you want to become a politician?” I said to him, “I don’t want to be a politician. I want to be a labor organizer and immigration activist in City Hall.” I mean look at me. [Laughs] I’ll never become a real politician.

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