Asking the hard questions

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Former Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle says he would have voted for Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis had she run for mayor, but now plans to support Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in February. Del Valle ran for mayor in 2011. [Photo by William Camargo]

Photo by William Camargo

Former Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle says he would have voted for Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis had she run for mayor, but now plans to support Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in February. Del Valle ran for mayor in 2011. [Photo by William Camargo]

When he ran for mayor back in 2011, former Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle was considered a favorite among progressives but a long shot to win. He got 9 percent of the vote, coming in a distant third place behind Rahm Emanuel—who won outright with 55 percent—and Gery Chico, with 24 percent. Del Valle and Chico split much of Chicago’s Latino vote.

Since then, del Valle has largely stayed out of the headlines, though he’s keeping busy. Gov. Pat Quinn appointed him to the Illinois Commerce Commission in February 2013. In addition, he remains deeply committed to education issues, which he championed as a state senator. He chairs the Illinois P-20 Council, which advises the state on how best to align the educational system from preschool to college; is the vice chairman of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission; and sits on the boards of the education advocacy group Advance Illinois and the Federation for Community Schools.

In a recent interview, del Valle gave his take on the upcoming election—including the 11th-hour entry of Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia into the race—and the state of Latino political power in the Windy City. The following is an edited version of the hour-long conversation.

Why aren’t you running this time around? Because I don’t have millions of dollars. I already went down that path. Gery Chico raised more than $3 million and he still couldn’t compete with the $12 or $13 million that Rahm spent. And the business sector here in this city, the corporate sector, is firmly behind the guy who they feel is best going to protect their interests. You think the business folks out there want to hear what I have to say?

How is this race different from the one in 2011? In 2011, it was an open seat. No incumbent, so there was no record to look at. And you had four candidates that really competed and stayed in it until the end. There were lots of small organizations out there that sponsored candidate forums. I went to most of them. Rahm Emanuel went to none of them. And while we were spending our time in these forums, sometimes with just a handful of people in the audience, Rahm Emanuel was running his television commercials. He had a voice that could be heard in people’s living rooms throughout Chicago and there was really nothing to counter that.

What were the issues back then? At those forums I, along with other candidates, talked about the neglect of our communities and the need to elect a mayor that would prioritize neighborhood development over downtown development. When you look at tax-increment financing (TIFs) and other methods for stimulating economic activity, we see that not nearly enough has happened in the neighborhoods. Yet those tools that were established to develop blighted areas were used downtown. So those kinds of issues needed to be talked about. Certainly the schools needed to be talked about. Back then, I talked about how we were developing a dual system of public education. And that’s exactly what’s happening with the dramatic increase in charter schools and the reduction in resources to neighborhood schools.

Has anything about these issues changed under Emanuel’s tenure? They’ve been accelerated. Look, there have been some jobs created. But they’re jobs in information technology, in the financial sector. I don’t see a whole lot of folks from my neighborhood working on LaSalle Street. And while this administration says we’re developing more International Baccalaureate programs and magnet schools, the fact of the matter is that some of that is being done to accommodate the newer population. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t happen. What I’m saying is there has to be a balance.

So when you’re doing all of this and creating the 1871s [a hub for digital start-ups] and the high-tech sector and trying to attract all of this economic activity, you’ve got to have activity going on at the neighborhood level. You’ve got to plan for attracting more manufacturing jobs. You’ve got to train folks in the neighborhood high schools for college and careers, but also ensure that they have opportunities to develop some skills to go into advanced manufacturing.

Aren’t some of these job trends inevitable, though? We’ve seen an economy that has a very small percentage of people doing better than ever, while the rest of us, the middle class, is shrinking and the low-income population growing. Chicago is a reflection of what’s happening nationally in many respects, but it’s up to the political leadership to tackle these issues head-on and advocate for the kinds of policies that allow you to improve some of this.

Some folks will say this is inevitable and just the normal natural flow of things. To a certain extent that’s true. You can’t stand in the way of progress, some will say. I don’t want to stand in the way of progress. I just want to make sure everyone is brought along.

We need to hold every elected official accountable for what they’re doing to ensure that promise of opportunity remains for all.

What’s been the impact on Latino neighborhoods? This is the sad part. When Latinos had no political representation, those of us who demanded political representation stood together and fought. We won some of those battles, and today we have political representation even though from a demographic standpoint we’re still underrepresented. But we’ve kind of reached a critical mass. We’ve been able to create Latino caucuses, yet sometimes it feels like we have less power than we did before, because Latinos and elected officials have focused on their own careers and agendas and have made accommodations with the power structure that allowed lots of things to happen around them. Look at the kind of residential development that has taken place in the West Town area or in Pilsen.

Yes, many of these elected officials advocate on issues like immigration reform, but the holistic approach that we envisioned back when we had no political representation has gone by the wayside.

How do Hispanic voters feel about Emanuel? I know a lot of people appreciated his promise to welcome a number of undocumented Central American children who’d been detained at the Mexico-US border earlier this summer. Look, he’s going to make himself attractive to them. That’s the sad part about politics and the huge amount of money that is involved. You have candidates that because of their multi-million dollar war chest are able to create new images of themselves in the voters’ eyes and the past is forgotten.

It would have been nice if he had taken those kinds of positions when he was in the White House and in Congress, where he actually advised his colleagues not to go anywhere near immigration reform. Rather than thinking of what he did or failed to do during those years, they’re going to think, ‘Wait a minute, he said he’d take the Central American kids? Therefore he must be our friend.’ That’s human nature.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia recently threw his hat into the mayoral race. What do you think? We’ll have a much livelier discussion around the key issues, which is what is desperately needed in the City of Chicago.

How much do you think he’ll be able to pull in the Latino vote? There are lots of Latinos who will support a Latino name on the ballot the same way African-Americans supported Barack Obama for the U.S. Senate in the state of Illinois and in the presidency. It’s about empowering an electorate.

But Chuy’s reach is broader than that. When he supports an increase in the minimum wage, this affects all people, all residents. This is not a Latino proposal, but a proposal to benefit all Chicagoans. That’s the case whether we’re talking about the minimum wage or how TIF dollars are used or the repression caused by the abuse of the placement of street cameras that originally were for the purpose of increasing safety but have been used by this administration for the purpose of generating revenue.

Do you support him? I’ll vote for him. I was ready to vote for [Chicago Teachers Union President] Karen Lewis, but she’s not in the race; Chuy is in the race. I’ve talked with him at length. It’s a big job just getting him on the ballot but I’m hoping some labor groups get behind him, that teachers and others will get behind him. The dynamics are always different. Their personalities are different. Karen had a different kind of base than Chuy does. How those two meld has yet to be determined.

Did you think Lewis had a shot against Emanuel? The dynamic Karen brought in was that there was no other African-American out there working it. And because she took on Emanuel as Chicago Teachers Union president and beat him, a lot of people out there said, ‘Wow, if she beat him once she can beat him again.’ There was a feeling out there that Karen would be the most competitive. Not that she would necessarily win, but there would have been a competitive race where these issues could be debated. Where you could force Emanuel to answer the question: How are you going to uplift these neighborhoods? Give us your plan for a second term. Those are the kinds of hard questions that need to be debated within an electoral process, because after it’s over, those tough questions are not going to be asked. The City Council, filled with lapdogs? They’re not going to ask those questions.

Are you saying that even if Karen ran and lost … It’s an essential component of our democracy to have a competition and electoral process that allows for a debate on issues that are of concern to people. If you don’t have that opportunity, then we all lose.

Ald. Bob Fioretti is running on a progressive platform. What do you think is going to come of his campaign? Well, I’m glad he’s there. He’s a nice guy. But he doesn’t have the standing that Karen had. I’m sure that Bob is going to raise some of these issues. But having personally gone through this many times over a 25-year period, it’s not enough to raise questions—it’s how are you able to get people to listen. And how do you engage a wide audience that then translates into having a lot of questioners out there? People asking those questions in the barbershop, at the grocery store, in front of schools where they’re waiting for kids to get out when the bell rings.

What advice would you give to Rahm right now, if he would listen?  Well, he doesn’t listen.