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The not so quiet fight against old school politics in the 40th Ward runoff race

First-time candidates are working in waves in 10 wards to unseat long-time City Council members who have fulfilled Chicago’s reputation of standing by “old school” politics. In the 40th Ward runoff, 36-year incumbent Ald. Patrick O’Connor has been pushed into a runoff with one man working to weed out what was once known as the “Chicago Way.”

Andre Vasquez, AT&T Statewide Area Manager, worked alongside other young challengers to unseat O’Connor. He was the only candidate to push O’Connor into a runoff in decades with 20.1 percent of the vote compared to O’Connor’s 33.3 percent.

“Running for alderman was never something I thought I would do. I wanted to be community organizer,” Vasquez said.

A known right-hand-man of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, O’Connor has held his seat on City Council for 36 years, second only in tenure to Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward), who is facing federal attempted extortion charges, yet held onto his City Council seat with 54.3 percent of the vote. O’Connor has taken over Burke’s seat on the City of Chicago Committee on Finance.

Being chair of the finance committee is the most powerful job on City Council because every permit, legislation and funding needs to be approved by the committee, according to University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor and former Alderman Dick Simpson.

The committee is also responsible for the worker’s compensation program—an aldermanic responsibility scrutinized by many Chicagoans —for aldermen, specifically Burke, allegedly playing favorites when it comes to who gets compensation approved and who doesn’t.

O’Connor has also been accused of nepotism for gifting family members jobs on his staff in the 1980s, earning him the nickname “City Hall Santa.” 

“[Corruption] is very much part of O’Connor,” Vasquez said. “It’s not about you… Being an alderperson makes you a public servant. I’ve seen a wave of folks who know that.”

Vasquez said the way to weed out corruption in City Council is to bring an end to aldermanic prerogative, require aldermen to focus on City Council as a full time job and spearhead a “small donor match public finance ordinance for city elections to end pay-to-play corruption.”

“Chicago is corrupt at every level,” Vasquez said. “Politicians are influenced by clout and money and not the people they are meant to serve.”

The weight of a campaign war chest can make or break a candidate’s run for alderman because funding allows their message to get out to constituents, Simpson said, adding that he advises candidates to collect at least a quarter of a million dollars.

O’Connor has had no problems with financing, and has even received at least $65,000 in campaign contributions from Chicago for Rahm Emanuel and $10,000 from Dream Town Realty, the real-estate firm where his wife, Barbara O’Connor, holds a top position.

Attempts to contact O’Connor and staff were not replied to by press time.

Many 40th Ward constituents in parts of the Lincoln Square, Budlong Woods, Bowmanville, West Andersonville, Edgewater and West Ridge neighborhoods feel grateful for O’Connor, who has provided community services and done well by them, Simpson said.

Facing the first competition he’s had in years, O’Connor shifted gears to negative campaign tactics, highlighting misogynistic and homophobic comments Vasquez made when he was a rapper by the name of Prime in 2001. The lyrics were placed on the website and paid for by O’Connor’s campaign, with the phrase “Andre Vasquez would bring shame to our community” at the bottom.

Vasquez has apologized for his actions and countered O’Connor: “Some people grow and learn and change and some people don’t. I’m not proud of who I was when I was a younger man, but I’m proud of who I am today,” he told NBC5 in a March 15 article. “The Pat O’Connor who was attacking someone’s ethnicity at a forum in 2018 is the same Pat O’Connor who tried to sabotage Harold Washington in 1984. Voters have a clear choice between the past and the future in this race.”

The 40th Ward demographic has changed dramatically since O’Connor’s first days in office. Constituents are more diverse, they are younger, they are better educated and they are open to change—a demographic with which O’Connor has not strongly identified with in the past, Simpson said.

“We have come so far in society; we need to represent that in City Council,” Vasquez said. “We’re so much better. The 40th Ward can either be at the front of the line for change, or the back.”

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