Public safety and environmental concerns are at the forefront in 10th Ward runoff

·7 min read

One is the grandson of a steelworker who was also a union leader. The other is the daughter of a steelworker father and a seamstress mother.

Both candidates vying to represent the 10th Ward — the massive region that hugs the Indiana border and was once home to scores of industrial businesses on Chicago’s Southeast Side — proudly promote their local bona fides as they campaign to replace another longtime resident turned politician, Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, who is retiring after two terms on the City Council.

Lifetime 10th Warder and Chicago police Officer Peter Chico, who works out of the South Chicago District and lives in Hegewisch, is running against Ana Guajardo of the Vet’s Park neighborhood. She’s co-founder of the United Workers’ Center, which works to protect the rights of immigrants and low-wage workers.

Chico and Guajardo made the April 4 runoff out of the five candidates in the Feb. 28 general election. None of the five won a majority of the vote, forcing the runoff between the top two vote-getters. Chico garnered 40.5% of the vote in February while Guajardo got 26.5%, or about 1,000 fewer votes than Chico, but she’s been steadily beating Chico in fundraising.

Environmental issues have long plagued the area as factories and industrial facilities centered their businesses in the region for decades, but Chico and Guajardo also have both said public safety is the issue of most concern for residents.

“The number one issue not only in the 10th Ward, but the city, is public safety,” said Chico, noting his job as a cop makes him well positioned to tackle the complicated issue. “I don’t have to build a relationship with the Police Department or the 4th District. I would be living there one day and returning the next day as the alderman.”

Guajardo said she would like to see more police officers in the streets to build relationships and trust in the community and that she would like to hire more detectives to solve crimes. Additionally, the community needs to invest in anti-violence programs, she said.

“Everyone is scared. Public safety is something that continues to come up,” she said. “Seniors are scared of getting out of the bus stop and walking into their senior homes. Parents are afraid of walking home with their kids. This is the reality that we’re living.”

While steel mills and factories are long gone, the Southeast Side is home to numerous industries that produce waste materials affecting the area’s air, land and water. Those include sewage treatment, refuse and garbage plants, as well as incinerators, landfills and chemical- and food-processing facilities. Residents also remain plagued by higher rates of coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than any other part of the city, according to a report by the nonpartisan Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Besides these long-standing environmental concerns, also hanging over the aldermanic race is the fate of two major projects that activists and residents fear will add to the ward’s environmental burden.

First, the multimillion dollar Southside Recycling facility, formerly known as General Iron, awaits a Cook County judge’s decision about whether it will be allowed to open a metal-shredding facility that activists say will pollute the community. And, according to Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, activists and community members are also concerned about Ozinga Ventures’ plans to extract limestone across from a high school.

Ozinga’s yearslong plans call for blasting and excavating the rock to build an underground warehouse development. The company has been trying to get community support by touting the development’s environmental friendliness, just as advocates have pushed the city to deny permits Ozinga is seeking and others say more information is needed.

“Ozinga has a lot to gain by doing this project, and we want to make sure that whoever’s elected to be alderman sees through these claims of being sustainable,” Bautista said. Southeast Environmental Task Force won’t be endorsing a candidate because it is a nonprofit organization.

Bautista said the community needs an alderman who will support bringing a green new school to the Southeast Side — a proposal that is part of the community’s solution to what they have identified as long-standing problems with Washington High School’s infrastructure, such as a beam falling from the ceiling at the school last summer.

“That would make the most sense — if we are demanding these new buildings — for them to be environmentally friendly, energy-efficient, new green schools,” Marcelina Pedraza, the mother of an elementary school student, said at a news conference last summer.

The next alderman’s ability to react to environmental issues is important, Bautista said, noting that both Sadlowski Garza and her predecessor, Ald. John Pope, faced criticism from progressive activists.

“So we are definitely intending to work very closely with whoever’s elected,” she said. “The new alderman should look at what happened with General Iron — we should not have to have a hunger strike for them to stand with us and do the right thing.”

As a member of the Local School Council at Washington High School, Chico said he’d be in full support of bringing a new green school to the 10th Ward.

“I feel it is important to include the community in all decisions about companies coming into the ward. When I am meeting residents, it is clear that they want transparency in environmental issues,” Chico said in an emailed statement. “We need to ensure all stakeholders are at the table when these decisions are being made.”

Similarly, Guajardo stressed the importance of listening to ward residents and their environmental and public health concerns. She mentioned many in the community suffer from asthma, including her, due to the high levels of pollution in the area.

“If I’m elected by our residents and constituents, I want to have fierce, in-depth conversations with our community,” she said. “We need to take this seriously and look into what can we do as a community to make sure that our air and our water is protected. … And we need to have serious conversations with these companies and developers.”

When asked specifically about the Ozinga project, Guajardo emphasized the importance of demanding transparency from the companies and developers that want to move into the ward. “I cannot make an uninformed decision,” she said.

Guajardo has focused much of her career and activism on worker and immigrant rights. Last summer, for instance, she embarked on a 1,500-mile, 19-day bike ride from Monterrey, Mexico, to Chicago to raise funds for a community center in the Southeast Side that will house an industrial kitchen, training sessions and citizenship classes for recently arrived immigrant families.

Chico said, if he’s elected, he plans to create committees within the alderman’s office to tackle issues that are important to 10th Ward residents, including veterans affairs, the environment, youth activities and programming, as well as senior citizens. He said he hopes citizens can bring these issues forward to work collaboratively on solutions.

Both candidates have received important endorsements from key players and figures in Chicago politics. Sprinkler Fitters Local 281 and the local Fraternal Order of Police have endorsed Chico recently. The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce also has backed Chico’s campaign with $11,000 in campaign contributions.

In the February election, Guajardo was endorsed by Sadlowski Garza and U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor. She has also garnered support from several unions across Chicago, such as two locals of the Service Employees International Union and the Chicago Federation of Labor.

The SEIU contributions have helped give Guajardo a lead in campaign fundraising. She had more than $50,000 at the start of the year and has since raised $135,000 while Chico’s campaign had less cash on hand to start the year and has since received about $75,000 in contributions.

Despite that, Chico said he’s getting help from many corners of the ward. He said he considers himself a “neighborhood guy” and said the closeness of the community is a reason why he’s optimistic about his chances in the runoff.

“We had a good showing on Election Day. We have to build upon that,” he said. “There’s nothing more I would like than to serve the residents’ potential.”

Guajardo said she hopes people — especially young people — show up to vote in the runoff election.

“I really would love to encourage people to go out to vote,” she said. “We need to be able to demonstrate in numbers, our power, and it’s important for young people, the youth, to also civically participate.”