Something’s going on in the North Side’s 40th Ward, where Ald. Pat O’Connor’s percentage of the vote dropped from 58 percent four years ago to just 33 percent on February 26, forcing him into a runoff for the first time in his long career.  

O’Connor has been Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader and his choice to succeed Ald. Edward Burke as chair of the finance committee. It doesn’t seem to have boosted his popularity.

“There’s a real appetite for new energy” in the ward, said Jennifer Ritter, a 40th Ward resident and activist with ONE People’s Campaign, which has endorsed O’Connor’s opponent, Andre Vasquez.

“People are fed up with the machine,” said Ritter. “They want an alderman who’s going to be smart on the issues, work hard in the ward and be independent.”

Vasquez, 39, is one of the many young people of color who are shaping a progressive wave that’s starting to sweep the city and the country. He grew up in an immigrant family in Chicago that faced serial displacement. As a student at Lane Tech, he started rapping and gained some prominence as a battle rapper.

He says the experience “allowed me to feel like I could have a voice and a space,” but he’s also critical of the “toxic masculinity” associated with that culture, and regrets “terribly hurtful things” that he expressed at the time.

He’s come a long way. Now a senior manager with AT&T and married with two small children, he was turned on to politics by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, traveling to Iowa to knock on doors. He subsequently became chair of the North Side chapter of Reclaim Chicago, a progressive activist group.

By contrast, O’Connor, who was first elected in 1983, has a long record – and as he noted to the Sun-Times, that’s not necessarily an advantage. “At one time, having experience and being steady and dependable were virtues,” he complained. “Now, apparently, they’re not.”

Part of the problem could be when “steady and dependable” means being an unwavering supporter of the mayor’s agenda. As floor leader for Richard M. Daley and then Rahm Emanuel, O’Connor played a key role helping to ram the parking meter deal through City Council, and he bears a share of responsibility for the closing of schools and mental health clinics, among many things that haven’t worked out so well.

He has also used his chairman’s gavel to banish proposals the mayor doesn’t favor. Just this week, O’Connor engineered a finance committee vote tabling an ordinance that would raise the real estate transfer tax on homes sold for $1 million or more in order to fund homeless services, a proposal Emanuel opposes.

O’Connor posted a statement claiming he had fulfilled his commitment to the coalition backing the ordinance by including it on the committee’s agenda. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless immediately fired back with a statement that “vehemently disputed Ald. Patrick O’Connor’s self-aggrandizing announcement,” saying he “repeatedly strayed from proper procedures” in “what appeared to be an act of parliamentary mischief” aimed at diverting the ordinance.

“It was just old-style Chicago politics where the committee chair blocks something the mayor doesn’t want,” Ritter said.

“None of these shenanigans came through when we were rushing through Lincoln Yards,” commented Ald. Roberto Maldonado, sponsor of the ordinance.

It’s not the first time O’Connor has provided that service. He did the same thing when aldermen wanted a hearing on lead in Chicago’s drinking water– a major concern of 40th Ward residents, according to Vasquez.

Aldermen wanted hearings on whether Chicago is violating federal law by doing nothing to keep lead levels below FDA standards. The FDA warned in 2013 that Emanuel’s water main replacement program would increase lead levels by disturbing old service lines made of the toxic metal. For five years the Emanuel administration insisted that testing showed lead levels in residents’ drinking water were safe. Last April, the Tribune reported that lead levels were higher than FDA standards in 30 percent of homes tested.

Rather than allow his colleagues to hold hearings, O’Connor sent the ordinance to the Rules Committee.

“There’s a lot of appetite in the ward for an independent City Council that’s going to be a check on the mayor,” said Ritter.

That’s not good news for the incumbent.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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