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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Why Ald. Rick Munoz Is the Only Latino Caucus Member Supporting Chuy

All the other members have endorsed Rahm or remain neutral, but Munoz is fully behind his mentor for mayor.

Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Ald. Ricardo Munoz, the 22nd Ward alderman since 1993, is the only member of the Council’s Latino Caucus who backs Chuy Garcia. His colleagues have signed on with Rahm Emanuel, but Munoz, 50, can’t say enough good things about his Little Village neighbor, mentor, and sponsor. 

When I last met with Munoz, just six months after Rahm breezed into office in 2011, he seemed enamored of Rahm, telling me that he met regularly with the rookie mayor, exchanged texts often, and that Rahm was responsive to requests. Things between the two have cooled considerably since, perhaps because Munoz, who is also a member of the Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus, occasionally votes against the mayor.*

As Munoz showed up for our meeting Thursday afternoon sporting an oversized Garcia button, it was clear to me that Rahm could have romanced Rick from breakfast through dinner, but once Chuy got in, Rick would be at his side. And, having avoided a runoff against three opponents by obtaining 57.4 percent of the vote, Munoz has plenty of time between now and April 7 to hit the streets for his friend.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

When I last spoke to you in 2011, you were so friendly with Rahm. What happened?

The relationship is cordial and very professional. However, it’s his policies that have irritated my constituents and me. He promised 1,000 cops and didn’t deliver. He promised to make education his primary focus and closed 50 schools. Basically, he invested millions and millions in downtown at the cost of neighborhoods.

So you would reopen some of those 50 schools?

Some of them need to be reopened. They were community anchors and at the least there should be adaptive reuse—day care, early childhood. Take one school in my ward that closed, Paderewski [Elementary Learning Academy]. It was K-8 and in a building from the ‘60s, but it had a new roof, new windows. I fought to keep it open. It had 200 students, with a capacity of 600. The problem was that it’s located in North Lawndale, which has seen an influx of charter schools. These schools are starving the public schools. 

I know that [CTU president] Karen Lewis pleaded with Chuy to run for mayor after she had to take herself out of the running. Were you involved in these discussions too?

As a close friend and ally, we talked a lot about him possibly running for mayor. Like all elected officials, we all think about the next move. Chuy has been an activist for 35 years; his name was always bantered around when positions were opening up. We started to talk a couple of years ago about his running for mayor, but the field became what it became. Once Karen got in there was no talk of challenging her, but during that period after her illness, around a two-week period, we talked a lot back and forth. I would talk to him in the evening and he would be leaning against it; in the morning he’d be leaning toward it. Once he decided, he never wavered.

What about Chuy’s wife, Evelyn? Most of us saw her the first time at his victory speech on February 24. Chuy himself told me she has health problems. Was she for or against his running?

She’s his secret weapon. Very opinionated, very smart. When I asked Chuy what Evelyn thought of his running, he said she’s “gung ho.” He’s lucky to have her. Chuy and I both came to Chicago from Mexico—I came at age five; Chuy at nine. We both married Puerto Rican women. Our families are friends. When I got married [in 1988] they came to my wedding.

How’d you get to know Chuy? He’s almost nine years older than you.

I first met him in October of 1987. He’d been an alderman for a year and half. I was a senior at NIU and president of an organization of Latino students. We came to Chicago and invited elected officials to a reception and Chuy was one of them. I struck up a conversation with him; he asked me when I was graduating and did I have anything lined up yet. He told me to stop by his ward office and volunteer. So I did. When Chuy ran for committeeman in 1988, I coordinated his precinct organization. Just after Chuy won, he sent my resume to Mayor Eugene Sawyer and I got a job in the city’s intergovernmental affairs department. When Sawyer lost to Rich Daley, I went back to Chuy. When he ran for the state senate in 1992, I was his campaign manager. The day after he won the nomination, he told me, “I need to you to go home and shave and cut off your ponytail.” He recommended me to Rich Daley as his aldermanic replacement. I went in for the interview, ponytail gone, clean shaven, and the interview went well. I told Daley that I saw the main job of an alderman as a housekeeper. Daley liked the housekeeper reference because Daley was a housekeeper.

Did you emulate Chuy when you became alderman?

Yes, because he’s truly a neighborhood guy. He knows the names of all his neighbors on the block—and beyond. When the Martinez house caught on fire, he knew the family, and called them and kept in touch. When I saw him in action, on the telephone with Mr. Martinez after the fire, I told myself, “I want to be like him.” He taught me everything I know about politics. I trust his gut.

He seems so mild-manner and amiable. The first time I noticed real passion was at his victory speech last month. Does he ever get angry?

He gets angry sometimes. He gets quiet when he’s angry.

Any profanity?

Actually, the only time I hear him swear is when he’s celebrating. When something really good happens, he’ll say, “Fucking A!” But he’s just a nice guy. I cringe at the amount of time he has to smile for selfies; it can be the 200th selfie and he’s still smiling.

The general consensus was that Rahm would get the votes to avoid the runoff. Was there a point at which you thought he wouldn’t?

The weekend before we felt the energy level rising. It was over the top.

You ran in 2012 for Dorothy Brown’s job as clerk of the circuit court and lost badly. Will you run for that job again in 2016?

I’m not planning to run for anything other than alderman.

That’s not exactly Sherman-esque.

I won’t run again for the clerk’s job.

You were very critical of Brown when I talked to you in 2011 for not moving into the digital age; for still being buried in paper. Has she made the transformation?

It’s still 1980 in her office, but I’m not looking to run for that.

What about the Obama library? Are you okay with it eating up acreage in Washington or Jackson Parks should the University of Chicago get the nod?

I have concerns, but I think it’s most important to bring it to Chicago. My first choice is that it go to UIC, where there is no issue with park land.

Chuy is all about building a black/brown coalition. But the African American vote seems more friendly to Rahm.

Remember this about the power structure. Whenever it feels threatened, you see a divide and conquer strategy. I would tell voters that the past proves the future. Look at Chuy’s past. He got his start supporting Harold Washington against popular distrust. Chuy’s history is building coalitions. As a member of the state senate, he was the first nonblack to be part of the black caucus.

You have lived almost all your life in Little Village and same for Chuy. It’s analogous to the Daleys and Bridgeport. Do you think he and Evelyn will follow the Rich and Maggie Daley model and hightail it out of the old neighborhood for a townhouse or a high-rise in the South Loop?

No, he will not move out of Little Village. He loves the neighborhood and he loves his house.

*According to a UIC study by Dick Simpson, Beyza Buyuker, and Melissa Mouritsen, in 67 divided Council votes between June 2011 and November 2014, Munoz voted with the mayor 79 percent of the time. Munoz was in the mayor’s camp much more than were two colleagues on the Progressive caucus, Bob Fioretti (45 percent) and Scott Waguespack (54 percent.)
Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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