I asked Ricardo “Rick” Muñoz why an independent alderman who for 18 years has represented a surging Latino population—the heart of his 22nd Ward is Little Village—wants to trade that job for the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Muñoz, 47, is thus far the only announced candidate to take on Dorothy Brown, first elected in 2000 and now in her third term. (Brown herself has tried to trade up, running unsuccessfully for mayor and president of the County Board.)
In an hour-long conversation late in the week before Thanksgiving at Nookie’s on Wells Street, Muñoz—who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and brought here at age five— answered that question and more, including chatting about his chummy relations with Rahm Emanuel.
CF: Why run for Clerk of the Circuit Court as opposed to staying an alderman, which, to a layman like me, seems a more interesting job?
RM: I’ve been an alderman for 18 years, and I love my job. I looked around and I saw that [the Clerk’s] office is in dire need of reform. Part of the reason I love my job is because I’m held accountable everyday. I love the fact that my neighbors see me everyday. That’s the one thing that’s been lacking in [the Clerk’s] office—no accountability in terms of the services that have been provided: $80 million operating budget, a little over 2000 employees. [$100 million annual operating budget and 2,100 employees according to the Clerk’s website.] Dorothy Brown talks about electronic filing in all her presentations, but less than five percent of the cases that are processed are allowed to be electronically filed. DuPage County has electronic filing; the federal court system has electronic filing. We’re stuck in the 1980s. I say the 1980s because if you’re a lawyer submitting some paperwork, you have to do it in carbon copy triplicate, instead of being directed to a copy machine. As my 17-year-old daughter likes to say, “There’s an app for that.”
CF: You have constituents who complain about the office?
RM: The complaints are from every sector of the users—all the way from people who have had to go try to expunge some records to people who have gone through foreclosures. Lawyers most of all call to complain: “How come we can’t have electronic filing? How come when a case goes to appeal, a lot of the time, they’re missing files?” I want to be able to hold this office to a higher standard. It gives me a chance to bring my progressive reform credentials to an office. Think about it: Mayor Emanuel is ushering in an era of reform in City Hall with a new culture and new ideas. President Preckwinkle is bringing in sunshine to the County Board. This is the last corner of corruption; this is the last corner of antiquated, bureaucratic system that [Brown] just hasn’t brought into this century. She hasn’t tried any of the IT solutions that every other county in the state is using. [My appointment to talk to Clerk Dorothy Brown has been delayed a couple of times, due to “back-to-back” meetings, according to her spokesman Enza Raineri. Raineri, who is working to reschedule the meeting, told me that Brown is instituting regular technology enhancements and that the office does not use carbon paper, but rather carbonless NCR paper that accommodates attorneys’ needs for handwritten draft orders written in front of a judge. [On her website, Brown describes “revolutionary changes” to the office and her claims of “21st Century Technology.”]
CF: Brown has been elected three times. To what do you attribute her longevity?
RM: You have to remember you can’t fool voters. Voters are very, very smart, and she’s asked for a promotion twice. Both times voters gave her a resounding no.
CF: I have been told that the Clerk’s office is considered to be an African American office. Are you upsetting the apple cart here?
RM: I’m a proud founding member of the [City Council’s] progressive reform caucus. It was founded by then-Alderman Preckwinke, Alderman Joe Moore, and me. so I’m the first one to say that coalition politics works. There’s no such thing as a bequeathment. The offices don’t belong to anybody.
CF: Has Toni Preckwinkle endorsed you?
RM: I have a large majority of the City Council that has been there with me, a number of committeemen. President Preckwinkle has said to me, “Yes, Rick, I want you to be the next Clerk of the Circuit Court.”
CF: What about Mayor Emanuel—have you talked to him about it and are you lobbying him for his endorsement?
RM: I talk to him quite often. I saw him this morning at a ribbon cutting. He came to my ward to open a new grocery store in a portion of the West Side where there’s a food desert.
CF: The mayor will issue an endorsement?
RM: I don’t know. I did go to meet with him about this. I told him, “I want to ask you for your support for Clerk of the Circuit Court.”
CF: And has he encouraged you?
RM: He hasn’t discouraged me. You have to remember he’s [headed] the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] so he knows how to handle candidates. He has been supportive in terms of making some recommendations and said we’ll meet again in mid- to late-December, and we’ll see if he gets involved. I’m hoping he does get involved—on my behalf.
CF: I read in the Reader that you have both met with Rahm and text with him.
RM: He and I have each other’s personal cell phones.
CF: You supported Miguel del Valle for mayor. How did you happen to get Rahm’s cell phone number?
RM: It was during the campaign. We had a chance encounter at the Museum of Science and Industry, and he said he wanted to talk to me. I said, “Here’s my cell phone,” and he called me, so that means that the cell phone registered. Because he’s the mayor and a very busy guy, I don’t want to call him and get him in the middle of something, but texting is a subtle way of getting the message through without interrupting. We text back and forth.
CF: So it’s not personal texts?
RM: No, it’s usually all business. During the O’Hare Airport concession debate, I had a question that his staff hadn’t resolved, so I texted him and I said, “Can you make sure this takes place?” And he texted back, “Will do in the morning,” and his staff got back to me. In the last couple of weeks during this whole budget process, we‘ve been texting back and forth, “Hey, what do you think about this or that?”
CF: Do you have meetings with him as well, and what are they about?
RM: I’ve had a number of meetings, one-on-one, during his transition, when he was mayor-elect, since his swearing-in. The first couple of times were about how to get stuff done in my ward. One of them was specifically about St. Anthony Hospital, 120-year-old institution on 19th and Sacramento, and they’re looking to build a new hospital at 31st and Kedzie. The city owns that site, 11 acres, that I’d like to partner with [Rahm] on building a hospital and a park.
CF: Any hard feelings on Rahm’s part about your not supporting him for mayor.
RM: At the end of the day we have to work together. He needs a partner in the City Council, and I need a mayor who understands my ward.
CF: When Rich Daley, who appointed you as alderman in 1993, was mayor, did you meet with him?
RM: Yeah, often, but not as often [as I do with Emanuel]. I didn’t text with Mayor Daley.
CF: You were reported to be undecided about the mayor’s budget that passed unanimously. You are a self-described “reformer” and “independent.” What made you—and others who fit that description—tow the line?
RM: Three weeks before the vote, I hosted a meeting at my house with the reform progressive caucus. It was there that we basically decided that we didn’t like his budget as proposed and that we would send a letter to the mayor highlighting five top issues that needed to be addressed before we could consider voting for the budget. We listed the library cuts as something we had to talk about; we listed the mental health project as part of the problem. We listed lowered weight limits as affecting the cost of vehicle stickers as part of the problem, and surprisingly we were able to get 28 signatures on this letter we sent to the mayor. He responded appropriately. He came back and said, “Okay I’ll change my budget; I’ll make these amendments and we all win.” The main move that helped him get his 50 votes was the libraries—being able to restore services at the library. Libraries are community centers.
CF: Were you surprised at the unanimous 50 votes for Mayor Emanuel’s budget?
RM: No, because he honestly looked at this process as a partnership. He engaged with us. He called [several of] us in. “How should we do this?” He took some of our ideas and incorporated them into the budget. That’s why he got the 50 votes. It wasn’t 50 by arm-twisting. It was 50 votes by having a partnership with the City Council.
CF: Did you vote against budgets of Richard M. Daley?
RM: I believe I voted against one or two budgets in the last 10 years. [Muñoz voted against last year’s budget and, according to aide Andrew Sharp, “led a revolt of 10 progressives during the 1999 budget process."]
CF: In your experience, what’s the difference between Daley and Emanuel as chief executives?
RM: Mayor Daley kept his cards close to the chest. He shared very little in terms of what his plans were. He always left you guessing on what would come next. Mayor Emanuel was pretty blunt and forward about what he wants. “Rick, here’s what I need: X, Y, Z.” And that’s a lot easier to deal with. I don’t know if it’s a generational issue or not. Mayor Emanuel has a better sense of humor certainly.
CF: Do you see Rahm as a centrist?
RM: I see him as a chief executive trying to take the city forward. He’s a doer.
CF: You mentioned going to a ribbon-cutting this morning for the new Save-a-Lot in your ward. Would it have happened without Rahm?
RM: First of all, it’s a full-service store that has produce fresh meats, not a hole-in-the-wall store. [Rahm] held a meeting back in May with some of these grocers, and said, “Look, if you guys want to come into the city, here are the locations that are food deserts and you guys need to invest. These aren’t food deserts, these are food opportunities.” People are still buying milk. The question is do you buy at a corner store that also happens to be a liquor store, or do you buy at grocery store that happens to have carrots and greens and papaya as opposed to just Flaming Hots?
CF: Are you resigning your seat as alderman so if you lose to Dorothy Brown in the primary you’re out of a job?
RM: If I’m unsuccessful in March, then I keep my seat and go back to being alderman.
CF: Give me the short form of your biography.
RM: I grew up in Little Village, where my office is at is one block from the house I grew up in and two blocks from the grammar school I graduated from in ’79 [formerly Robert Burns now Rosario Castellanos Middle School. Muñoz attended Holy Name Cathedral High school]. The only time I haven’t lived in Little Village is the four and a half years I was a student at [Northern Illinois University]. Majored in political science, put myself through college by working. I’m actually a professional photographer by trade. I used to shoot wedding portraits, Bar Mitzvahs. Right out of college, in December 1987, I worked for the Department of Health for a little while, and about a year later, for Alderman Jesus Garcia. In ’88 I got married. [Muñoz and his wife, a stay-at-home mother, have two children—a daughter, 17, who is a junior at Whitney Young, and a son, 21, a Whitney Young graduate, now a junior at Seton Hall in New Jersey]. One of the tasks when I first started working for the alderman was organizing block clubs, groups of neighbors to come together to fix things on their block.
CF: So you have community organizer on your resume. Sounds familiar. Did you know President Obama back then?
RM: Oh, yeah I knew him. When he was a lawyer for Miner, Barnhill, & Galland, we worked on a couple of projects [he remembers one as a redistricting case and Obama as “a good lawyer; he knew his stuff.”]. When he was a state senator, we were political allies. I helped him get elected U.S. senator and then president. We crossed paths a number of times. He’s a friend. I have pictures of him with my kids at the house when he was campaigning for U.S. senate. I knew Michelle first; I met her in 1993. I was on the board of advisers for Public Allies [the organization Michelle headed], which had a program at Farragut High School, which was in my ward. She was smart as hell—very bright, very focused.
CF: Have you been in touch with Barack at all?
RM: Not really, he’s kind of been busy.
CF: Your father is serving a prison term for participation in a fake ID ring scheme. I heard that you are estranged. Is that still the case?
RM: We stay in touch. He has about six more months [of his sentence]. My parents are separated.
CF: Are you a supporter of Occupy Chicago?
RM: I go there at least once a week and lend my support. I think they’ve got a good point. The [chant] that resonates the most is, “They got bailed out; we got thrown out.” Look at the foreclosures.
CF: If you were mayor, would you have allowed them to remain in Grant Park?
RM: Public places are places for display of public comment. The Park District should work something out with them. We as a municipality have the authority to institute some rules about [sanitation and safety]. But they should be able to express their views. I would have worked with them to figure out how to do it. I think they have a right to voice their concerns, and we should hold these banks accountable.
CF: You put yourself in treatment for alcoholism last year. How’s that going?
RM: One day at a time. I’m attending my meetings, I talk to my sponsor on regular basis. I’ve been blessed, tough as it was.