A comedian, radio host, consultant, and now aspiring politician, Patti Vasquez has mastered the art of bending without breaking.
Born and raised in Chicago, Vasquez attended Lane Tech High School, then graduated from the University of Illinois. Later, she was accepted to a PhD program at Northwestern, but dropped out to pursue standup comedy after seeing a performance by Margaret Cho, also the daughter of immigrants. (Vasquez’s mother is from Mexico; her father was born in the U.S. to Irish immigrants.)
While working as a comedian, Vasquez posted an essay titled “Fuck Jenny McCarthy” on social media, in which she criticized the celebrity, who has been openly skeptical of vaccination, after having seen her speak on a panel at an autism conference. As a result, Vasquez says, WGN, where she was a regular guest, called her in. She was offered a radio slot in 2014, which she held until last week, when she was fired for not reporting that a guest had cursed on air, according to Robert Feder.
Now, she’s pursuing the state senate seat vacated by John Mulroe, who was recently appointed Cook County Circuit judge in the 10th Judicial Subcircuit.
That may sound like convenient timing. But while she wouldn’t directly address her departure from WGN, Vasquez notes that on Friday, June 14, three days before her firing, Politico reporter Shia Kapos tweeted that the host intended to seek the seat, which will be decided by committeemen.
According to Vasquez, she’d been after the senate post for two months; when Kapos’s news broke, she rushed to tell WGN on her own terms.
“I had already been talking to people [about the post],” she says. “The Politico tweet came out Friday night and I was scrambling to tell my bosses because I was worried that they would be angry about it. [The story] was published before I was let go.”
If selected for the post, Vasquez wants to provide services for families with special needs children, a cause she’s traveled to Springfield to advocate for in the past. The mother of two sons — one with corpus callosum disorder — Vasquez also heads With Kind Words, a consulting firm which aims to help medical professionals more effectively communicate with patients and their families.
I recently met Vasquez in Jefferson Park, in the heart of the district she hopes to represent as senator.
You’re a comedian, radio host, activist, and now you want to be a politician. If I’d never heard of you, what would you say you are?
I’m a comedian who is very active in the community when it comes to helping people understand how their local government affects their lives every day.
Who else is seeking that state senate appointment?
Everybody, now. I think there are about eight people. I’ve wanted to run for the last decade, but a lot of things held me back. Being in the media wasn’t something I could do and run for office. It’s also a huge commitment for my family. [Vasquez and her husband have two sons, Griffin, 15, and Declan, 13.]
Do your political aspirations stem from Declan, who has special needs?
No. I was a door-knocker with my dad when I was a kid. He was a precinct captain in Norwood Park. He was a Republican and my mother is a lifelong Democrat, and that has really shaped who I am.
Did my dad and I argue a lot? Yes. But one of the things I’m driven toward is listening. I want to be the kind of public servant who wouldn’t dismiss someone like my dad, just because we disagree politically. That’s where I’ve come from my entire life.
You’ve been on one side of the mic. Now you want to jump into an arena where you’ll be on the receiving end of it.
I’ve had so many people that I admire go through the fire and come back. I’m so proud to call them my friends, and people that I look forward to working with someday, on that side of the press box.
Your friends in the press aren’t going to give you a free pass—
No, and there’s going to be a lot to look at. If I make mistakes along the way, people should know about it. Transparency is something everyone wants. I want to have a monthly event — even if I don’t get public office. I want to have a monthly event — I just thought of this — about what’s going on in Springfield, what’s going on in the neighborhood.
Do you think you can accomplish more as a legislator than as an activist?
Yes, but either way, I intend to be active. I was held back the last few years because I had to make sure both sides were heard [as a member of the media].
You were in a PhD program at Northwestern before you dropped out to do comedy. What were you studying?
For undergrad, I was a history major with a Spanish minor. My plan was to go to law school. I was going to be a civil rights attorney. I had it all figured out. But after two quarters [in a history masters and PhD program] at Northwestern, it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like the place I wanted to be.
Then, what happened was, I was watching VH1 Spotlight, and they had a 24-hour [comedy] marathon [featuring Margaret Cho]. I had loved stand-up my whole life. If you got in my car when I was in high school, you’d hear Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Roseanne and Ellen DeGeneres. But I had never heard someone like Margaret Cho. Her parents are immigrants. My dad is second-generation Irish but my mom is from Mexico. It was an interesting childhood, to learn together what it means to be an American.
So, I saw her on the show and saw her talking about things in a way that I had never heard before. In that moment, that was all I could think of.
In the third quarter at Northwestern, a friend of mine was killed in a bar fight in Wicker Park. I was at his wake and thought, ‘You just never know.’ I was miserable at Northwestern, and I knew that I had this urge to do stand-up comedy, so I left. My mom encouraged me and I told my dad a month later.
If you’re appointed, what would be your main focus?
Obviously I have a lot of experience understanding special needs services, and that will always be a priority for me. With Declan, I’ve had the opportunity to learn the system, but bigger than that, I’ve grown so much getting to know other families and learning what they have gone through.
But I’m guessing you don’t want to come across as a one-issue legislator.
In this neighborhood [Jefferson Park], we have a lot of first responders, and one of the biggest issues we have is mental health. Not only their mental health, but making sure they are valued — making sure they don’t get priced out of the communities they live in and love. I’m not anywhere close to a one-issue person.
Given a choice between other public positions, would the state senate seat be the ideal post for you?
No, right now it’s my focus because it’s what is available. I thought about running for alderman ten years ago, but I’m pleased that [former 45th Ward alderman] John Arena was able to accomplish so much.
Arena recently lost re-election. Were you a supporter of his?
I had him on my show and also invited [his opponent] Jim Gardiner on the show, but he was never able to come on. At the time, I couldn’t fully support anybody because I wanted to make sure I covered both sides. I did as much as I thought was professionally acceptable.
Do you support Gardiner?
I didn’t support anybody in the race.
Do you support him now?
I want to see what he does. I wanted to know more about why they suspended discretionary funding for a lot of projects that a lot of people in the neighborhood voted for [a dog park, lighting a viaduct on Milwaukee]. I know we have to have the streets fixed, but that can be done at the city and state level.
One of the things about being in Springfield is that I can hit the ground running, because when it comes to the budget, they have vertical and horizontal spending. Horizontal is all the streets, the infrastructure. Vertical is things like education and hospitals. In order to get our streets done, we’re hoping to get some of that horizontal funding.
I’m tiptoeing around the WGN thing. For those who are considering appointing you to the senate, do you think they may have a fear—
Because of my reputation.
My reputation is that I speak out when I see something is wrong. I worked for a corporation. Being in public office, you see public servants all the time that are outspoken. My temperament is nowhere near what the President’s is, so being able to represent people and serve them, I think I’m very well suited for that.
What happens if you don’t get the appointment?
I’m going to keep working, and like I said, I just got the idea as we were talking to have a monthly coffee with everyone in the neighborhood.
You’re the main financial provider in your house, right?
Yes. So, With Kind Words [her medical consulting company] will be where I’ll be. I’ve also been working on some things with Zanies Comedy Club. My plan is to continue to pursue public office because now I can be more involved in everything. As soon as things changed, all week long I was at events and it was so much fun.
So now that you’re not at WGN, you have more time to pursue other passions.
One of the things I tried teaching my son Griffin when he was inconsolable about something is that you can’t always control what happens. You can’t control situations, but you can control how you react to it. We are going to make mistakes, we’re not always going to do what you hope you would, but you can’t be breakable. You don’t want to be a tree that snaps in a strong wind, you want to be a willow, you want to be a flexible tree that bends in the storm.
Would you consider going to another radio station?
I don’t know, I honestly don’t. I think I would do a podcast. Being able to have conversations with people is important, and I have enjoyed talking to people, learning more about them and highlighting things that are important to Chicago. That’s something that I love doing and I want to find a way to continue doing that.