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Carlos Ramirez-Rosa on Being a Young, Gay, Latino Alderman

How did the 26-year-old community activist find out he’d been elected to City Council? Facebook, of course.

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.   Photo: courtesy of the campaign

This year’s municipal elections brought a few surprises to the city—including the first-ever mayoral run-off, between Rahm Emanuel and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia—but one result that stuck out back in February was the election of 26-year-old Carlos Ramirez-Rosa to represent the 35th ward in City Council.

Ramirez-Rosa challenged four-term incumbent Rey Colon for the seat and, in an upset, won with 67 percent of the vote, making the race the only one this year where an incumbent lost outright (as opposed to going to run-off). 

Now the former community organizer is preparing to take office on May 18. Chicago sat down with the city’s youngest alderman to talk about his family, his career, and just how he won in the northwest ward. 

Let’s just get right to it. How did you do it?

We did it the good old fashioned way: knocking on doors, talking to neighbors, and articulating a message that was grounded in bread and butter issues. 

When did you get involved in the race? When was the first conversation?

I would say spring of 2014 I started looking at the upcoming municipal election and thinking, Who’s my alderman? Is he someone that I can get behind? And I very quickly realized that wasn’t the case. He was a guy that voted with the mayor 96 percent of the time and had supported school closures. So I started looking for an alternative.

Around June, I heard that state Senator William Delgado was thinking of running for alderman here in the 35th ward because redistricting put his Hermosa home in the district by a block. I met with him and I said if you’re thinking of running, I very much would support you. He said, “I’m actually not thinking of running…[but] based upon the things that I’ve heard from you, I think you should consider running." 

I told my family and they said: "You’re too young. You’ve got to go to law school. The Chicago machine is big and nasty and they’re going to come after you in a really ugly way.” Maybe they were right. Maybe I should be looking toward law school. But then I went to a community organizing training in July with National People’s Action. It was all about getting in touch with why it is that you organize, what your values are, and how we can most effectively act out those values in the world. It convinced me that, yes, I’m going to be 26 on election day, and I don’t have a law degree, but that shouldn’t stop me from trying to be the change that I want to see in the world.

So you talked to your parents. Did anyone else weigh in?

My Aunt Norma and my Uncle Ramon. Actually my Aunt Norma made the first big contribution to the campaign. Normally when you’re thinking of running for office, they tell you go to the people that you are closest with and see if they’ll give you money. If they won’t give you money, no one else is going to give you money. My Aunt Norma is my godmother. In Latino families, that’s a huge deal. In June, she was like, “Go to law school.” Then in July she said, “All right, I’m with you.” If I hadn’t had my aunt and uncle’s support, I don’t think I would have moved forward.

Are there still plans to go to law school one day?

Maybe. Right now, I’m focused on opening up a constituent service office and making sure that I fulfill all the commitments that I made to the voters of the 35th ward. Perhaps I would go to law school one day. We’ll see.

Tell me about your family.

I come from a family that is half Mexican, half Puerto Rican. My dad was born in the mountains of Puerto Rico. He came to Chicago for college to UIC. My mother was born in the desert of northern Mexico. She was brought to the Chicagoland area as a child. Her father, my grandfather, was a steel mill worker on the southeast side of Chicago. That job allowed him to send his daughters to Catholic school. She actually grew up in Lincoln Park and was able to go to UIC, which is where my parents met.

In the 70s, they got married. They bought a house in Lake View when it was a very different neighborhood than it is today. I think they paid $70,000 for a three-flat. My mom still owns it. They were teachers. Eventually they were able to land a job in the central office for the Chicago public schools.

What did they teach?

They started a group called Chicago Bilingual Educators, and actually helped start the oldest dual language emerging school in the Midwest called Inter-American Magnet School. My sisters and I all attended that school. It was a CPS magnet school. Education was really big in our household. My parents would always tell me things like, you can lose all your property, you can lose your freedom, but if you’re educated, you can never lose that.

After attending Inter-American, I went to Whitney Young High School, got accepted to their 7th-8th grade program and completed high school there. Then after that, I went to University of Illinois.

My parents definitely were a big influence on me. They always had conversations at the dinner table about how they could increase the number of minorities hired at the central office. They would have conversations about how we can improve our public schools and what was good education policy. Unfortunately, my father … My parents divorced, as 50 percent of Americans do, maybe when I was 15. Then unfortunately my father passed of cancer January 31. He was 65 years old. Never drank, never smoked, but was diagnosed with stomach cancer about three years ago. I will say that while he didn’t get to see me win this campaign, I know that he was very proud of the work that I was doing.

What about siblings?

I have my sisters, Melissa and Jackie. They’ve been really important to my campaign. They were part of my steering committee and helped me make a lot of important decisions around messaging. Jackie now works for United Way. Melissa just recently got hired at the Art Institute of Chicago as a graphic designer. She actually designed all my campaign literature.

Let’s get to the campaign. What happened in the last four years to make constituents turn against Rey Colon? Was it school closures? 

I think it was his close relationship with the big developers, particularly Mark Fishman, who made headlines when he began purchasing properties and evicting long-time residents in the dead of winter. Obviously no one likes to see their neighbors evicted, particularly when it’s below zero degrees. People saw how he had essentially become an extension of these very rich people who were able to make very deep campaign contributions.

Then I think also seeing how he had voted 96 percent of the time with the mayor. It wasn’t just that he was voting with the mayor a lot, but it’s not actively taking a stand and speaking up against these nasty policies. He supported school closures when they were happening. We dug up that transcript of it, the radio interview he did in Spanish where he said they should be closed. He signed a letter attacking the teachers union that was circulated by supporters of Mayor Emanuel.

I’m glad you brought up Mark Fishman. A lot of people in the 35th ward know the issues going on with gentrification. Some people have argued that Fishman is basically a scapegoat, that gentrification is coming to Logan Square and people are fighting it. What do you say?

We have a market-based economy and ultimately the market is powerful. There are very limited things that individuals can do when the market is moving in a certain direction. With that said, I think that people want to know that their elected officials are independent and are accountable to them and aren’t making decisions based upon campaign contributions. I think the issue with Rey Colon was not just that Mark Fishman or other big developers were coming in and pushing out long time residents. It was the fact that they felt that their representative wasn’t accountable to them.

One other thing about your ward is that the boundaries changed through redistricting since the last election. How did that contribute to your win?

Redistricting has meant that in a lot of the new 35th ward, Rey Colon wasn’t the incumbent. It was incumbent upon him to go out there and knock doors and make his presence known and introduce himself as the new alderman. I started knocking doors in August and I can tell you that he had not done that work, whereas people were telling me, “You’re running against Arino” or "you’re running against Mel” or "you’re running against Suarez.” I’m saying “No, I’m running against Rey Colon. He’s your new alderman." 

Any elected official needs to make their presence known and people want to know who it is that represents them. I think we were able to make ourselves, or make me, better known with residents of the 35th ward.

Let’s go to election night. Were you surprised by just how much you won by?

I was convinced up until [that night] that we had lost, just because of all the thousands of supporters that we identified, not all of them came out to vote. There were a lot of people who had never affirmatively said they were going to vote for me that came out to vote. We had no idea which way they went.

Incumbents always have a big advantage for a lot of different reasons. It wasn’t until the first precinct results started coming in that it was very apparent very early on that we had a lead. Then it was like, all right, as long as we hold on to this lead as the other precincts come in, we’re going to win this.

Where were you when you found out you won?

Around 7 p.m., I was super nervous and I just pulled over my car because I was driving back from Nixon School towards the campaign office and the results started coming in. People were texting me, “You won this precinct, you won that precinct.” I actually found out via Facebook. It was looking good and then my Facebook app just updated so now I’m getting all these annoying notifications.

The push notifications.

Yeah. I’d been so busy the past couple days to shut it off. Suddenly I started getting all these alerts on my Facebook, and one of them is like, CLTV just called the election for Carlos. One of my friends had posted a screenshot of CLTV putting the star next to my name.

Were you alone in the car? I would have been screaming.

I was screaming! I was alone in the car, [but] then I got a call a call from my campaign manager. He was like, “Yeah, you won. The press is going to be at the Levee [the bar where the campaign party was] right now. You need to get going.”

When you’re sworn in this month, you’ll be the youngest alderman on City Council. What is that like?

There was an alderman elected in the 35th ward at the age of 26 in the 80s. Ed Burke was elected at the age of 26 many decades ago. To me, whenever we said if age was the determining factor, then given the median age of the city council, we wouldn’t be facing the issues that we’re facing.

You’re still a millennial alderman. How does that perspective differ from other aldermen?

Millennials are going through an economic shift that has meant that graduating college does not guarantee a place in the middle class. For a very long time, you’ve got your degree, maybe you’ll go work at a company, that was your career. Then you’re retired and you had a pension. What we’ve seen since the Reagan era is that that kind of bargain with the middle class has been completely eroded.

I believe that at this point in time, 50 percent of millennials are either unemployed or underemployed. You have the generation of people that graduate college and, as opposed to getting married and getting the career and striking out on their own, are moving back into mom and dad’s house and working at Starbuck’s or working at REI and making it very difficult to make ends meet.

As that knowledge of where my friends are at and seeing how hard it is for them to struggle, they’re brilliant capable people making it, but it’s very difficult for them to find a career where they can start a family and purchase a home. That shapes my view of the world.

You’re also the first gay Latino alderman on City Council. What is that like?

I, as a child, never … One, I never thought I could be openly gay. Two, I never imagined that I could be openly gay running for office. [It’s] because of work that started at Stonewall and because of the work that was done when Republicans and the Bush administration were opposing gay marriage. I’m now able to say I’m an openly gay Latino man, and win a district that’s overwhelmingly Latino.

To me that just represents that fighting and building movements and taking it to the streets is never a bad idea. If we want to continue to move this society forward then I need to engage in that type of struggle. To me, it’s a responsibility. I feel like I owe a debt to previous generations that got us to the point where we’re at today. I feel like I need to build upon their successes.

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