Will Guzzardi, a 2009 graduate of Brown University with a major in comparative literature, announced in August that he’s running in the Democratic primary for state rep of the 39th District. When the primary rolls around next March 20th, he will still be 24. His opponent is Maria Antonia “Toni” Berrios, the daughter of Joe Berrios, the machine-backed, old-school winner of the 2010 race for Cook County assessor. Toni, the first Puerto Rican woman to serve in the Illinois House of Representatives, is in her fifth term representing the Northwest Side district that currently includes such neighborhoods as Logan Square and Belmont-Cragin. So far—there’s still time before the filing deadline—it’s Berrios vs. Guzzardi, who grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the son of New York transplants and big names in the book publishing industry. (His father a revered editor and his mother a former publishing executive-turned-social worker).
There’s no hint of the south in Guzzardi’s accent, and the lanky, earnest young man who could pass for one of my son’s friends—save for the extremely disciplined manner and the hair sprinkled with gray. He came to Chicago straight from Providence, Rhode Island, with no job in hand, because he had visited here a couple of times and loved it. A few months later, he landed as an intern on the Chicago page of the Huffington Post, moved up to the position of associate editor, and gave that up to devote full time to his campaign. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation:
CF: So why Chicago? You could have gone anywhere.
WG: There’s an unpretentiousness about Chicago. It’s a city that’s humble and welcoming and has an incredibly rich history, and folks who live here now, especially in my neighborhood in Logan Square, are very committed to making their neighborhood a better place. People are really passionate about Chicago and are proud to call themselves Chicagoans. I’m proud to call myself one, too.
CF: After you arrived here, you worked in some after-school programs. How did you land the job at Huff Po?
WG: Found it on Craig’s List, first as an intern for $10 an hour. It was great, being able to read local news, constantly reading the papers, watching TV. My focus was city politics, schools policy, and I started to write about community organizations in my neighborhood. I started feeling that I wanted to be more active in my community. I did some volunteering, but also I decided that I wanted to use my job as a reporter to help shine a light on some of the good work that folks were doing in my community already.
CF: And the segue into politics?
WG: Meeting with community leaders, they told a common story which was that they were working against budget cut after budget cut, just trying to keep programs running, and wanted a voice that would advocate for them. I learned about the overnight emergency services for the homeless. The van comes through in the winter in the dead of night looking for people sleeping under the bridges and picks them up and takes them to a homeless shelter, and the funding for that service is cut, and that’s peoples’ lives—people will lose their lives because that service isn’t being provided. It’s unconscionable. The lowest 20 percent of earners in Illinois spent 13 percent of income in state and local taxes. The top one percent of earners in Illinois spent four percent of their income in taxes. We have a really regressive tax system in Illinois. The burden is being passed on to working people.
CF: Those numbers ring a bell. Are you involved in Occupy Chicago?
WG: I went a week ago Monday. The system is broken; people are frustrated and want to see a change. I think the electoral realm is an opportunity to make that change. We can help elect leaders who are going to be accountable to their constituents and not to special interests. That frustration is going to play out in March; it’ll show up at the ballot box.
CF: You mentioned you weren’t in Grant Park on Saturday night when 175 people were arrested. Would you have allowed yourself to be arrested?
WG: That’s a good question. It’s hard to say. I certainly sympathize with the cause of the folks who are down there. I think they’re brave for being there.
CF: So what’s involved in running for office?
WG: Everyday I try to knock on doors—four to five hours everyday.
CF: How much time do you spend raising money?
WG: A couple of hours a day. We raised over $50,000 in the first quarter in about two months of campaigning. The district is small enough that I can talk to most everybody who is going to vote on Election Day. And that’s how we’re gonna win this race. One conversation at a time, person to person on peoples’ doorsteps. [What Guzzardi didn’t mention is that, with the exception of two Chicago donors and a $5,000 loan he made to his own campaign, his financial support is coming, so far, from out of state—New York, North Carolina, Virginia, etc.]
CF: Do you have specific complaints about Toni Berrios’s performance?
WG: At this point in the campaign, I’m not talking about my opponent. I really want to take the time to introduce myself to the voters.
CF: What makes you think you can win against an incumbent, particularly one whose father holds a position of power in county government?
WG: The Green Party ran a candidate, Jeremy Karpen, in 2010. He won 35 percent. I covered that race for the Huff Po. I interviewed Jeremy and Toni about the race. I watched the movement that he was building, and I think his results made it clear that people in that community are looking for a new type of leadership.
CF: Say you do win the primary and then the general election. Then you go to Springfield and you come up against Speaker Michael Madigan, the most powerful man in Illinois politics.
WG: I hope that I can work with the Speaker on issues on which we have shared concerns. I can find lots of representatives down in Springfield with whom I have common cause on issues. I can build bridges down there and try to form a group of progressive leaders who are willing to take progressive stands on issues and be a real force in the legislature. I think that I will, for lack of a better phrase, use the bully pulpit. I’ll be able to use the bully pulpit to help draw attention to some of these issues.
CF: Have you been to Springfield?
WG: No, only watched the proceedings on video online.
CF: Is there someone now serving in Springfield whom you admire, see as a role model, a mentor?
WG: Rep. Karen Yarbrough was very active on foreclosure issues. I wrote a piece in the Huff Post on her and what she was doing. I really admire how passionate she is. And when I was watching that civil unions debate [online], I [admired] Rep. Deb Mell. She was talking about driving to Iowa to get married. I hope that one day she’ll be able to get married in Illinois.
CF: What kind of response do you get when you ring a total stranger’s door?
WG: Two responses: “I never had a politician come to my door before.” Or, I’ve heard this more times than you might think: “The last politician who came to my door was Rod Blagojevich.” I always tell them I hope my career doesn’t end up like his. In my experience, when you tell them you’re running for office, they almost always immediately warm up right away; they’ve got something to say to you.
CF: Do you find that people know who their state rep is? Most people, I find, don’t have a clue.
WG: A lot of folks don’t. On the congressional level, my district is split between Congressmen Luis Gutierrez and Mike Quigley. People seem to like Quigley. Every now and then people think I’m running against him. I say, “I’m running for state rep,” and they say, “Are you running against Quigley?” They seem bothered by that.
CF: So what was the tipping point that made you move from journalism to politics?
WG: During Jeremy Karpen’s campaign in 2010, one of his refrains was that he believed that ordinary people have to step up and run for office. That really planted a seed in my mind, and when I found out he wasn’t going to run again, that seed took root a little more deeply.
CF: Is running for office something you thought about growing up?
WG: I don’t know that I would have been a comparative literature major if that was the track that I knew I was going down.
CF: Do you think you can get Arianna Huffington out here to campaign for you?
WG: We’ll see. I met her a few times.
CF: If you don’t win, will you go back into journalism or go to grad school?
WG: I’m not sure. I don’t spend too much of my time thinking about it. I don’t intend to leave. I’ll be involved in my community in one way or another. I intend to have a life in Chicago.
Photograph: Courtesy of Will Guzzardi