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Monday, July 15

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Airbags

Last week I sat down with Alderman Ricardo Muñoz of the 22nd Ward. Muñoz has long been considered one of the most independent aldermen on the City Council. The 22nd ward has a long tradition of independent politics, beginning with Jesus Garcia's election to the city council as part of the Harold Washington coalition. The 22nd Ward IPO (independent political organization) is the last one standing after years of pushback from the Regular Democratic Organization, Mayor Daley and his allies. The interview was fairly wide ranging, covering Muñoz's political history, ward politics, and Obama's outreach to Latino voters. Most interesting is his response to my question about his support for the Ogden/Pulaski TIF, given the current suspicion over TIFs and Ben Jovarsky's piece in the Reader on the Ogden/Pulaski TIF March 6th.

Lesniewski: What has contributed to your ability to remain independent?

Muñoz: When I first got involved here in the 22nd ward it was specifically because I liked the politics of the group here. When I graduated from college in '87 and moved back into the city, I lived in the 22nd ward and I got involved with the candidacies and campaigns of Jesus Garcia. I liked what I saw because they had founded a group that called itself the 22nd Ward Independent Political Organization, who's not necessarily an obstructionist, not necessarily anti-everything, but we tended to be independent of what's commonly known as the Machine. The Regular Democratic Machine doesn't have a great history with the Latino community and Latino elected officials, because they like to get folks elected and they don't let them speak their minds, whether it's an issue of access to education, a safe and affordable neighborhood. The politics were just right for me when I came out of college and started working for Alderman Garcia, and since becoming an alderman, I'm very fond of saying I vote with the mayor 96 percent of the time. And you know, 4 percent, that makes me a radical! A crazy lefty, but it's that 4 percent that matters, 'cause that's where we're creating accountability at the budget level for the city. That's where we demand that Latinos and African American women get their fair share of contracts. That's when we and our friends in labor demand that if a company's gonna get subsidies from the city of Chicago. If they're gonna get breaks, if they're gonna come into the city to make their profits, they should be paying a living wage. I end up voting with the mayor 96 percent of the time anyway, it's that 4 percent that makes me that crazy liberal.

Lesniewski: Is there a range of issues on which you can act independently before the mayor says stop?

Muñoz: I've never operated on the basis that you have to be careful of the mayor's reaction to your actions. I've always operated under the assumption that if it's good for the neighborhood, that's what you do. Clear example was the story of the construction of the new high school at 31st and Kostner. In 1979 when I was in 8th grade, my 8th grade math class was in the hallway. When I became alderman in January of '93, that math class was still in a hallway, so we made it our mission — not my mission, collectively as a neighborhood — to advocate for new schools. Between 1993-1997, we built five new grammar schools, all in little village, all within two miles of each other, all preK-8, all brand new. The most new schools of any other neighborhood in the state.

In 1997, we set our sights on building a new high school. Late that year, the property commonly known as Edible Oils — because that's the name of the company on 31st and Kostner — went up for sale. So I immediately called up then-president Gary Chico and said, "Hey, we have a site for a school." That was November of '97. By January of '98, the board passed the resolution authorizing the construction of three new schools: North Side Prep, Walter Payton, and Little Village. By April of '98, the property was purchased, which means we were well on our way, and I had talked to the mayor, and this meant this was a good thing. And then, Paul Vallas began to drag his feet, because in '98, Jesus Garcia had just been defeated for state senate by a machine candidate that had no name recognition or electoral history. They came very close in '98 to beating my state rep, in 2000 they beat us. What used to be here an office of three elected officials — alderman, state rep and state senator — was now just me, the alderman. The political side of Paul Vallas began to say if we do the high school we'd never be able to defeat alderman Muñoz. They slowed it down until 2000 and 2001 we got extremely upset, and some of our supporters did the hunger strike, and then forced the board after a 19-day strike to agree that the school could get built. Never in my mind did I think, "If we do a hunger strike, what's the mayor gonna think?" I always said, "We need the high school, they're slowing it up. Who's our target: Paul Vallas and the Mayor." If that upsets them, so be it, but at the end of the day, we got a 300,000 square foot $68 million building that's beautiful.

So being independent means sometimes you incur the wrath of Daley. Every election — I've been here since '93. So in '95 I had a Daley-backed opponent, in '99 I had two Daley-backed opponents. In '03, I had two Daley-backed opponents who, because they made mistakes with petitions, we were able to kick off the ballot. I was unopposed — that was a happy year. In '07 there were two Daley-backed opponents. They get pictures with the mayor, the mayor does appearances with them, the mayor's friends give them money, and that's the price we pay.

Lesniewski: What are the consequences for you for your politically independent stands? Is that the main price you pay — strong opponents running against you?

Muñoz: If it wasn't for them, I'd just be running against riff raff, it would just be neighborhood riff raff. Just wannabes, but every time except for '03 where they got sloppy with their petitions, we've had Daley-backed opponents. And it's sad, because I think at the end of the day the mayor loves this city as much as I love this city, it's just the fact that he and his operation want 100 percent support, which I can't give them. I can only give them 96 percent.

Lesniewski: With the HDO seemingly on the ropes, do you see other organizations bubbling to surface to challenge independent Latino politicians?

Muñoz: The mayor's operation is gonna continue to be strong whether you call it HDO, whether you call it the Southwest Side Democrats, whether you call it the 22nd Ward Real Democrats. Call it whatever you want, the mayor's operation will always be strong. Now, they're a weakened organization specifically because of the hiring scandals and the fundraising scandals, but at the end of the day, they still control the city, and the mayor continues to be the most powerful democrat in the state — in this region! I mean, when folks are even considering running for president, there's four or five people you call in the country; Rich Daley's one of them. That's before you even talk to your wife about it!

Lesniewski: Moving nationally, there's been a lot of talk about Obama and Latinos. Why do you see the disconnect between Obama and Latinos?

Muñoz: I think it has more to do with a function of the campaign making an early mistake, which they learned from real quick, starting in Nevada, January 19th. What the Obama operation didn't anticipate was the fact that the Clinton name is a brand. It's kind of like McDonald's. The reason you walk into a McDonald's in the middle of nowhere is because you know that quarter-pounder will taste the same as the one across from your house. It's branding, so the Clinton brand has some significance in the Latino community, because folks remember that. The Obama campaign didn't pay much attention to it. They thought because Barack had friends in the Latino community in Chicago and because Barack was good on the original state of Illinois DREAM Act before it was popular in the mid-'90s, because Barack was a sponsor of the driver's license bill in 1996-97, back before it was an issue like it is nowadays, that once you tell people that everybody would be cool. But that wasn't the case. Latinos outside Illinois remember one and only one thing — Senator Obama voted for the Wall, when he had promised he wouldn't. So, that left a bad taste in everybody's mouth. The campaign didn't realize that until — I was in Nevada that election, January 19th with the staffers who said "hey, we've got a problem here." That is when they shifted gears, they started spending money, they started doing Latino media. In the Arizona primary, they spent almost a million bucks on TV, not to mention all the radio they did.

Lesniewski: There's that video with the mariachi song, right?

Muñoz: There's about five different mariachi songs now. That's independently created though, I'm talking about the things they paid for and looked to do. I mean, they've been asking me to be a surrogate all over the country. I was in Ohio, I was in Nevada, New Hampshire, I went down to Texas for a couple days, and not just me but there's a bunch of us going around telling our stories about who Barack is. So, I think that was just a misstep by the campaign that they've corrected since.

Lesniewski: It's interesting how the media frames the issue in terms of race.

Muñoz: Race is an issue, you have old school Latinos who grew up in a segregated society, who to this day, like the older woman in Texas who said, "well Latinos ain't voting for a Black man." She thought that was perfectly cool to say, when in fact it isn't, because she's still living in the Fifties. It's generational. There's a friend of mine who's a representative in Texas who is for Barack, and his dad is his state senator, and is for Hillary. He's 60-something, he's 30-something — it's generational.

Lesniewski: Getting back to the local scene, given the potential for reduced immigration and gentrification, what do you see as the future of Little Village?

Muñoz: Little Village has been and will continue to be a port of entry. Aqui es donde llegamos, where people arrive to. It's a challenge for us 'cause we're constantly educating, we're constantly teaching English. As soon as you teach somebody English they move out to Summit; as soon as someone becomes a citizen they move down to Midway. So it's difficult, it has been and will continue to be. I'm proud of our housing policy, where we basically tell folks if you own a property, if you own a lot, you won't be able to build a five-unit condo, because five units means five families, 14 kids, seven cars, and it's already the most densely populated ward in the city. I mean, we've got more bodies per square acre than even downtown, simply because it's a working class neighborhood with a lot of two-flats and three-flats, where people are doubling up. The affordability issue is key to making sure this neighborhood continues to become affordable, and I do that by simply putting a limit on development. When my developer friends come to me and say, "Hey alderman, I've got three lots in your ward, can I build 14 units?" I say, "No, you get two per lot." They say, "I'm not gonna make any money!" And I say, "That's not my fault," 'cause you build 14 units that's 14 families, that's 24 kids, that's 19 cars, where are people gonna park? My schools are crowded already. Even though we built five new grammar schools, we're still at 110, 112 percent capacity, so it just doesn't make sense to be overbuilding. That's why I don't understand why some of my colleagues, specifically on the far North and South Sides, allow these monstrosities to be built. You have neighborhoods like Belmont-Cragin where the schools are crowded, and the alderman are allowing on two lots, nine units to go up. Like where these kids gonna go to school? You go to Lincoln Park and everybody's crying about parking, and you see a sign "coming soon 16 units." Where are those 16 units gonna park? It's just common sense. I'm accused of being anti-development, I say, "I'm not anti-development, I'm pro-neighborhood."

Lesniewski: We have similar debates in Hyde Park about density and development.

Muñoz: Yeah, I mean, I have a friend who's on the board of a school down in Hyde Park, and they own a lot, I believe it's like 300x300, and they wanna build a 14-15 story condo unit, and they say they just want the best and highest use. And I say, "Yeah, but that's for your profit line." You know, if you build 14 floors and there's three units per floor, do the math! That's 45 units, where those kids gonna go to school, where those drivers gonna park? And granted, not everybody drives, let's say 70 percent of them drive, you're still talking about 35-36 cars in a neighborhood you're already driving five blocks to find parking. Folks always say me, me, me, me, me, but it's my job as an alderman to say, "Hey look, you might make more money if you put nine units on two lots, but you're only getting two units." That means that instead of 22 extra kids, we have seven off this property.

Lesniewski: Why did you support the Ogden/Pulaski TIF?

Muñoz: I supported that TIF because TIFs were originally... let me back off... A TIF is like a hammer and a chisel. It can be used to sculpt a beautiful piece of art, or it could be used to break a lot of windows. I'm of the opinion that some TIF's in Chicago are breaking a lot of windows, because they're being over-utilized for the wrong reasons. If you drive around on the Ogden/Pulaski TIF, you'll see that 30 percent of the land is vacant, you'll see that 40 percent of the commercial space is unrented, you'll see that of the existing housing stock in that TIF, 90 percent of it is over 80 years old, and 50 percent of it needs help, whether it's a new porch, a new window, or a new roof. So that TIF qualifies as blighted, because it needs help, that area.

The part that's in the 22nd ward includes a site known as the CTA bus-barn, which is now vacant at Cermak and Springfield, we'd like to do something public there. The only way you pay for a public project is with tax money, so if there's a way we can take some of the TIF money or future proceeds from the TIF, and finance either a senior center or a park... We still don't know what it's going to be, but I want it to stay public. I've gotten visits from a number of developers with offers, one a month in the last three years, who come to me and say as alderman, we're gonna go talk to the CTA and we're gonna buy the bus-barn, because we wanna put a commercial center here. Because this neighborhood is so densely populated, there's very little public property, so as the alderman, I say no, I won't sell it. And if they do sell it, I won't grant the zoning, so don't even try it, because that's my responsibility. The more we sell off public land, the less public benefit we have, so we won't have the senior center, we won't have the park, we won't have a running track. Something public, something that the public can benefit from. Because there's an industrial corridor between Pulaski and the city limits on Ogden, I'd like to see if the TIF can help create some jobs there. So, for me, I'm very focused on what I want, I want public benefit, and creating some jobs. Now I know there's some political and community dialogue going on in the 24th ward as to what intent is, because the TIF is huge, and personally I don't like big TIF's. TIF's should be project-driven, in this case, I have projects. The bus-barn in one of them, I wanna use TIF money to fix the bus-barn, make it a public benefit.

[As for] what Alderman Dixon's doing in her ward...

Lesniewski:Was Alderman Dixon's house listed on the TIF property list?

Muñoz: No, it gets kinda tricky because in 1996 when all Pilsen was gonna be TIFed, then senator Garcia introduced TIF legislation that required any new TIFs to do a housing impact study. The housing impact study is not an acquisition list. It's a study that's looks at the TIF and says if the intent of the TIF is to create commercial space, and we have a little commercial space here and a bunch of houses next door, there's the possibility that those houses could be displaced by a larger commercial development. The possibility. Not that it's gonna happen, that's why it's called an impact study. It might happen. If the TIF is an industrial TIF, well, we have an industrial tenant over on 31st and Millard, and he needs parking, so the homes next door to it might be impacted if he applies for TIF money to get a parking lot for his employees or whatever.

So Senator Garcia did that back then to make sure it was public record, and what could happen if it goes in that direction. So in the housing impact study was a number of lists — and this is where it gets real tricky 'cause this was in the transition of the '07 election, when Alderman Dixon was challenging incumbent Alderman Chandler. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that her address got on there as political harassment to her candidacy by the Chandler forces. I can't prove it, but I'd bet that that happened. She becomes the alderman, and then it becomes her problem, so she corrected it by immediately taking it off the list. That was political gamesmanship because I was not the incumbent; I'm the incumbent now so we're doing it this way.

And some political forces were misinforming people and saying "look — out of the 8300 housing units in the TIF, almost 20 percent of them are gonna be taken from us 'cause they're on this list." I went to several community meetings in the 24th ward and in the 22nd ward and said, "Look, this is a housing impact study, this just says that if this is the vision, if this happens, this could happen. If you really wanna know, there is an acquisition list, these are properties that we really wanna buy." Of these 45 or 50, there might be 5 percent vacant, one of them was owner occupied, but the owner wanted to sell. He came to the city and to the alderman's office and said, "Hey, I wanna put mine, 'cause I'm outta here, I'm 85 years old, I'm not gonna stick around. Instead of putting it on the market and waiting 6 months, if you guys wanna just buy it from me because you're buying these four lots anyway." You know, but there were political forces who are anti-alderman Dixon who are using documents to scare people. I mean, I had people come in my office who were saying, "If you approve this TIF, the city's taking my house," I said look, I only take people's homes if I'm building a park, a library or a school. They say "Oh, I live across the street from a school," so then they got nothing to worry about, you know? I don't know what Alderman Dixon's policy is, but that's my policy. They go "they're gonna take there homes" but nobody's going to take their homes. And, you know, let's say we do need your home, the city pays very well. When we took some homes for the expansion of (Toman Branch?) Library, we took 5 homes. Those property owners did very well, because you get paid your fair-market value. If it has to be done by a judge, he does three appraisals, and takes the average, and then you get paid moving costs, and you get paid relocation costs, so it's pretty generous.

Lesniewski: You see this TIF more like the 53rd Street TIF, with a strongly, organized community and vigilant alderman?

Muñoz: Yeah, I do.

Lesniewski: Thanks, Alderman Muñoz for your time and your candor.

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Comments

JohnnyQ / March 19, 2008 4:55 PM

Good read. Pretty candid commentary from the alderman that you can't find in mainstream media. Would love to see more 1-on-1's with other aldermen/local pols. Keep it up!

Valerie F. Leonard / March 25, 2008 12:32 AM

Thanks for the article. I thought the interview was quite informative. I'd like to take the time to respond to some of Alderman Munoz' comments.

I am a member of the Lawndale Alliance, a group of property owners, mostly from the 24th Ward, some of whom are from the 22ndWard. We have read both versions of the 258-page Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF Redevelopment Plan. The first version of the plan, published August 2, 2007, does include a PIN number that corresponds to the home and office address of Alderman Dixon. That address is 1630 South Pulaski. (List of Housing Potentially Displaced, from the Housing Impact Study. ) Moreover, the consultant recommended re-zoning such that the land use be changed from residential to commercial for a number of properties on Kedzie, from 23rd Street to Ogden, and on Cermak, from about St. Louis to Hamlin. This move would have effectively expanded the commercial nodes on 23rd and Kedzie up to Ogden and Kedzie, displacing a number of homeowners in favor of commercial development. There were also a number of errors on the list; a signifiant number of property owners, most of whom were from the 24th Ward and 1 from the 22nd Ward, came forth and indicated that they had just poured thousands of dollars into their properties for repairs and renovations; and recommendations for zoning changes for which the City had no immediate plans. There were 317 units on this list initially. The Lawndale Alliance published this list in the local community newspapers, and had a number of public meetings. This list has now been reduced significantly, going from 317 units down to 41. Alderman Dixon's home, which apparently has been signicantly renovated before she purchased it, has been removed from the list. Alderman Munoz and Alderman Dixon were made aware of these facts in August, 2007.

Members of the Lawndale Alliance have reviewed this list again, and have notified the City Department of Planning and Development, Alderman Munoz and Alderman Dixon of a number of errors on this list that still remain. We have asked that they not proceed with the approval process until both the list of Housing Potentially displaced and Acquisition lists are clean. We provided them with pictures of some of the properties indicating recent repairs and renovations. Alderman Munoz, and Alderman Dixon ignored our requests and have pushed the plan forward anyway.

Alderman Munoz and Alderman Dixon promised to have a TIF advisory council in place by the end of November, 2007. This council has not been activated yet. Now, Alderman Munoz and Alderman Dixon are saying they need to have a TIF in place before selecting the council. Given the errors in the TIF redevelopment plan, and the fact that some parts of the plan run counter to the best interests of 24th Ward residents, it would have been prudent to have a TIF Advisory Council in place before the plan is approved. In fact, durng the Community Development Commission public hearing on the matter of the Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF, one of the commissioners severely chided Alderman Dixon and Alderman Munoz for not listening to their constituencies, and not putting the council in place prior to advancing the plan.

Valerie F. Leonard / March 25, 2008 12:43 AM

Open Letter to Alderman Sharon D. Dixon and Alderman Ricardo Munoz
Regarding the Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF Ordinance

We are very concerned that the Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF Redevelopment Plan is being advanced without systems in place to ensure maximum benefit to North Lawndale residents—particularly those that will live within the boundaries of the TIF once it is implemented. Unfortunately, wealthy individuals, foundations and influential nonprofits have a greater voice in our community’s development than local tax payers, who must foot the $300,000,000+ bill for the TIF.

This is particularly distressing in the wake of the largest property tax hike in the City’s history. As it is, our residents are already struggling with mortgage foreclosure and artificially high housing costs. If we are not careful, we could have a situation where low-moderate income residents are financing their own displacement, while paying for new residents to pursue the American Dream.

Unfortunately, the Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF is being advanced to the City Council with a number of errors in property lists, and without the benefit of a TIF Advisory Council. Moreover, many of the concerns we have raised since May, 2007 have not been fully addressed. We respectfully request that the ordinance governing the Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF Redevelopment Plan (and other ordinances if necessary) include language to ensure the following:

1) City land purchases on a voluntary basis as opposed to eminent domain.
2) The Acquisition List and list of Housing Potentially Displaced are error free (before ordinance is ratified).
3) The City includes resident input in the Redevelopment Plan and Redevelopment Budget
4) Governance by a TIF Advisory Council comprised of a broad base of community stakeholders, with representation proportionate to land mass from each respective ward; and diversity in backgrounds and skill sets.
5) Reinstatement of the Lawndale Community Conservation Council to coordinate all development activities in North Lawndale.
6) A broad base of community stakeholders is convened to negotiate community benefits agreements
7) There are systems of accountability put in place with respect to financial performance of the TIF; job creation for local residents, new business development for local residents; affordable housing and holistic community development.

A small group from the Lawndale Alliance met with Alderman Dixon on March 6, 2008 to review our concerns. Unfortunately Alderman Dixon cut this meeting to 15 minutes because she had another engagement. None of our issues were resolved. We attempted to schedule a town hall meeting for March 18, 2008 so both aldermen could address the issues with the community. Unfortunately, we were unable to get a confirmation from Alderman Munoz in time. Alderman Dixon indicated that she would not participate in the town hall meeting without Alderman Munoz.

Alderman Dixon should not wait for Alderman Munoz to have a meeting on the Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF with residents of the 24th Ward. Seventy-seven percent (77%) of the land area, and property taxes will be generated from the 24th Ward. This gives her the power. However, Alderman Munoz appears to be in control. While we recognize that Alderman Dixon needs Alderman Munoz to get things done in City Council, her relationship with him should not take priority over her responsibility to represent her constituents’ interests. We hope to host a town hall meeting with both aldermen to resolve these issues before the April City Council Finance Committee meeting.

Sincerely,


THE LAWNDALE ALLIANCE

Contact Valerie F. Leonard at 773-521-3137 or valeriefleonard@msn.com for further information regarding this letter, or to get a copy of a community update on the Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF. Contact Mr. Tony Binns of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development at 312-744-0986 to order a transcript of the proceedings of the Community Development Commission hearing on the Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF, February 19, 2008.

Valerie F. Leonard / March 25, 2008 10:31 AM

One more thing. The acquisition list for the Proposed Ogden-Pulaski TIF has been reduced from 1,614 properties to 652 properties. The City has indicated, in both versions (published August 2, 2007 and November 30, 2007) that all properties are vacant lots except for one occupied housing unit.

Azteca Mall / April 21, 2009 10:51 AM

LACK OF SUPPORT FROM ALDERMAN RICARDO MUÑOZ.

It has been one year since we purchased this 410,000 square-feet property for the development of a commercial center that will make all Mexicans proud and we are still waiting for positive action from 22nd ward alderman Ricardo Muñoz.
In our first meeting with Muñoz, that took place in November of 2007, we presented him with: an idea of the project which included the drawings of professional designer Jorge Elizondo; data on participating businesses; and, the quantity of persons who would become owners of their own stores. His encouraging response was “buy and we’ll talk. You cannot talk of something that is not yours. The zoning is not a problem.”
Aware of the efforts which former alderman and former senator Jesus Garcia has undertaken in this community we let him know of the project. He informed us that only Muñoz has power over this zoning decision.
In March of 2008 the property for this mall was purchased. We started working with Marco Gutierrez, architect for the project, as well as negotiating with D’Escoto Construction, which Muñoz recommended for the development of our project.
As continuously requested, Azteca Mall LLC has given Muñoz the documents detailing this commercial development which: is the first in the country where merchants would become proprietors by purchasing condominiums; will produce more than 1,000 jobs; and, will also generate millions in municipal taxes. Furthermore, we informed Jesus Garcia, executive director of the Little Village Community Development Corporation, nowadays recognized as ENLACE.
Accompanied by the owners of D’Escoto Construction and zoning attorney Mark Kupiec, as well as architect Gutierrez, we were told by Muñoz—in this third meeting—that now we could “go to the next step”.
On November, along with our architect, we attended an appointment at Munoz City Hall office, he stated: “I like it because this involves a lot of people”.
However, in our most recent meeting with Muñoz (February 27th), he declared that he no longer liked it. This meeting was ended with his promise that by Monday we would receive a letter with further requirements, such as: mechanical plans; a study over the containment of rainwater, and an Economic Impact Study.
As required by Muñoz, these requirements were met. The letter has not arrived yet.


We demand:
1. That Ricardo Muñoz keeps his promise to us and his community.
2. That he officially approves this project which will be of great benefit to the residents and merchants of his district.
3. That he goes ahead and converts our zoning from an industrial one into a commercial one.

If he does not keep his promise, for which we have been waiting for more than one year, many of our families could end in bankruptcy.

We deserve a change and want to stop paying rents for spaces without walls like in flea-markets, swaporamas and other “malls”.

We continue to invite all merchants. In Azteca Mall there will be space for them. The purchase price is low, along with property titles.

This is historic opportunity indeed.

 

About the Author(s)

Jacob Lesniewski is a transplanted New Yorker and a graduate student at the University of Chicago. While he loves Chicago, his biggest fear is that his daughters will become Bulls fans.

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