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Election 2014 Tue Feb 18 2014
By Amien Essif
If you received Illinois State Representative Maria Antonia "Toni" Berrios's campaign mailers this past week, you might think she's defending her seat against Ted Bundy. But no, her opponent in the March 18 primary elections is Will Guzzardi, a journalist and Springfield outsider who came within 125 votes of ousting her in 2012, campaigning with a fraction of her funding and political connections.
Maybe the memory of a close margin explains the recent outflux of advertisements from the 2014 Berrios campaign that range from the sensational to the horrific. "Will Guzzardi doesn't want you to know where sexual predators are hiding" declares one 8-by-10 inch card in red letters above a man's face emerging from the dark. "Sexual predators could be living near the park where our children play," Berrios's message continues on the back, "...and Will Guzzardi doesn't think we should know."
The source for this? An article that Guzzardi wrote for his university newspaper when he was 18 criticizing private background-check companies for dogging ex-convicts after they've served their sentence.
A slightly more civil mailer advertises that "Will Guzzardi's plan would shortchange our schools...and cut short our children's future," and illustrates the claim with the sad face of a young Hispanic girl who, according to a caption, is "most likely to never learn how to read or live up to her potential."
For those who take this to mean that Guzzardi intends literally to shorten the lives of children in the 39th District, the backside of the mailer clarifies the accusation: "Guzzardi supports an education plan that would drain vital resources from our financially struggling public schools and would lead to more school closures in our neighborhood."
Guzzardi, a liberal Democratic candidate who recently clinched the endorsement of the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the progressive 1st Ward Alderman Joe Moreno, says he has no idea what education plan Berrios is referring to. "I've been a consistent advocate for more funding for public schools. The Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers are both supporting my campaign and said very clearly that they support me because of I'm in favor of adding resources to our public schools."
Guzzardi says that "in fact it's my opponent's record that has been less than consistent on public education." He points out that in 2010 Berrios co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill to fund a school vouchers program that would have paid private schools to admit students from low-performing public schools, a program Guzzardi believes would have diverted funds away from public education. In addition, Barrios does not support the push for an elected school board, a reform at the center of Guzzardi's platform.
Berrios's campaign office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but several of the recent mailers cite the Independent Voters of Illinois 2012 and 2014 candidate questionnaires as the source of the allegations against Guzzardi's education plan.
In fact, the questionnaires do not corroborate Berrios's message that Guzzardi is the enemy of public education but they do provide some logic for the mailers. When asked on the 2014 questionnaire whether or not he would "vote to increase state funding to at least 50% of public education costs," Guzzardi avoided giving a yes or no answer and wrote in that he "will vote to increase funding for education. We are far from adequate funding in Illinois now."
When asked if he supported public funding for charter schools, Guzzardi again refused to reply directly, writing, "If we stopped all public funding of charters, we'd be forcing them to close." He continued that he does not oppose all charter schools but favors increased support for public schools.
Would this "education plan" force neighborhood schools to close? The Chicago Teacher's Union does not think so. Earlier this month, the CTU announced an official endorsement of Guzzardi's campaign that comes with a $7,500 check and canvassing support. "It was not an easy decision for our membership committee between those two candidates because [Berrios] has made some strong votes," says Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the CTU, "but at the end of the day it came to who would be a champion for public schools." He says that Berrios's caricature of Guzzardi is "far from accurate," but that "that's what you've got to do when you have a viable threat. That's kind of the dirty pool of politics."
This is not the first time that Berrios has run a high profile campaign against Guzzardi. The two self-described progressives faced off in 2012 when Guzzardi, who has never held political office, lost in a recount by only 125 votes. That first race drew significant attention from the media which characterized the two candidates' rivalry as a brawl between an insider and an outsider. Mark W. Anderson, in an op-ed for NBC Chicago wrote,
Guzzardi's candidacy electrified progressives across the city, who were looking for a young, articulate voice for progressive ideals willing to take on an entrenched machine politician....
[Berrios's] father, of course, is Joe Berrios, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, County Assessor and Democratic committeeman for the northwest side 31st Ward. His daughter Toni has represented the 39th District since 2003.
With elections a month away, Guzzardi plans to set the record straight, according to an open letter published on his website, though he promises that his campaign is "not going to respond in kind." That may be a relief to residents of Chicago's northwest side whose porches are already cluttered with muddy attack ads, but it will take more than their gratitude to get Guzzardi to Springfield.
An earlier version of this piece said Guzzardi and Berrios had similar platforms. Guzzardi and Berrios differ on quite a few issues and this piece has been amended to reflect that.