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Election 2014 Wed Apr 09 2014
In what was perhaps Chicago's most-watched primary this year, young idealist Will Guzzardi beat machine candidate Toni Berrios in the race for State Representative of the 39th District.
Guzzardi's victory went against dominant political assumptions--the previous incumbent's father is machine heavyweight Joe Berrios, the Cook County Democratic Party Chairman and Cook County Assessor. House Speaker Michael Madigan backed the younger Berrios in full force.
Guzzardi showed that someone who is not part of the machine, and who may not be the traditional idea of a politician, can overcome the powers that be. His win showed that grassroots campaigns can be stronger than political influence and capital. Due to his bottom-up campaign and his seemingly staunch progressive stance on the issues, progressives throughout Chicago are thrilled about Guzzardi's triumph.
"I think it was a huge victory for both independent and progressive politics," said immigration activist Rudy Lozano, who also ran for state representative twice and is the son of respected Latino activist Rudy Lozano Sr. "If there is a citywide movement in the making, it has to start somewhere. And as all good organizers and political activists know, it just takes a spark to get a movement going."
It remains to be seen whether this spark will ignite and translate into results beyond one election. Will city residents continue to vocalize their discontent? Will more progressive candidates will step forward to run for positions such as alderman?
But one thing is for sure--Guzzardi's victory has breathed new vitality into the progressive base in Chicago at a time when corporate Democrats seem to call all the shots.
Will Guzzardi is an ivy-league educated former journalist, and has lived in Logan Square since graduating from college five years ago. He decided to run for State Representative after witnessing the extent to which the dysfunction in Springfield was hurting his community. Along with Logan Square, the 39th district also includes the neighborhoods of Avondale and Humboldt Park. His background may be different from many of the Latino, working class families he will represent; he is white, from North Carolina and studied comparative literature at Brown. But Guzzardi used the last two election cycles to build trust in the community and show that he truly cares about forwarding a progressive agenda that will make a difference for the families he will represent. Clearly, the voters felt that his efforts were sincere.
"Everybody who saw the result of that election, I think it opened their eyes. I think that the folks who are doing good work and that are fighting for their constituents saw it as a big win for this movement that we are building," Guzzardi said.
He added that his race should serve as a warning to machine politicians who feel they are unbeatable.
"I think it should be a message to the folks who are simply serving the established political interests that that's not good enough, and that your political bosses aren't going to be able to protect you from this movement," Guzzardi said.
This seems to be how many of his voters, along with people throughout the city, see his race as well. After his primary victory, residents and activists took to social media to express their joy at his triumph. Additionally, many unions and non-machine politicians endorsed Guzzardi, including the Chicago Teachers Union, Service Employees International Union and Alderman Joe Moreno.
Guzzardi is a strong defender of public education and he saw this as the most critical issue for voters during the race. Berrios has been supportive of increased funding for charter schools.
Guzzardi also advocates for affordable housing, immigration reform, and supports keeping the state's promise on pensions. He supports an incremental income tax and closing special interest loopholes, but emphasized that his central focus is on the issues that impact his community most directly.
He also described gentrification taking place in his district as "very much a concern," and wants to make sure that it occurs in a way that preserves resources such as affordable housing for those who have called the area home for generations.
Additionally, Guzzardi is conscious of the large Latino population in his district, currently 52 percent, and wants to champion their interests. He explained that while policies such as immigration reform may be of particular importance to Latinos, "a lot of the issues that these families are facing, it's the same issues that all families are facing."
Guzzardi came within 125 votes of winning in 2012, which he saw as a victory in and of itself. At that time he was 24, now he is 26. This time around, his margin of victory was nearly 2,000.
Joe Berrios tried to paint Guzzardi's victory as a result of white gentrification in Logan Square, in an attempt to pit "hipsters" against Latinos.
But Guzzardi went door-to-door every day, talking to his district's residents, sometimes in Spanish, showing them that they were on the same side.
Guzzardi said that when he was meeting families, "what the Latino families in my community said to me over and over again is that Toni Berrios thinks we are going to vote for her just because she's Latina and we're Latina. But I think voters are smarter than people give them credit for."
Guzzardi further maintained that his campaign did much better with Latino voters than two years ago.
As proof, he explained that he received 46 percent of the vote in the 31st Ward, which is heavily Latino, the home of Toni Berrios, and where her father is a committeeman.
It is also possible Guzzardi's victory in the primary could lead to more progressive candidates running.
"It is a good model for local elections. He was able to track the voters and send his volunteers just to the doors of the voters that were most likely to be supporters," former Ald. Dick Simpson said. "His campaign is a particularly good model, because it involves, like Obama, the use of hi-tech computer techniques and data with ordinary old shoe leather going door-to-door and meeting people. And that's a model for 21st century participatory campaigns."
Guzzardi also said he wants to pass on the knowledge he has gleaned on running a successful campaign to other progressive candidates that could run in 2015 and beyond.
The Significance of the Victory
Many progressives in the city are optimistic about the significance of Guzzardi's victory.
Simpson sees parallels between his time in office in the 1970s--when he was able to form a progressive coalition--and the current political dissatisfaction with the Democratic machine.
"I think this is a very important progressive candidate that will be a new voice in the progressive movement," he said. "A lot will depend on what he does once he becomes a state legislator in Springfield."
While many Democrats in the state house feel bound to answer to Madigan, Guzzardi summed up why independent Democrats could be a formidable group.
"At the end of the day when push comes to shove I will know who I need to answer to," Guzzardi said. "And its not the bosses in Springfield, it's the folks in this community that got me elected."
Guzzardi's victory is also significant because it shows that incumbents cannot continue to simply skate by while ignoring the needs of their community. If presented with a choice between someone who cares and business as usual, voters know how to vote for their own interests.
"I think when folks are presented with a choice and folks can choose between the status quo, the broken way things are and something different, government that is really accountable, that really listens and really shows up in your community and is there for you and is fighting for you," Guzzardi said, "this election showed without a doubt that people are willing to make that change."
Many activists and politicos from outside the district were closely following the race as well. Lozano expressed optimism over Guzzardi's victory. He believes that Guzzardi's candidacy represents, "a concerted effort to make sure that families are first."
"Underneath all the leaders involved it is about a basic fight for working people trying to survive," Lozano said.
He further emphasized that progressive politics are truly about the constituents, not the glamor of the candidate.
"Oftentimes media can make it seem like it is just a David vs. Goliath fight, but they forget who David is fighting for," Lozano said. "And I think that is really the spark. When they see people standing up for every-day communities, that's what gets people excited."
Lozano got to the heart of what excites progressives so much about Guzzardi's victory: it shows that politicians who are truly rooting for the community can win.