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Do You Want a Millennial Alderman? Young Candidates Enter Chicago Politics

By Ted Cox | February 9, 2015 5:52am | Updated on February 9, 2015 9:42am
 At least seven candidates under 30 are running for the City Council on Feb. 24, a couple of them for the second time.
At least seven candidates under 30 are running for the City Council on Feb. 24, a couple of them for the second time.
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CITY HALL — The old adage for the generation gap was never trust anyone over 30, but a new generation of city politicians is asking if voters will trust an alderman under 30.

At least seven candidates under 30 are running for the City Council on Feb. 24, a couple of them for the second time.

That includes Mike Davis, 29, who helped push Ald. Lona Lane (18th) to the brink of a runoff four years ago.

"I was a really young man then," Davis said with a laugh.

Others are almost as young this time around, however.

The guidelines set for the municipal election, Feb. 24, state only that an elected city official has to be a registered voter, meaning candidates have to be at least 18.

No one is quite that young this year, but aldermanic candidates under 30 include John Kozlar, 26, another second-time-around challenger in the 11th Ward; as well as Jedidiah Brown, 28, in the 5th Ward; Stephanie Coleman, 27, in the 16th Ward; Kevin Bailey, 27, in the 20th Ward; Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 26, in the 35th Ward; and Omar Aquino, 27, in the 36th Ward.

 Aldermanic candidate Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (l.) and mayoral challenger Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia at a campaign event in January.
Aldermanic candidate Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (l.) and mayoral challenger Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia at a campaign event in January.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

The youngest sitting member of the City Council is Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) at 34.

Born and raised in Wrightwood by a pair of now-retired Chicago Police officers, Davis returned to the community in his mid-20s after earning a bachelor's degree and a master's in business administration at Western Illinois University, "and I couldn't even make out my own neighborhood anymore," he said. "Things around here have become so increasingly violent, and there's so much unemployment that it bothers me."

He blamed the incumbent at least in part for that.

"Lona Lane has been absent from the community so long," Davis said. He took her on four years ago and, when she just averted a runoff with 50.2 percent of the vote, he resolved to "do anything I can over the next four years to run again and be more effective."

Now a homeowner and a block-club president in the ward, Davis is back to take on Lane, as well as her former ward superintendent, Derrick Curtis, who had a falling out with the alderman and is now challenging her as well.

"People are tired of them both," Davis said. "They're tired of the same old same old."

That's a theme most of these young candidates share, even Coleman, who's trying to follow in the footsteps of her mother, former Ald. Shirley Coleman, in the 16th Ward.

"I want to see change in this community and some real results, real changes," Coleman said.

She faces not one but two incumbent aldermen, JoAnn Thompson (16th) and Toni Foulkes (15th), who's trying to move over after her ward was altered greatly in the latest remap. Yet Coleman accused them both of being out of touch with voters, a familiar chorus for younger politicians.

Coleman said she'd return to her mother's emphasis on community engagement, adding, "She kept the residents informed and involved, which is something I will take from her and something the 16th Ward has lacked in the last eight years."

While Coleman comes from a family of political insiders, Ramirez-Rosa comes from a family of quite conscious political outsiders.

"I grew up in a political family, a family that was always talking about how we could take on the machine and have grassroots, independent political leadership in Chicago," the 35th Ward candidate said.

His family worked to elect Mayor Harold Washington. Now he's out to provide that independent voice himself, and it's not his first foray into the democratic process, as he was a Democratic precinct committeeman in downstate Champaign while a student at the University of Illinois, and has since been elected to local school councils.

Experience can be key, even for younger politicians. Kozlar, like Davis, has been around the block before, even at the tender age of 26. He ran against Ald. James Balcer (11th) four years ago in a campaign budgeted at $525.

Now he's back, with Balcer retiring, and facing Patrick Daley Thompson, grandson of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and the more progressive Maureen Sullivan.

Yet Kozlar said those more dogmatic approaches no longer work, not even in the 11th Ward, bastion of machine politics.

"People have just had enough of it," he said. "They want a fresh approach and new ideas."

Kozlar called for "a new generation of politics" in which "we work together." Like Coleman, he advocated more community engagement, saying, "When you get elected alderman, you don't suddenly step on a pedestal and forget where you came from."

Suggesting that the old guard has forgotten to actually listen to the electorate was another common theme among these twentysomething candidates.

Davis can now draw on an endorsement from the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization, backing he shares with Ramirez-Rosa, who's running against Ald. Rey Colon (35th). Similarly, Ramirez-Rosa is challenging voters to make a change from the status quo.

"I've talked to thousands of 35th Ward voters, and consistently people tell me that they don't feel that he's an independent leader who's accountable to them," Ramirez-Rosa said. Just as Davis called Lane a "rubber stamp" for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a position backed by academic studies of City Council voting patterns, Ramirez-Rosa cited figures showing Colon voted with Emanuel 96 percent of the time, adding, "I think folks are really just interested in seeing a change."

The question is whether voters are ready to accept changes suggested by someone younger than they are.

Brown, who's running against Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), said his initial appeal has been to younger voters.

"I'm actually motivating a lot of younger people," he said. "I'm inspiring my generation."

Yet he also called himself a "bridge builder" with an expanding appeal among all voters, and he likewise signaled a call for a changing of the guard with Hairston.

"She served well," Brown said. "But she has become combative and too abrasive. She has not been productive. She has been progressive, but the ward has not progressed."

Other candidates said they've had success breaking down initial resistance among older voters.

"The problem I have is I even have a young face," Davis said. "I mean, I look like I could be a 16-year-old.

"But when I open my mouth to speak and people get a chance to hear me, they say, 'You're exactly what the community needs.'"

Coleman said she's had a similar experience. "The community is ready for change," she said. "They like a fresh approach, and they really like the fact that I'm under 30. They're like, 'Yeah, we need you.'"

"I've heard some people say, 'Hey, you know, I like what you're saying, I like what you've done in the neighborhood, but I'm hesitant because I do feel like you're too young,'" Ramirez-Rosa said. "What I tell those folks is ... if age was a determining factor, then given the median age of the City Council, we wouldn't be facing the issues we're facing right now.

"What we really need to be voting on is our values," he added.

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