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Meet Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the 26-Year-Old Who Stormed Onto City Council

By Darryl Holliday | February 25, 2015 2:07pm | Updated on February 25, 2015 2:11pm
 Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a 26-year-old first-time politician, unseated longtime incumbent Ald. Rey Colon in the 35th Ward race.
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a 26-year-old first-time politician, unseated longtime incumbent Ald. Rey Colon in the 35th Ward race.
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LOGAN SQUARE — Who is Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the man who ousted 35th Ward Ald. Rey Colon Tuesday night with stunning decisiveness?

For one, he's just 26 years old, making the millennial one of the youngest aldermen ever elected to Chicago's City Council.

To put that in perspective, Ald. Ed Burke (14th), also elected at age 26, had already been on the Council for 20 years when Ramirez-Rosa was born.

The Chicago native, raised in a Lakeview home his parents bought in the 1970s, is half Mexican, half Puerto Rican. He's also the first openly gay Latino to be elected to the Council.

It's another milestone for the gay community, which will have four openly gay aldermen if Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) wins her runoff. Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) won outright on Tuesday. And Ald. James Cappleman (46th) is in a runoff with an opponent who also is gay.

 The Chicago native, raised in a Lakeview home his parents bought in the 1970s, is half Mexican, half Puerto Rican. He's also the first openly gay Latino to be elected to the City Council.
The Chicago native, raised in a Lakeview home his parents bought in the 1970s, is half Mexican, half Puerto Rican. He's also the first openly gay Latino to be elected to the City Council.
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Carlos Rosa

Ramirez-Rosa is also a community organizer, working for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. He's on the Local School Council at Avondale-Logandale School. He's a Whitney Young High School graduate. He's also a University of Illinois alum and a former staffer to U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago).

Ramirez-Rosa spent two years on Gutierrez’s team, learning the trade, before deciding to strike out on his own.

“I loved every moment of it; it was essentially anything and everything that needed to get done,” Ramirez-Rosa said of his time as a congressional caseworker helping senior citizens, arranging sitdown meetings with constituents and helping immigrant families with deportation issues.

“In that period of time I really became master of my craft. We had a staff of five serving a district of 600,000 people, so I see no reason why a small staff can’t do the same in the 35th Ward.”

Ramirez-Rosa proudly touted that a victory would make him the Council's first openly gay Latino, a path he said parallels a "transformative" legacy led by his political heroes, former Mayor Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. He said lessons he learned on his road to victory will help him lead.

“My experience growing up — seeing homophobia, seeing racism, seeing injustice — is what informed my politics,” he added. “I’m going to be an advocate for all people and that includes LGBT people. I feel very grateful that there were forerunners before me because this couldn’t have happened in 1975, but it can happen today, and that took work.”

Ramirez-Rosa came in with 67 percent of the vote to  Colon's 33 percent Tuesday night, making him the only challenger to knock off an incumbent alderman outright in Tuesday's election.

And he did it while winning a majority of every single precinct in the 35th Ward.

Ramirez-Rosa offered a classic political response when asked about his future political ambitions, saying that, for now at least, he's only focused on being the best alderman he can be after his first elected victory, but the incoming alderman's outspoken approach is on record.

“I think it's time for a new politics in Chicago. So much of it is 'paying your dues' or 'go work for this campaign boss' and I’m not interested in that. … I’m very proud of the fact that I’m not working for the machine and that I’m taking on the machine in a lot of ways,” Ramirez-Rosa said in an interview last week.

Five months on the campaign trail

While his age was thought to be a hurdle early in his campaign, the incoming alderman, one of seven vying for seats on the Council this year, turned his relative inexperience into a strength and hit the streets to meet constituents in person.

"I started thinking about the 35th Ward in spring 2014," he said Wednesday. "I knew Rey Colon's record. I knew he had become a [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel rubber stamp and too cozy with local developers, so I was curious to see who would be running against him."

After speaking with neighborhoods leaders, Ramirez-Rosa decided he "had to be the person to stand up and do it," he said.

He ran on progressive issues, including vowing to bring participatory budgeting to the ward, provide "community-driven" initiatives on zoning and development, fight to reform tax increment financing and be a "hands-on" presence in the neighborhoods.

At his victory celebration in the back room of The Levee, 4035 W. Fullerton Ave., friends and family stood behind the incoming alderman, who will be sworn in in May.

"We kicked butt!" a proud Norma Ramirez said of her nephew's victory. "It's the right person for the right time. This has always been a work in progress and it will continue to be because he's only 26 years old."

"This is what it takes," she added. "And there'll be no rubber-stamping Rahm Emanuel — you can quote me on that."

Congressional caseworker to progressive advocate

Ramirez-Rosa largely credits a call for a change on the Northwest Side for his win over Colon — that and his in-person approach during a five-month campaign.

“I said no to the hustle and bustle of NYC and the sunshine of Miami to work in Chicago,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “My commitment is to our neighborhood. … I’m running to put our neighborhood first.”

Having won the race, Ramirez-Rosa acknowledged that he soon expects to find a slew of developers and outside interests knocking on his door in regard to burgeoning areas of the ward like Logan Square — and he has a message for them.

“I would tell them, ‘If you want to help my community, do not donate to my campaign, donate to my schools,'” he said. “I think that if we do these things, we can have a city where city dollars will lift our communities. And I don’t think that we [were] doing that under Rey Colon.”

According to Ramirez and her husband, Ramon Ocasio, her nephew will bring his "rhetorical virtuosity" and "intellectual depth" to bear in an effort to create a new City Council.

When asked about Ramirez-Rosa’s future in politics, his aunt said the sky’s the limit.

Mayor? President? — “Why not?” she said. “Twenty years from now? Why not — he’s extremely bright and extremely hard-working.”

Reclaim Chicago

With a change in the 35th Ward boundaries came a change in constituent demographics — a change that worked in Ramirez-Rosa’s favor, according to his friend and campaign aide Frank Calabrese.

Precinct tallies from Tuesday’s election show that Ramirez-Rosa won a majority in every single precinct in the ward, which now stretches up from Logan Square and Hermosa into Irving Park and Albany Park.

The change in voter base was a boon for Ramirez-Rosa, Calabrese said, and hurt Colon, who may have been seen as irresponsible to older North Side voters due to his run-in with the law in July 2014. He was charged with DUI, but acquitted of that charge earlier this year.

Colon’s trouble in the final months of the election may have given Ramirez-Rosa a boost, according to his supporters, but the young incoming alderman’s meteoric rise on the Northwest Side was no surprise to the many Chicagoans gathered around him on Election Night.

"All of the big names in Chicago politics start young ... unless you're a billionaire. And beating an incumbent alderman by 2-1 is unheard of," Calabrese said. "Fast forward 20 years; if you want a leading progressive candidate, Carlos is going to be part of that mix."

That approach is mirrored in Ramirez-Rosa friend and colleague state Rep. Will Guzzardi (39th), the 27-year-old who faced down the Berrios clan to win a seat against incumbent Toni Berrios last March.

Guzzardi stood on stage with Ramirez-Rosa Tuesday night as the incoming alderman thanked his supporters, including the Service Employees International Union, the Chicago Teachers Union and Reclaim Chicago, which Guzzardi called “the unsung hero of this election.”

In fact, Ramirez-Rosa was one of 14 candidates backed by Reclaim Chicago this election cycle — and, according to Reclaim Chicago Executive Director David Hatch, the night was a big success.

Reclaim put in 5,000 volunteer hours and 60,000 voter contacts for Ramirez-Rosa, to make up nearly half of the incoming alderman’s campaign.

“It’s not just about this candidate, it’s about the candidate and the issues,” Hatch said of Reclaim’s mission, which bills itself as a “people-led movement” made up of 185,000 members, The People’s Lobby and National Nurses United, aimed at issues “ranging from austerity and budgets to mass incarceration, good jobs, climate change and campaign finance.”

Hatch said Reclaim stands in direct opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and big corporations in Chicago — an agenda mirrored by Ramirez-Rosa, who called out similar forces in his acceptance speech Tuesday.

Your new 35th Ward alderman

“There won’t be the specter of pay-to-play with developers when I’m alderman,” Ramirez-Rosa said before his win, knocking on a wooden table for luck. “No one will fear that when I’m alderman.”

At the time, the question was “if I become alderman,” as Ramirez-Rosa called his odds “a mixed bag with my age; some people say ‘new ideas, new leadership’ some say I’m lacking experience.”

“But looking at the average age of the City Council, if age was the determining factor, we wouldn’t see the problems we're having,” he countered.

“The downward economic shift means that half of millennials are underemployed or unemployed. I think it's time for our generation to say this is what we envision, and this is our contribution to society at large. As millennials we want to put people over profits,” he said.

The win is "another step down the road," Guzzardi said, noting parallels between his upstart win in the 39th District and Ramirez-Rosa's rise in the area. "We share a vision for what the community needs to be — the vision he's presenting is really powerful."

Talk of vision and movements are common in any political campaign, but the fervor built by both the Ramirez-Rosa and Guzzardi campaigns give the words extra weight on the rapidly changing Northwest Side.

"This is not about switching one alderman for another; it was about a movement," Ramirez-Rosa told his followers Tuesday night. “That's the message the 35th Ward sent today.”

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