CITY HALL — As the newly elected alderman for the 15th Ward, Raymond Lopez said he's actually getting used to being treated as a minor celebrity.
Lopez said that as he walked the streets of West Englewood or Back of the Yards, people greet him enthusiastically as someone who is returning a voice to the ward after years of what they regard as neglect.
Yet he got a bit of a comeuppance recently on the way home from a morning run with four of his eight — yes, eight — dogs in Brighton Park. A man came out of his house and approached Lopez, saying, "That's what I've been looking for! Can I have your card?
"Just what we needed," the man added, "a professional dog walker in the neighborhood!"
Lopez laughed at that, in part because it's not as if he needed a reminder to be humble. Before he was elected alderman in the April 7 runoff, he worked 12 years as a skycap at Midway International Airport.
"You can't get any more blue collar than that," he said.
He quit the post in January, resolving, "If I need to be all in, I need to be all in." It's a lesson he'd learned four years ago, when he lost in a runoff to incumbent Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th).
Lopez, though, followed that defeat by winning election the following year as the 15th Ward Democratic committeeman. He moved to remain in the ward's shifting boundaries with the most recent remap, even as Foulkes began eyeing a switch to the 16th Ward, a shift she completed with her own victory in that ward's runoff election earlier this month.
"I stayed and did the work that needed to be done," Lopez said. "Toni Foulkes stepped out."
If Lopez sounded bitter at that, he said it's a sentiment shared by many voters in the 15th Ward.
"The ward did suffer for 2½ years without anyone paying significant attention," he said.
Asked if he would find it uncomfortable to sit next to Foulkes in the City Council, Lopez said, "No comment."
Yet there's no denying he's a different breed of politician than Foulkes, a member of the Progressive Reform Caucus who is not shy about siding against Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the political powers that be.
By contrast, Lopez described himself as a political "hybrid," with the "leanings" of a Democratic Party regular but with the "independent streak" of someone devoted above all to his neighborhood.
"I'm a neighborhood person," Lopez said. "We have to absolutely make sure that our neighborhoods are taken care of."
He said the top issue in the 15th Ward is public safety and street violence, adding, "We have to be able to have people feel safe in their own neighborhoods, and they haven't for years."
Lopez said, "I'd like to see some definite changes" in community policing, which he said had devolved into "more of a gripe session" since it lost much of its federal funding years ago. And he did buck Emanuel's stated campaign position by backing the hiring of 1,000 additional police officers.
Lopez pointed to the $71 million budgeted for police overtime this year.
"Obviously, our officers are OT'd to the max right now," he said. "It's about their mental state as they go out and work six, seven days in a row. They need a break.
"If we expect them to be polite and engaged, they need a rest," he said.
Yet otherwise Lopez had praise for Emanuel, in that he hadn't gotten the credit for neighborhood improvements such as the resurfacing of Western and Ashland avenues on the South Side, because he hadn't slapped his name all over signs touting the projects the way his predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley, had.
"Believe it or not, I think the mayor does maintain the neighborhoods. I just don't think he publicized it in the way people are used to," Lopez said. "That should have been a huge credit to him, which it was. But nobody associated him with getting that done in the neighborhood."
That would appear to disqualify him from joining the Progressive Reform Caucus, the more confrontational faction in the City Council, but he held back from joining the rival Paul Douglas Alliance as well.
"I have said that I will hold off joining any of those caucuses until I see what value they have for my ward," Lopez said. "I don't want to be pigeonholed into one group or another."
That even goes for the Hispanic Caucus and the gay caucus that has been proposed by Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), now that the council includes gays and lesbians such as Aldermen James Cappleman (46th) and Deb Mell (33rd), as well as Aldermen-elect Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and Lopez.
"I'm actually the first elected gay Latino anything in the state," he said, pointing to his office as Democratic committeeman. But again he emphasized he has to first determine "there's a benefit to my ward" before joining forces with any of those caucuses.
Along with Ald.-elect Derrick Curtis (18th), he's also a sitting Democratic committeeman even as he joins the City Council as a freshman alderman, which he said gives him a "leg up" in the working relationship he already has with other aldermen who serve the dual roles.
Lopez talks eloquently about politics and political theory as the double major he was in English and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In one of his political detours, he left school for a while to take a job with the old Mayor's Office of Special Events, which has since been merged with the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Lopez said it was difficult to leave the working world to return to the life of a poor student to get his degree, and he now advises students he talks with to "stay and finish" their schooling uninterrupted.
"If they don't," he added, joking again, "they might end up an alderman."
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