CITY HALL — Of the 13 new aldermen preparing to join the City Council next week, the one with most wide-ranging experience for the job might be Gilbert Villegas Jr.
A Marine who served in Iraq, Villegas went on to be the chief of staff for the Illinois Capital Development Board, as well as serving as an Illinois Department of Transportation deputy director and associate director of the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association.
"I'm not a stranger to public service," Villegas said Friday ahead of Monday's inauguration ceremony. "I knew personally that I had the experience to be an alderman, but it was a matter of me relaying it to the constituents."
He was able to do so, coming from behind to win the 36th Ward seat after finishing second to Omar Aquino in the Feb. 24 election, 35.6 percent to 32.6 percent. In the April runoff he came out ahead handily with 55.7 percent of the vote.
"The key was just communicating with the voters the difference between myself and my opponent — my experience," he added
The heated campaign produced a dustup between workers for the two sides, but Villegas ultimately succeeded in casting himself as a good-government reformer backed by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago) against what he called the "machine" backing of Aquino, supported by Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, who also happens to be chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Villegas also had the support of Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th), whom he'd worked with before as the member of a couple of park advisory councils. Sposato actually urged Villegas to run after he decided to switch over and run in the 38th Ward, which he also wound up winning.
Sposato had seen his ward dramatically reconfigured and made more Hispanic in the most recent remap, in something of a payback from the old guard for City Council mavericks, but that made the ward more hospitable for a candidate like Villegas.
The ward includes sections of Montclare, where Villegas lives, as well as Galewood, Schursch Village, Belmont Heights and Belmont Terrace, in what Villegas called a "horseshoe" shape. Southern sections of the ward had previously been separated in three different wards, and according to Villegas, residents there felt "abandoned" by their earlier aldermen, who of course were eager to start serving their new wards and ignore the old.
That opened the door for Villegas, who like many of his fellow newcomers to the council made the case that he would actually listen to voters and "give them hope." Similar to his new colleagues, he also made the connection between public safety and economic development, hot-button issues across the city.
"No one's going to go down a strip and shop if they're afraid," Villegas said Friday, adding that he would work with the Police Department to improve public safety, while seeking to bring in small businesses and perhaps even some larger businesses along the ward's light-manufacturing corridor.
Yet he didn't stop there, campaigning on an ambitious platform that added accountability, city services and education to public safety and economic development.
"That'll be the issues I'll be focusing on," Villegas said. "It's not to prioritize the order, it's just easier to remember."
He is particularly devoted to education, pointing to the three high schools in the 36th Ward. He wants to take Steinmetz and "make it a true college prep," in part by connecting it with a local college the way Von Steuben was recently linked to the Illinois Institute of Technology.
"The Mayor's Office has some universities that are interested," Villegas said, and he fully intends to work with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, having rejected offers to join either the Progressive Reform Caucus or the less-confrontational Paul Douglas Alliance.
Likewise, Villegas hopes to connect Prosser Vocational with "the building trades," making the school a pipeline for local internships and apprenticeships.
"We have to understand that every kid is not going to go on to college," Villegas added. And he wants to help the relatively new North-Grand High School establish its reputation citywide.
Of course, every alderman knows to emphasize accountability and city services.
"They go hand in hand," Villegas said, adding that he'll bring participatory budgeting to the ward, as the pet project of Ald. Joe Moore (49th) continues to expand its appeal.
Add to that Villegas' intention to draw on his Springfield contacts to help the city lobby for pension relief and additional state funding, and he has a full docket of issues to work on.
"It is an ambitious plan, but I've got four years to roll it out," Villegas said. "I know how government works, and how sometimes it doesn't work," he added, and he cast his role as "finding solutions for the times when it doesn't work."
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