MCKINLEY PARK — The race to represent the 12th Ward in City Council this year has been whittled down to two, with a local activist hoping to defeat the handpicked successor of former Ald. George Cardenas.
Ald. Anabel Abarca (12th) and Julia Ramirez are the sole candidates in the race. A third hopeful, Joseph Mercado, was removed from the ballot last month because of improper paperwork.
The 12th Ward covers most of McKinley Park and Brighton Park on the Southwest Side. A small part of Little Village was taken out of the ward during last year’s remapping.
Abarca is an attorney and former chief of staff to Cardenas, who stepped down Nov. 30 after winning a seat on the Cook County Board of Review. Cardenas had endorsed Abarca in the race.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed Abarca to the seat in December. She previously said her priorities for the ward were addressing public safety concerns and “making sure the residents of the 12th Ward know who I am, know I’m available, and let them know I’m going to be working from day one. There’s no ramp-up — its 100 percent go,” she said.
Abarca said residents shouldn’t expect any disruption in city services as she took over leadership of the ward.
This is Ramirez’s first time running for public office after years of community activism and working with youth, she said. A lifelong Brighton Park resident, Ramirez said she saw firsthand the inequalities that can exist in the community and would continue working to address them as alderwoman.
“I realized that I was one of the select few in my neighborhood to have opportunities,” she said. “It was always a really big privilege for me to always give back to others and to support people in my community.”
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When Abarca announced her campaign, she told Block Club her experience dealing with constituent services while she was the head staffer for the 12th Ward from 2012-2016 would be key if she were elected alderperson.
During Abarca’s time as chief of staff, Cardenas headed the city’s Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy, was chair of the Chicago Latino Caucus and was the mayor’s deputy floor leader, which gave Abarca a window into the city’s legislative process, she said.
The daughter of Mexican immigrant parents, Abarca said she’s intimately familiar with the struggles of first-generation families, whether it’s navigating complicated city services or seeking help in Spanish, she said. She wants to be in a position to help others navigate local government, she said.
“The families in Brighton Park and McKinley Park remind me of my own: hard-working abuelos y abuelas taking care of grandchildren, mom and dads working night shifts to provide and first-generation kids being translators for their families,” Abarca said in a statement. “Like many of the residents, my parents sent me to Chicago Public Schools. Also like many of the residents, I took out student loans and had to work while going to school full-time.”
Abarca also said being an attorney would give her a unique perspective in City Council.
Dealing with issues around public safety, business corridor development, proper school staffing and environmental and resident health would be some of Abarca’s top priorities if she’s elected, she said.
Before Abarca was Cardenas’ chief of staff, she was a congressional aide to Rep. Mike Quigley and worked on the 2011 congressional campaign for Tammy Duckworth.
Abarca has served on the board for nonprofits such as Latinos Progresando, McKinley Park Development Council and the El Valor Associate Board.
Public safety seems to be one of the ward’s top issues for residents, Ramirez said, vowing a holistic approach with short- and long-term solutions to keep people safe.
“There’s a clear distinction of the ways in which we see violence progress, and that’s when people haven’t been fully invested in,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said she supports making the One Summer Chicago program, which connects students with summer jobs and internships, a year-round initiative.
Environmental justice is another important issue for the ward, Ramirez said. McKinley Park is home to an asphalt plant that’s been the subject of much community scrutiny. Ramirez said she would bring a “community-driven process” to important decisions affecting business and industry in the area.
“Whether it be manufacturing or zoning or permitting, this wouldn’t be a decision made by one person solely or the alderman’s office, but rather we’re being transparent and having conversations along the way,” she said.
Before running for City Council, Ramirez worked with organizations such as Latinos Progresando, Instituto del Progreso Latino, BUILD Chicago and others.
Ramirez helped support families and local businesses while volunteering with the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, and she worked with Increase the Peace to raise funds for street vendors during the pandemic, according to her campaign website.
Most recently, Ramirez said she went back to school to become a licensed social worker to help “re-engage” students at Chicago Public Schools.
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