Felix Cardona Jr. (31st) (right) is facing community activist and Navy veteran Esteban Burgoa Ontañon in the race for 31st Ward alderman. Credit: Provided

BELMONT CRAGIN — A longtime community activist hopes to deny Ald. Felix Cardona Jr. a second term representing the Northwest Side’s 31st Ward.

Organizer and veteran Esteban Burgoa Ontañon is challenging Cardona for the City Council seat in next month’s election. The ward covers parts of Belmont Cragin, Hermosa and Portage Park.

Another candidate, community activist Patrick J. Gibbons, withdrew from the race earlier this month, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

The election is Feb. 28.

More on the two candidates:

Ald. Felix Cardona Jr. (31st) attends a City Council meeting on June 25, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Felix Cardona Jr.

Cardona, a Logan Square native, took office in 2019 after forcing former Ald. Milly Santiago into a runoff and winning with about 54 percent of the vote.

Before becoming an alderperson, Cardona worked for the Cook County’s Assessor’s Office and served on the Cook County Board of Review.

Cardona’s main goals if reelected would be protecting and supporting young people, reducing crime and bringing more small business to the neighborhood, especially along Cicero Avenue, he said.

Cardona also pledged to bring trade programs into schools — “not every kid is meant to go to college,” he said — and work with the Park District to create more after-school programs for teens and children, he said.

During his first term, Cardona has helped gather kids in parks to play softball and kickball, and the group “keeps growing every year,” he said.

“I’m choosing to run again because I love to serve and help people,” Cardona said. “I’m here to serve my residents to the best of my ability, and hopefully they give me an opportunity to do it again.”

One of Cardona’s main accomplishments was helping increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, he said.

“We’re trying to be ahead of the state,” as the cost of living in Chicago is higher than the rest of Illinois, he said.

Cardona also worked with Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) to fight for the rights of older people in senior living apartments.

Cardona was among four aldermen who stalled a vote to approve a $1.67 million settlement for Mia Wright and four other people who were battered by police when they went shopping at Brickyard Mall in 2020. The council approved the payout in March, with Cardona voting in favor.

Asked about that, Cardona declined to comment further.

“I was dealing with my own issues in my own ward,” Cardona said.

Cardona also voted in favor of the city’s new ward map, breaking away from the Latino Caucus to support the version backed by the Black Caucus.

Cardona also supported the controversial proposal for the Fire training facility at Hanson Park in Belmont Cragin. The stadium would have been in the neighboring 36th Ward, but Cardona said it would have led to greater development in the area, brought more people into the neighborhoods and helped local businesses.

The $90 million proposal was scrapped, and now the center is slated to be built on former public housing land in the Near West Side.

Esteban Burgoa Ontañon is challenging Ald. Felix Cardona Jr. in the 31st Ward race. Credit: Provided

Esteban Burgoa Ontañon

Ontañon, originally from Mexico, moved to Chicago when he was 16, he said.

Burgoa Ontañon has been active in the community for decades, serving on local school councils through the ’80s and ’90s and as chairman of Springfield’s Student Advisory Council in 2001. He was also deployed overseas in 2003 to serve during the Iraq War.

The Navy vet garnered attention during the pandemic after teaching himself how to sew face masks overnight. He and other Latino immigrants donated the masks to neighbors in need.

Ontañon also made headlines in 2019 after filming the inside of 30th Ward aldermanic candidate Jessica Gutiérrez’s home and posting the footage and her address on Facebook.

The official campaign page for Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), whom Gutiérrez was challenging in that election, reshared the video and described Ontañon as one of the alderman’s supporters.

Gutiérrez told Block Club at the time she’d filed a police report and planned on seeking a restraining order against Ontañon.

Ontañon defended his actions in an interview with Block Club, saying he believes Gutiérrez never lived in the community and simply moved to the ward to run for office.

There is no record anyone challenged the validity of Gutiérrez’s residency with the elections board in 2019, according to an index of decisions.

Ontañon said his actions were taken “out of context” and he shouldn’t be judged for this incident considering his years of service for the community.

“My thing is not about trying to smear her; my thing is about fighting corruption,” Ontañon said. “To be a public servant, it’s about truth and honesty. You have to be honest with the community, and I think that’s what I did at the time. … I have no regrets in exposing corruption.”

If elected, Ontañon said his priorities as alderman would be public safety, affordable housing and education and mental health resources.

One way Ontañon hopes to reduce violence in the neighborhood is by banning guns from bars, because he believes mixing arms and alcohol is dangerous, he said.

Ontañon also plans to set up “business incubators,” or communal office spaces where residents could gather to practice their crafts and attend workshops for anything from painting to computer science, he said.

Ontañon hopes the community is involved in every decision that impacts them if he’s elected, he said.

“It is a shame that only 11 percent of registered voters are coming to vote,” Ontañon said. “This election is about [the community], not me. I don’t want to be the boss; I want us to be a team.”

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