Colin Bird-Martinez, who helped launch the Hermosa Neighborhood Association, is running for alderman in the 31st Ward to unseat Ald. Milly Santiago. Credit: Provided; DNAinfo

HERMOSA — A 32-year-old community organizer who helped launch the Hermosa Neighborhood Association is running for alderman in the 31st Ward to unseat Ald. Milly Santiago. 

Hermosa resident Colin Bird-Martinez said he wants to follow in the footsteps of progressive candidates before him like Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Logan Square).

“I really see the job as being chief community organizer,” said Bird-Martinez, a self-described socialist who has called the Chicago area home since he was a toddler.

The 31st Ward, which includes parts of Hermosa, Belmont Cragin, Portage Park and Logan Square, is currently represented by newcomer Santiago, who was elected in 2015 and will run for a second term. But before Santiago, the ward had the same boss for nearly 25 years: Ald. Ray Suarez. The Vietnam War veteran was first elected to lead the Northwest Side ward in 1991.

Colin Bird-Martinez talking to a constituent in the 31st Ward, where he’s running for alderman. Credit: Courtesy of Colin Bird

Bird-Martinez is looking to bring progressive values and advocacy to the ward — an area long plagued with “cronyism” and “old-school campaigning,” he said.

He continued, saying, “I think there’s a perception that you have to fit this mold [to run]. Being openly gay, being someone’s who’s not of Latino heritage, you assume you shouldn’t be [running]. But what I learned from Hermosa Neighborhood Association is people don’t care about that. They care about: Are you passionate? Are you getting things done? Do you actually care?”

Bird-Martinez is biracial; his mother is black and his father is white. When he was three years old, his parents moved the family to Chicago from San Diego so his artist mother could join the teaching staff at the School of the Art Institute. They landed in Pilsen before eventually settling in Oak Park, where Bird-Martinez spent his teenage years.

Bird-Martinez went on to earn sociology and pre-law degrees from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Once he graduated, he moved back to Chicago, bouncing around from Lincoln Square to Logan Square before finally settling down and buying a home in Hermosa about four years ago.

“When I first moved here, I was trying to stay near where I already lived, and then I got really know Hermosa,” Bird-Martinez said.

Saying he thoroughly enjoys his neighbors and the sense of community there, Bird-Martinez added, “This is a place I certainly wouldn’t move from.”

Bird-Martinez criticized Santiago for not taking on a leadership role in City Council. He said he’s prepared to tackle issues facing 31st Ward residents, like the possibility of woefully under-enrolled Kelvyn Park High School closing, and citywide issues like the pension crisis.

“The pensions, the budget deficit, we really need to come up with solutions,” Bird-Martinez said. “They could close Kelvyn Park [High School]. You really need someone who is not going to be passive about that.”

In response to Bird-Martinez’s accusation, Santiago said that her priorities are where they should be. Most aldermen are focused on “constituent concerns and ward-based ordinances, and do not introduce citywide legislation,” she said. 

“Sometimes [aldermen] sponsor things that have no chance of passing, just to make a name for themselves, but I don’t waste time on that. My focus is the 31st Ward as it has been since Day One,” she wrote in an email. 

The alderman said the ward has improved since she took office. She said she’s created new jobs, reduced crime, improved the infrastructure and boosted investment with more than $2 million in participatory budgeting.

“Maybe Mr. Bird, who recently relocated from Logan Square, is highly motivated to live in the 31st Ward because of the great things that are happening here,” Santiago wrote.

Members of Hermosa Neighborhood Association building Nixon Elementary’s new playground. Credit: Provided

Since arriving in Hermosa, Bird-Martinez has become an active member of the community, helping to launch the Hermosa Neighborhood Association, the neighborhood’s first organized neighborhood group, and joining the Local School Council at Nixon Elementary School.

Up until recently, Bird-Martinez served as president of the neighborhood organization, where he oversaw everything from block parties to development proposals. At Nixon, he fought to replace the school’s dangerous playground.

If elected alderman, Bird-Martinez said he would advocate for more affordable housing, stronger neighborhood groups and the construction of a new mental health clinic, among other causes.

He pledged not to take donations from developers looking to build projects in the ward, a practice that is often labeled as “pay-to-play politics,” and hire black and Latino people within his campaign.

“I am as intentional as possible in making sure people who are from the community, voices that are not as prominently heard, are being brought to the forefront,” Bird-Martinez said.

A member of the Hermosa Neighborhood Association, Alejandra Flex, praised Bird-Martinez for his leadership in the community.

“Under [Bird-Martinez’s] leadership we, the members, were able to make contributions to our community and form close bonds with our neighbors which we had not prior,” Flex said in an email. “He served, and continues to serve as a mentor to my teenage boys.”

In the coming weeks, Bird-Martinez will be out in the ward, gathering support from constituents. Already, he said, folks are saying they want a change.

“There’s a deep sense of anti-establishmentarianism here,” Bird-Martinez said of the ward.

“What I hear a lot is they felt like there was a stronger sense of community in the 1980s and ’90s. I feel like I can bridge divide with my experience at Hermosa Neighborhood Association.”

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