AVONDALE — Community organizer Rossana Rodriguez, who got her start leading protests in Puerto Rico, wants to be the next leader of the 33rd Ward.
The 39-year-old announced she’s running for alderman against incumbent Deb Mell to “bring more democracy” to the ward, which includes parts of Avondale, Albany Park, Irving Park and Ravenswood Manor.
“I think, in a democracy, the people who are in office should be taking direction from the people they represent,” said Rodriguez, a self-described socialist.
Rodriguez said the focus of her campaign is “to fight for a strong diverse community where people are safe, healthy and their needs are met.” The ward needs more housing for low-income people, fully funded local public schools and protection for immigrants, she said.
Rodriguez criticized Mell for not making the construction of affordable housing a priority in the ward. Mell responded: “My strong record on affordable housing is proven and out there for everyone to see.”
Mell, the daughter of political powerhouse and former alderman Richard Mell, said she’s pushed developers to build more affordable housing than what’s required under the city’s affordable requirements ordinance. She said she’s also worked closely with the Chicago Housing Initiative and other organizations and “fought some tough battles” in zoning hearings to expand affordable housing throughout the Northwest Side.
Rodriguez led her first protest when she was just six years old in the small mountain town in Puerto Rico where she grew up. During the protest, Rodriguez and her neighbors called for more access to clean water, which had been redirected to a naval base during a drought.
“The community got together and I had to go in front of water department [officials] with my little sign,” Rodriguez said. “I learned early that we need to fight for the resources that belong to us.”
Rodriguez went on to lead more protests as a young adult, including one where she staged a demonstration at her Puerto Rican university to fight for more funding. In the midst of community organizing, she found herself working in community theater and, eventually, teaching theater to kids. In 2009, she left Puerto Rico for a job at Albany Park Theater Project in Chicago and made Albany Park her new home.
It’s been about a decade since Rodriguez first arrived in Albany Park, and in that time she said she’s gotten to know her neighbors and their struggles. Now, she said, she’s ready to fight for them — just like she fought for her neighbors in Puerto Rico.
In 2015, Rodriguez volunteered for Deb Mell challenger and friend Tim Meegan’s campaign.
Meegan, a Roosevelt High School teacher, ended up losing the election by just 17 votes. Meegan filed suit against the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, charging electioneering and mishandling of ballots by Mell’s campaign, but the board ended up ruling in favor of Mell.
“We didn’t have any money, but we were 17 votes away from a runoff,” Rodriguez said of Meegan’s campaign. “Four years later, we are a lot more evolved, we know how to run a campaign and we have a lot of people who are excited about the possibility about running the ward in a different way.”
If elected, Rodriguez said she aims to make the ward — and the city — better for the many, not the few.
“Most of the people in this city are working class people who need access to basic things in life. We need access to fully funded public education, we need to feel safe, we need mental health. It’s all basic things that we should have, just like the water in my [Puerto Rican] neighborhood. These are things that belong to us, but we don’t have access, so we’re going to fight to get those things,” she said.
In response, Mell, who has held the seat since 2013, said she’s committed to improving the lives of working people, and she’s shown that through her support of $13 minimum wage, paid sick leave and fair work week legislation. She said she’s marched alongside teachers, support staff, window washers, and just recently, hotel workers.
“Working families know that I care about the issues that matter to them,” Mell said.