LOGAN SQUARE — Say goodbye to the “hipster alderman” — and hello to the “nerd alderman.”
Longtime community organizer, public policy professional and self-proclaimed nerd, Daniel La Spata toppled 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno with stunning decisiveness in Tuesday’s election, capturing 61 percent of the vote to Moreno’s 39 percent.
Moreno, who had held the seat since 2011, was one of three incumbent aldermen to lose their seats outright.
At his campaign party, held at the German beer bar The Radler, La Spata said it was his progressive values that allowed him to pull off such a remarkable victory. “The Chicago machine,” he said, is “crumbling against a progressive wave.”
The fact that Moreno was tangled up in not one — but three — separate scandals didn’t play a huge role in the victory, La Spata said.
“The scandals maybe gave them reason for pause, but by and large, every conversation [I had with residents] was about how we move forward in a different direction,” he told Block Club.
La Spata describes himself as deeply passionate about the issues facing the 1st Ward, housing and public safety chief among them. The 38-year-old also pledges to take a fundamentally different approach to governing than his predecessor.
“How do we create cultural and community spaces that really bring our new and old neighbors together, to break bread and share stories? I think that’s going to be essential,” La Spata said in an interview the day after the election.
La Spata is originally from Plainfield, New Jersey. Growing up, his family struggled financially — his mother worked as a nanny and his father, after losing his art directing job, worked nights as a security guard and a newspaper delivery person.
“It was so difficult. Our house was falling into disrepair,” he said.
Over the years, though, La Spata said his parents managed to instill values in him that would prepare him for public life.
“Neither of my parents were political people. But they always believed that you serve people who are less fortunate,” he said.
La Spata moved to Chicago in 1999 to attend college at North Park University, where he studied psychology and music.
The incoming alderman quickly turned his focus to community organizing and joined Logan Square Neighborhood Association, where he went on to spend 10 years fighting for equitable housing and community development. He also worked as a community organizer for Jane Addams Senior Caucus, where he fought for seniors’ rights.
Most recently, La Spata was the policy and planning associate at Friends of the Parks, the advocacy group for Chicago’s parks.
La Spata said throughout his career he always “took the job that would give [him] the flexibility to do the work [he] wanted to do in the neighborhoods.”
The incoming alderman is currently finishing up his master’s degree in urban planning and public policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He said he has about six weeks left of work to do before the degree is his — and he’s not considering quitting despite the new job title.
“It feels like a Luke Skywalker Yoda kind of situation, where I don’t want to run off and face Darth Vader before completing my training,” La Spata said with a laugh.
The “Star Wars” movies are favorites of La Spata’s. The self-described pop culture nerd also loves indie rock, namely Fiona Apple, the Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend.
“I probably know more pop culture than I ought to,” La Spata said. “If I could remember the names of everyone I met as well as I can remember the episodes of [the TV show] Community that do me no functional good out in the world…”
“If Alderman Moreno was the ‘hipster alderman,’ I think there’s space for a ‘nerd alderman’ on the City Council.”
Moreno, a fan of rock shows and dive bars, was given the “hipster alderman” label early on in his eight-year-long tenure.
‘Combating gentrification is going to take some really transformative policies’
La Spata bought a home in a Logan Square pocket of the 1st Ward with his wife, Alicia, about four years ago. Prior to that, he lived along the western end of the ward. It may come as no surprise then that in the months leading up to the election, La Spata was particularly active in Logan Square politics. He called for a ban on campaign contributions from developers outside of the Congress Theater.
Asked how he’ll navigate governing the rest of the ward, with which he is less familiar, La Spata said he’s making a concerted effort to connect with community groups in Wicker Park, West Town, Ukrainian Village, Humboldt Park and the East Village.
“I try to be very intentional about seeking out those relationships to really learn about the key issues they’re experiencing, what kind of leadership they’re hoping to see,” he said.
La Spata’s coziness with Logan Square Neighborhood Association, arguably one of the most prominent neighborhood groups on the Northwest Side, presents another potential challenge. The group is active in local politics.
But La Spata said he’s committed to working with stakeholders across the ward.
“I meet parents and teachers with no Logan Square Neighborhood Association connection who are deeply concerned about how we invest in our public schools, people who have never been to any of their meetings who are really concerned about how we push back against gentrification, people concerned about gun violence and how we support youth in the community better,” he said.
“Those may be issues that I first [encountered] in work with [Logan Square Neighborhood Association], but I’ve found there are so many stakeholders involved.”
After working for Logan Square Neighborhood Association for a decade, La Spata said he’s familiar with the issues surrounding gentrification in the 1st Ward.
“Combating gentrification is really going to take some transformative policies,” he said.
Some of his ideas include legalizing coach houses, incentivizing landlords to keep rents affordable and making the housing voucher program more accessible.
La Spata is also interested in rolling out participatory budgeting for the Fullerton/Milwaukee Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district.
“The biggest concern is that it’s a slush fund. If we really take radical steps to bring TIF under community control, that could be a model for other neighborhoods,” he said.
Public safety is another one of La Spata’s top priorities.
“At the root of criminal activity there’s poverty and desperation. Young people are out of work and out of school,” he said, adding there are many groups “doing great work around mentoring, internships and vocational training.”
“How can I be a collaborator to create new paths for at-risk people in this community? Our solution can’t just be more policing.”
La Spata said he’s also committed to making zoning processes as “inclusive, democratic and community-based as possible.”
“I know I’m going to make decisions that make some people upset. You always have to be the most rational, calm person in the room,” he said.
The day after the election, Moreno released a lengthy statement on social media, in which he listed off his accomplishments over the last eight years.
“It has been my honor to serve as the alderman of the greatest ward in Chicago,” Moreno wrote.
“As a 1st ward resident, I will continue to remain engaged in our community and will continue to advocate for the causes that are meaningful to many of us. Albeit in a different capacity, I look forward to working with you, my neighbors and fellow 1st ward residents, in the future to collectively keep our neighborhoods great.
After spending time with friends and family, I will be back to share future plans with you all. Our work is far from done.”
Moreno raised a total of $653,889 in campaign donations, more than eight times the $74,725 raised by La Spata.
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