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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

How Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa Went From Progressive Agitator To City Council Boss

Ramirez-Rosa was named zoning committee chair and Mayor Brandon Johnson's floor leader, a dramatic rise to power for the former organizer and progressive rabble-rouser.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) at a City Council meeting on Feb. 1, 2023.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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LOGAN SQUARE — When he was first elected in 2015, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa quickly established himself as a progressive rabble-rouser.

Then the only Democratic Socialist on the City Council, Ramirez-Rosa sparred with former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his veteran colleagues, bringing a burst of progressive politics to a council long tied to the powerful Democratic machine.

Years later, under Chicago’s most progressive mayor in a generation, Ramirez-Rosa is one of the leaders of a council he sought to disrupt.

Last month, the 35th Ward alderman was officially named zoning chairman and Mayor Brandon Johnson’s floor leader, two of the most powerful roles in City Council.

As zoning chair, Ramirez-Rosa will oversee City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, which reviews all matters of zoning and development across the city. And as floor leader, he will be a conduit between other alderpeople and Johnson and help push the mayor’s agenda.

The appointments mark a dramatic rise to power for Ramirez-Rosa, who was among Johnson’s first backers ahead of the Feb. 28 mayoral election.

“The reward for a job well done is often more work, and I think that over the past eight years, I have proven my ability to bring people together to move forward a progressive agenda,” Ramirez-Rosa said an interview with Block Club. “I think that’s what many of my colleagues and the mayor saw in me trusting me to do these jobs.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) speaks as Bernie Sanders, with slate of progressive politicians and activists, rallied hundreds of supporters for mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson ahead of the runoff election, at Credit Union 1 Arena on March 30, 2023.

Community Builder Or ‘Disastrous’ For Developers?

The nephew of a progressive Pilsen activist, Ramirez-Rosa got his start as a community organizer, working for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and serving on Avondale-Logandale Elementary School’s Local School Council. The Lakeview native also worked in former Congressman Luis Gutiérrez’s office.

In his quest to unseat former 35th Ward alderman Rey Colón in the 2015 aldermanic election, Ramirez-Rosa campaigned against gentrification and prolific Logan Square landlord Mark Fishman, who supported Colón.

The strategy worked: At just 26 years old, the community organizer trounced machine-backed Colón in the race, winning 67 percent of the vote to Colón’s 33 percent.

Credit: DNAinfo Chicago
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa in 2016 when he proposed the Civilian Police Accountability Council.

As alderman, Ramirez-Rosa has prioritized affordable housing and anti-gentrification measures and pushed for greater transparency around zoning, hoping to pump the brakes on displacement in the rapidly changing 35th Ward.

He launched what’s called a “community-driven” zoning process, which gives residents more of a say in development through public meetings and notices, and championed an ordinance that aims to slow rapid demolitions along The 606 Bloomingdale Trail by imposing surcharge fees on developers.

He also played an instrumental role in bringing a large all-affordable housing project — named Lucy Gonzalez Parsons Apartments — to the Emmett Street lot next to the Logan Square Blue Line station, fighting off a lawsuit from nearby property owners and other detractors.

Developed by Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., the affordable apartment building opened last year after years of planning and debate.

Ramirez-Rosa is a strong believer in the power of community and democracy and a pioneer of Chicago’s progressive movement, which makes him the “ideal” person for City Council’s top roles, said Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd), his close friend and ally in the Democratic Socialist caucus.

“Carlos is really smart. He’s also well-researched. He doesn’t do things just because,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “Carlos is always someone who is trying to find best practices and will talk to experts and include the community in the decisions he makes.”

Joy Aruguete, who has worked closely with Ramirez-Rosa over the years as CEO of Bickerdike, said Ramirez-Rosa was fighting for more affordable housing even before he became alderman, which demonstrates his deep commitment to the issues facing the city.

“I’ve been around for a long time as CEO at Bickerdike and I’ve worked with a lot of aldermen, and one of the things I appreciate about [Ramirez-Rosa] is you know where he stands. He is transparent, he is direct and I never felt like he expected anything in return other than getting the project done, and I can’t say that I’ve always felt that way in my years of working with aldermen,” Aruguete said.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
(from left) Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and landlord Mark Fishman have clashed since Ramirez-Rosa took office in 2015.

Over the years, Ramirez-Rosa has faced pushback from some ward residents and property investors for prioritizing affordable housing and developing tools to fight gentrification, like using downzoning to curb dense development on Avondale’s Milwaukee Avenue.

Ramirez-Rosa’s most contentious and longest-running battle has been with Fishman, Logan Square’s most well-known property investor.

The two have publicly fought for years, and Fishman even tried to kick him out of office by donating $100,000 to his opponent in the 2019 election.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th), a longtime foe of Ramirez-Rosa’s, said he’s worried the 35th Ward alderman will make developers “jump through all kinds of hoops” as Zoning chair at a time when the city desperately needs economic investment.

“I think [he’s] not going to make it easy for them,” Sposato said. “Many developers and zoning attorneys have reached out to me and they feel it’s going to be disastrous.”

Sposato said for that reason, and because he’s one of the “most divisive” members of City Council, Ramirez-Rosa is a “terrible choice” for Zoning chair and floor leader.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), another adversary of Ramirez-Rosa’s, abruptly announced he was resigning from the Zoning Committee after committee appointments were ratified.

“I can’t sit through eight hours of Carlos Rosa,” Beale told reporters.

Yet Ramirez-Rosa said he’s consistently worked collaboratively with developers, neighbors and his colleagues in City Council during his tenure and insists he isn’t anti-development.

“I am supportive of dense development and I am supportive of upzoning, but we have to do it in a way that is strategic and makes sense,” he said. “There’s a lot of research that shows that upzoning in of itself is not a silver bullet and can actually lead to an increase in land costs, which can lead to an increase in housing costs.”

‘My Job Is To Facilitate A Conversation’

Before Johnson, Ramirez-Rosa was one of the most outspoken critics of City Council leadership. He routinely clashed with Emanuel, Lightfoot and council veterans over issues like property taxes, a West Side police academy and immigrant rights.

But buoyed by a progressive mayor and new progressive alderpeople, Ramirez-Rosa said he plans to work in tandem with other members of the City Council to attract investment to the city.

He said he’s a supporter of aldermanic prerogative, which gives alderpeople veto power over zoning decisions in their wards, and he will support the unofficial tradition as zoning chair.

“The alternative is an unelected bureaucrat making decisions, a person who may never have visited their community, who doesn’t have intimate knowledge of what residents’ needs are,” he said. “I’m a big believer in local community voice and in democracy.”

But there will be exceptions, he said.

Ramirez-Rosa was one of several alderpeople and organizers who pushed an affordable housing project near O’Hare Airport in Ald. Anthony Napolitano’s 41st Ward through City Council over Napolitano’s objections, and he said he’s prepared to do that again if a similar situation arises.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mayor Brandon Johnson arrives at a press conference on public safety over Memorial Day weekend at 63rd Street Beach on May 25, 2023.

Though he’s been a big proponent of downzoning and other tools to clamp down on development on the Northwest Side, Ramirez-Rosa said that doesn’t mean he’ll support or recommend those policies for other neighborhoods as zoning chair.

“I’m not seeking to impose zoning and land use policies that may make sense for one portion of my community on the entire city. … I’m there to serve alongside 49 other people,” he said.

“Nothing moves in City Council without 26 votes. While being the chair gives you additional levers to pull, like setting the agenda and calling the meetings, it doesn’t really give you much more than that. I have to turn to the majority of the zoning committee to implement anything that we’re seeking to implement. My job is to facilitate a conversation.”

In an emailed statement, Mayor Johnson said he chose Ramirez-Rosa for the two high-powered positions because he’s been “a strong advocate for working people and working families in his ward and across the city.”

“As both floor leader and a committee chair, I have full confidence in his ability to work with colleagues, communities, and the business sector to advance our agenda for a better, stronger, and safer Chicago,” Johnson said.

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