People with Passion: Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno


Interview January 31, 2011


I moved here fourteen years ago. I was working at a union printing company, got my MBA at night, and that was sort of my career path. But my true passion was the community. I was raised in affordable housing. At an early age, eight, nine-years old, I was going to the Catholic Worker House Dorothy Day Center to help homeless folks. My parents were organizers for that. We didn't have any money, and I was saying, "Why are we going to these places, Mom? We don't have any money." And she said, "These people have even less than we do." It was ingrained in me then.

When I moved to Wicker Park, I immediately got involved in CAPS as a CAPS coordinator. I got involved in the Wicker Park Committee, which deals with everything within the community - zoning, recycling issues - really organizing on a grassroots level. I got elected twice to the local school council at De Diego Academy. All of that behind me, I did run for state senator in '08. The former state senator had been in office fourteen years; as a representative and a senator, he was not doing a correct job. We started a grassroots, very insurgent, independent, democratic run against him. Obviously, I didn't win. But I got 10,000 votes to his twelve. It was my first run. I was twenty-nine, thirty-years-old, and I won twenty-eight of the thirty-one precincts in the 1st Ward. There's fifty precincts, but in this district there were thirty-one, and I won twenty-eight of them. That sort of catapulted me more so in the political process.

Manny Flores resigned and supported me for alderman. The mayor wasn't the strongest ally of Manny's, and I showed the mayor what I just talked about, all those credentials, and that I was gonna run for this position right now whether I was appointed or not. It was my passion to do it, and he appointed me.

You can't just wake up one day and say, "Okay, I want to run for office." With few exceptions, you're not going to be successful, and I don't think it's the best for our community. Whether you were raised there or not, that doesn't matter. But in your tenure in the community, what have you done on a community-based level, a not-for-profit level, to help people, to organize - whether it's around school issues like I talked about, the local school council, or other neighborhood issues, so that when you do run, you've got that resume. I think we've got a lot of candidates who say, "I've been part of the community for forty years." Well what have you done in the last ten years? Show me some tangible results of what you've done. I easily did that to the mayor. I have a great organization of over a 150 people. I collected the most signatures of any alderman in the whole city. And that's not just because of me. That's because of the reputation that I've had with a lot of these community groups.

I would sit on the board of, let's say, Humboldt Park Social Services, which I was a board member of. I would sit on this board with these passionate board members volunteering their time. Our executive director and our local school council, passionate people who weren't paid, and when we'd meet with elected officials - not all, but some - the passion wasn't there. It was like, "Yeah, I'll get to that." Sort of pandering. We would organize around issues of development or equal housing and what not, and we would get to the meeting, and I didn't see that passion on the other side of the table from a couple of our elected officials.

That's what drove me to run the first time for state senator. I wanted to match the community on the other side. The passion for it. The drive to get it done. There's no second place in politics, but there really was in this case, because it provided a nice platform to the mayor to say, "I did this. I did extremely well in the 1st Ward. I'm doing it again. I've got great community support."

I wanted to be on the other side of that table, and when the community comes to me, I'm gonna get things done for them, not just pander them and say, "Yes, great, I agree with you, move on." That's where I am.

I was fortunate enough to build a career. I came from a family, again, from very humble beginnings, but I did well financially. People ask me, "Alderman's a great position to have, but you've got talent. Is this your stepping stone to something else?" It's not. I have no interest in doing anything else except for being alderman of the 1st Ward. And perhaps not for that long - two, three terms. If someone else comes along with fresh ideas in my organization, fresh energy - not that you have to have youth on your side; you can be mentally young and in your 50s - I'm not in this to go into another position. Even if people came to me and said, "Do you want to run for this, this, or that," I'm interested in being alderman, and why? Because I can see results that we've put in place, pragmatic results in people's faces, on a daily basis when we helped them.

I had this idea that if you're elected once, you gotta get 50% plus one. The second time, 50 plus one. The third time, if you want to run, that's okay, but you've got to get 60%. It's never gonna happen, but that's the kind of refreshing thing about Teddy Roosevelt's quote, is that it shouldn't be a career path for you. Not that you can't provide results - we have a lot of aldermen, most, that are very tenured - but I'm a firm believer of getting in there, taking the ward as far as we have and further, and then letting some other person do it as well.

What happens at a presidential-level is much different. There's term limits. There's humongous parties. There's a feeding system that comes into that. There's primaries. They've got it pretty much laid out, almost like a major league ball team that has three different levels below it. And there's not term limits, but a pitcher's life is about four years maybe, and they know it's coming through.

At an aldermanic level, yes, we have the organization, but if you had a term limit set, then some people might not be attracted to it that are attracted to it now, because let's be frank, it's a very good salary, but there's a lot of salaries out there for some of these attorneys - I'm not an attorney - that could be doing better. So I would definitely be on the side of  having term limits, but we'd have to put some serious thought into our electoral system.

For instance, we don't have instant runoff right now. We have runoff, which is good, which just means you have to get to 50 plus one or you get a runoff, but I think we should have an instant runoff, that would allow more people to take a shot at it.

I had a plan set for my first 100 days, for my first six months, and for my first year. And we have hit all those goals. We've got a whole agenda for this whole year of things we want to accomplish. Three categories. One: definitely attainable. These are gonna get done and they will get done. Secondly: attainable. There's an 80% chance they will get done, and we're going to be disappointed if they're not. Then we have a set that's 50% or below, that are long shots, but any one we get there is a plus.

We have to set those benchmarks for ourselves, because the 1st Ward has moved forward and we want to continue to do that. I can talk about some of those ideas that we've already implemented, and I can talk about some things in the future, because otherwise, what's the point? I want to be able to provide, not only the daily things for people, but new and fresh ideas, fresh funding ideas, using technology as we have, making people's lives better and easier in tough times.

Okay. It's February 23rd. You've just been re-elected. What are you most excited to get to work on?

The most exciting thing that I'm looking at are a couple policies that I'll tell you off the record because I'm still working them politically, that are gonna greatly increase revenue for our city. It's going to greatly increase environmental sustainability for our city without increasing taxes on anybody, but increasing fees for decisions you make. And this is it:

[Now off the record, Alderman Moreno's passion for policy comes pouring out. He grabs a pen from his desk and looks for something, anything, to write on. He selects the top of a folded manila envelope. With the zeal and delight of an eight-year-old boy who has just learned how to draw a really good airplane, the alderman begins scribbling and sketching the details of his in-the-works policy, breathlessly accompanying it with his commentary detailing the plan and why it will benefit the 1st Ward and the City of Chicago.]

Okay, then in keeping that off the record but allowing me to have something for the end of my story - we always think of the ways that politicians shape their constituents or the area that they represent. "What can you do for the 1st Ward?" Let me ask you this: What does the 1st Ward do for you? How does the 1st Ward shape you?

Diversity is our strength, I always say in the 1st Ward, not our weakness. It's one of the most diverse wards. We don't have the extreme poor that some wards have, or the extreme wealth that some do, but pretty much you come in there, and we've got everything.

I've talked about city services - Mrs. Davis, who is in her mid-70s, came in to see me. I've only met her once. She was visibly shaken, distraught, and she said, "I don't know what I'm going to do Alderman. The lot that I own next to me, my son has left me, and I don't know how I'm going to mow it." That's what her worry was. She had sleepless nights thinking about tickets she couldn't afford, and I said, "You know Mrs. Davis, we'll mow it once a month. Don't worry about it. We'll be over there and we'll mow it." And she comes in almost every other Tuesday, she'll bring me a muffin, she'll bring me something.

It's just very humbling to know that that's what she's worried about. That's what she said: "I can't sleep the last few nights." It humbles you to realize that when you're having dinner with the president of China - and that was an interesting experience, don't get me wrong - but that's the every day win for me: Mrs. Davis. I could tell you one hundred stories similar to that. Because now she's a happy person, she's an election judge because she's retired. She loves doing that. The more stories that I can compile and hear about the other Mrs. Davises, I've done my job. And hopefully some of the broader policy that I spoke about - you know, I'll walk and chew gum at the same time - but that's what the 1st Ward does to me on a daily basis.

Other 1st Ward Aldermanic candidates profiled in this series: Ron Baltierra ; Deborah Lopez

More information: First look

Silverstein is the author of Our President and editor of 2007 49th Ward alderman runner-up Don Gordon's Piss 'Em All Off.  Trade alderman talk on Twitter @readjack


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