Interview: Jorge Mújica, Last Candidate on the Left

Jorge Mújica is a liberal, but that doesn’t mean he’s a Democrat. Not this time, anyway.

True, five years ago he challenged Rep. Dan Lipiniski in the Democratic primary, a challenge which he lost. But his plan had never been to defeat the three-term incumbent in Illinois’ 3rd district.

“The immigration movement decided that we needed to challenge the Democratic Party, and that I would be a good candidate,” he told In These Times in May of last year. “We were not going to win, that was obvious. But we succeeded in pushing this Blue Dog Democrat to recognize the issue of immigration as an important issue within his ward.”

Now that he’s running for alderman in the 25th ward, Mújica is looking to wage an even greater battle against Chicago’s Democratic establishment — as a socialist.

After John Meacham was kicked off the ballot in the 49th ward in January, Mújica became, so far as I know, the last openly declared candidate competing in this election. He’s hoping to follow in the footsteps of Kshama Sawant, who in 2013 became the first socialist elected to Seattle’s City Council in over a century.

Neither would Mújica be Chicago’s first socialist alderman. Leon Despres, longtime alderman of the 5th ward, was a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party of America; as was William E. Rodriguez, the city’s first Latino alderman, elected in 1914.

Still, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, socialism remains a topic only whispered. But Mújica isn’t phased. When I ask the 59-year-old during a recent phone call what he might say to voters for whom the word socialist conjures up the image of an iron curtain, he playfully points out that he was born two years after the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Mújica, who has identified as a socialist since joining the youth wing of the Mexican Communist Party at the age of 15, says the decision to run as a socialist this year belongs, not to him, but to the Chicago Socialist Campaign, a group of left-wing activists seeking to offer Chicago voters “a real alternative” to the country’s two-party system. “It’s really about placing the power in the community,” he explains.

Progressives in the 25th ward and across the city all know Mújica as a longtime activist and one of the key organizers at the head of a march on May Day 2006 that saw around half a million pro-immigrant supporters pack the streets of Chicago. On the progress made since that historic demonstration, he says that “a thousand other things still need to be done.”

For one, Mújica would like to see Chicago provide undocumented immigrants with city ID cards, just as San Francisco and New York have done. The benefit would be two-pronged: ID cards would not only allow the undocumented access to city services requiring photo identification; they would also equip all residents with identification, which, when coupled with the fact that the undocumented would be more willing to report crimes if they have ID, would go a long way toward strengthening public safety efforts.

“Whether they speak English, Spanish or Chinese, they’re all dealing with things like unemployment, low wages and education.”

Mújica has described workers’ rights — specifically the fight against stolen wages — as “my daily life” and, having emigrated from Mexico in 1987, he has established himself as an advocate for immigrant workers, protecting them against employers who would take advantage of their vulnerable legal status in this country. He explains how, sadly, “a lot of immigrants think that, because they have no papers, they have no rights.”

As part of his continuing activism, Mújica currently sits on the board of directors at Arise Chicago, an organization committed to alleviating the effects of poverty among the city’s working class.

“I came here from Mexico to do what I’m doing now,” he says contently, “which is helping people in English and Spanish make sure they have their rights.” Though he doesn’t speak Mandarin — and speaks English with a heavy Mexicagoan accent — he assures me that, as alderman of a diverse ward including much of Chinatown, he would work for all of his constituents. The way he sees it, no matter what part of the ward they live in, people are worried about the same basic issues. “Whether they speak English, Spanish or Chinese,” he maintains, “they’re all dealing with things like unemployment, low wages and education.”

On the subject of education, Mújica, like many of the other progressives running this year, supports a moratorium on the building of charter schools to address issues surrounding transparency. It may, however, surprise some people to hear him express an appreciation for the way in which charter schools have customized their curricula — something he hopes to see adopted throughout the traditional public school system.

This is doubly true for the local community’s predominantly Latino schools, where students are force-fed mainstream historical and cultural perspectives that trivialize Latino heritage while lionizing that of Anglo Americans. “We get our textbooks from Texas, and in some of them it says that Mexico ceded half of its land to the United States,” he explains. “It doesn’t talk about how the United States invaded Mexico.” (Indeed, most schools across the country do get their textbooks “from Texas,” so to speak, as publishers cater their content to the Texas school board, a large purchaser, whose politics regularly promote the narrative of America being a white, Christian nation.)

Given his leftist stance, I presume that Mújica favors an elected school board, which he does. But he offers one caveat: have a recall procedure in place to remove unresponsive officials. “We have an elected City Council, too, but we still have a lot of problems with that.”

While we’re on the issue of unresponsive officials, Mújica’s comments invariably revolve around Danny Solis, the man who’s been alderman of the 25th ward since he was appointed by Mayor “Baby Doc” Daley in 1996. To hear Mújica tell it, you’d think Solis were little more than a modern-day viceroy protecting the business interests of Chicago’s Democratic machine.

The alderman is currently under fire for a number reasons. Three of the longstanding complaints against him concern his ties to the United Neighborhood Organization, the largest charter school operator in the city; his support for a proposed metal shredder near Benito Juarez High School, which an overwhelming majority of the community opposes; and his office misplacing (let’s call it that) $140,000 in discretionary funds that was slated for the arts.

Just this week, ward residents learned Solis wouldn’t be attending today’s forum at UIC due to a “scheduling conflict.”

Mújica isn’t opposed to a $30 million shredder per se. He’s simply critical of its location, the waste management protocol it would adopt, and the general lack of community input that’s been allowed during the proposal period. “If they want to pick another location that’s completely enclosed, monitored by the EPA and so on, fine,” he tells me.

When I ask why Solis has decided to move ahead with the proposed metal shredder, Mújica is blunt: “Because he received thousands of dollars from those companies.” The companies in question are the one building the shredder, Pure Metal Recycling (formerly Acme Refining), and Scrap Metal Services, its former partner. Executives at both companies have donated at least $50,000 to the 25th ward alderman.

As for the $140,000 in art funds that have vanished in the Blue Island Triangle at 18th & Loomis, Solis is still keeping an eye out.

“Not just participatory budgets, but participatory democracy.”

Given the loss was part of $1.3 million in discretionary funds allotted to each ward every year — known as “menu money” — I wonder if this whole situation could’ve been avoided had the 25th ward instituted participatory budgeting, like they already have in a handful of other wards.

Developed in Brazil in the late 80s, participatory budgeting is a practice which allows members of a community to decide how best to allocate funds. Chicago became the first municipality in the United States to experiment with participatory budgets when Ald. Joe Moore began implementing them in the 49th ward in 2009. Since then, residents of the northside community have voted to plant trees and commission murals, among a number of other projects.

It’s not difficult to gauge where Mújica, a grassroots activist, might stand on participatory budgeting: he embraces the practice. Nevertheless, being distinctly left of center, he views such concepts as merely small facets of a much grander goal of comprehensive engagement between the government and the governed. “Not just participatory budgets,” he insists, “but participatory democracy.”

Mújica also champions community policing, which attempts to build trusting relationships between law enforcement and residents. But rather than revamping Chicago’s CAPS program — like mayoral hopeful Chuy García told me he would in December — Mújica would like to see a program whose focal point lies in the community, not one “run by a police department that doesn’t have any trust in the community.”

While the progressive challengers in Chicago’s mayoral race promise to hire more police officers — Ald. Bob Fioretti has pledged 500, whereas García recommends 1,000 — Mújica doesn’t see how putting more cops on the beat would make the city’s streets any safer, arguing that “it’ll just lead to more criminalization.”

“Gentrification isn’t about skin color. It’s about rich people coming into a neighborhood and displacing working-class people.”

Criminalization is especially paramount in a predominantly Latino ward like the 25th, considering America’s black and Latino populations are already facing a crisis of overcriminalization by the justice system. “Being young, Latino and poor is like a triple crime,” Mújica says sharply. I guess when you’re the only openly declared socialist candidate in the city, running in a predominantly Latino ward encompassing historically working-class neighborhoods, you’re allowed to be as acerbic as you like.

The 25th ward is anchored by Pilsen, of course, and so the issue of gentrification inevitably rears its yuppie head during the course of my conversation with the candidate. As it turned out, an article I had written on the protests against a Pilsen coffeehouse was published on the same day I spoke with Mújica. Though I’m not sure he read the article, he echoes my position on gentrification, saying, “Gentrification isn’t about skin color. It’s about rich people coming into a neighborhood and displacing working-class people.”

Besides being home to enclaves that have allowed generations of Asian and Latino immigrants to find good jobs and decent housing, Mújica readily mentions that the 25th ward is also populated by students of the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago and other local colleges who can’t afford to live in the dorms. According to Mújica and the rest of the anti-gentrification crowd, gentrification threatens to destroy an ecosystem in the 25th ward that has allowed the working class to thrive. Hence, it doesn’t matter what color the people are moving into the neighborhoods, so long as Pilsen and Chinatown maintain their roles as welcoming spaces for working-class residents.

Yet communities place their worth not merely in their houses and jobs, but in their cultures. In no pocket of the city is this more true than in Pilsen, with a Mexican culture that continually expresses itself through music, literature, theater, cuisine and the visual arts. While he laments the shuttered storefronts that were once vibrant, locally-owned businesses, it pleases Mújica to see them transformed into artistic spaces. Still, he worries whether some of the galleries and studios that have recently popped up truly benefit the people of Pilsen.

“We don’t need an art gallery from people outside the community where they sell $1,000 paintings,” he says. “Because that art doesn’t represent the community and that money doesn’t stay in the community.”

Ignoring the fact that he’s running for alderman, and in view of his reputation as an in-the-streets activist, you’d think Mújica were the type to belittle voting as a pointless ritual by which voters massage the delusion that they actually have a choice in the matter. (I had a few things to say about self-satisfied non-voting in 2012 and last year.)

As it happens, Mújica says one of the most exemplary traits shown by participants in the DREAM movement is that, instead of lobbying for reform, “they took action.” He applauds the widespread instances of civil disobedience experienced across the country and vows that, as alderman of the 25th ward, he himself would join any demonstration of civil disobedience for a progressive cause.

“I’m not willing to trade an old suit for a young suit. That doesn’t suit me.”

Nonetheless, unlike too many liberal activists I’ve met, Mújica still promotes voting as an important factor in the democratic equation. “If you don’t like what’s happening with your politicians, this is your only time to change it,” he explains, referring to the citywide elections set to take place later this month. “If you’re 18 now, you won’t get another chance until your 22.”

Mújica swears he’s not backing anyone in the mayoral race. But of the man he first met a few weeks after coming to Chicago in 1987, he says, “I like Chuy. I respect Chuy.”

Admiration aside, Mújica believes García hasn’t produced a platform progressive enough for him to be excited about. Plus, as he admits with a nervous laugh, he’s pretty sure the García campaign wouldn’t appreciate the endorsement of a declared socialist, much less endorse one. (That may be true, but having done a good amount of research on the man and chatting with him for half an hour, I can safely tell you García is no Milton Friedman himself.)

For his lifelong commitment to the working class, the socialist has received a number of endorsements, most recently from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a public sector union part of the AFL-CIO representing over 100,000 active and retired workers in Illinois alone.

Whether García endorses Mújica or not is beside the point. Mújica isn’t running for mayor. He’s running for alderman of the 25th ward, against a longtime incumbent with rich and powerful patrons, and among a field of challengers hoping for the opportunity (presumably) to make a difference in the city.

In January I interviewed one of the other challengers, Byron Sigcho. Like Mújica, Sigcho immigrated to this country (but from Ecuador) and, like Mújica, Sigcho’s reputation is that of a progressive activist — though, at 31, Sigcho is just getting started. His age notwithstanding, Sigcho has garnered a significant level of support from students, activists and other progressives: the same groups which Mújica hopes will support him.

I hesitate in discussing the Sigcho campaign with Mújica, feeling as though I were talking to a lover about an ex. I ask Mújica to define what makes him the progressive choice in the 25th ward election.

“Experience,” he says. “I have nothing against young people — it’s good to be politically active when you’re young and ambitious — but experience is also very important.”

Mújica uses the word ambitious like you or I might use the words greedy and power-hungry. He seems to believe young men like Sigcho want to become alderman if only to place another feather in their caps. Having worked as an activist in Chicago for the past 27 years, Mújica feels it isn’t enough to replace men like Ald. Solis with people who will govern just the same. The people of Chicago need a new type of leadership.

Or, as Mújica puts it, “I’m not willing to trade an old suit for a young suit. That doesn’t suit me.”

Truth be told, I don’t think Sigcho is Solis 2.0. In fact I’m hard-pressed to pinpoint clear differences between Sigcho’s platform and that of Mújica.

But Mújica seems to know what those differences are, and for him it comes down to which candidate will be ready on the first day to do more to protect a working-class community that has been the backbone of the 25th ward for decades. He has no doubt that the younger candidate may have only the very best intentions at heart, but Mújica believes no other candidate in this race can match him in the level of intimacy with the issues facing the ward.

All the same, how does a socialist candidate go about funding his campaign, especially in a city whose politics are brimming with cash?

Mújica responds like any underdog would: “I don’t need a lot of money. I just need people.”

“Now is the time to change things in the city of Chicago”

[All images courtesy of: Jorge Mújica for 25th Ward Alderman]