Interview: Omar Aquino, A Latino Millennial in Springfield

Latinos aren’t politically engaged, especially the younger ones. That’s what they say. Sure, they may march for immigration reform, an issue which touches nearly every Latino in some way, but when it comes time to transform their growing people power into actual political power, Latinos would rather not. Twenty fourteen saw Latino voter turnout drop to its lowest rate ever — a measly 27 percent — and the 2012 president election witnessed only 48 percent of eligible Latino voters show up at the polls, lower than any racial or ethnic group. Thus it seems, for a while anyway, that the famed “sleeping giant” will remain just that — awesome, but asleep.

And then there’s Omar — Senator Aquino, to you and me. When Aquino was sworn in on July 1 to replace the retiring Willie Delgado in Illinois’s 2nd district, the 29-year-old became the youngest Latino ever to serve in the Illinois Senate. A lifelong Chicagoan, Aquino presents himself as a new breed of politician, part of a class of Millennial elected officials — along with Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa in the 35th ward and state Representative Will Guzzardi in the 39th district — looking to shake things up in the infamously stolid halls of Illinois politics.

I spoke with Senator Aquino by phone last Thursday, and the following is a transcript of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity.

I understand you were born and raised on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

That’s correct.

And one of your parents worked for Chicago Public Schools, and the other for—?

Also worked for the city, but he worked for Streets & Sanitation.

So, as a kid, is that where you got the idea to enter politics one day?

I always had this inclination of wanting to work in the public sector, and so that’s what I dedicated my life and my career towards. I didn’t necessarily go in thinking that I was going to become a politician per se, but it sort of ended up that way for different reasons.

For instance, my first job out of college was as a bilingual case manager for seniors on the West Side and South Side. It was with a community program called the Community Care Program with the state. Basically what that program does is give Medicare dollars to care for seniors in their homes. The whole idea was that they could keep some independence and stay at home and stay in their communities rather than having to move to a nursing home. And so my inspiration to get into public policy was from frustration with a lot of cuts that were happening even when I was working there back then. The program was looking for ways to implement these reductions or cuts in different ways. They’d send memos almost week to week, and I’d read these memos and be like, “There’s no way I can implement these memos because it goes against the entire mission statement of what this program’s about. It goes against exactly what we’re supposed to do in terms of helping seniors.” Then the following week would be another memo saying, “Disregard that first memo. We realized we can’t really implement it for reasons A, B and C, but look out for a future memo on making changes of another sort.”

So after a long time of having that frustration of trying to help people while the superiors above me made these decisions at a policy level and they didn’t seem to get it, I said, “You know what? I want to start working on policy, being in those rooms when people are making these determinations — these cuts and whatnot — and at least give them the perspective of someone on the front line who has seen firsthand what these programs do and the impact they have on seniors, on families and on our neighborhoods.” That doesn’t mean I wanted to be one of those policymakers. I just wanted to be in the room to help them have an understanding that these dollars and these numbers have an impact on people and communities.

Aquino at a Chicago Teachers Union protest
Aquino at a Chicago Teachers Union protest

And from there you went to work for Congresswoman Duckworth (who’s actually my representative), and you continued doing similar work for her?

Actually, from there I ended up working in the Illinois House of Representatives first. I was a legislative aide; I was assigned to a specific representative in Chicago [Toni Berrios]. I did everything from press to outreach to coordinating the office, working with community organizations, basically helping to make [Berrios] more accessible to her voters. I mean, that’s who she represented. I did that for a year, up until somebody reached out to me with an opening from Congresswoman Duckworth’s office for an outreach coordinator. And then I ended up going to work for her during her first term.

Is it safe to say you’re endorsing her for the U.S. Senate?

[laughs] I would say that’s a safe bet, yeah. I had heard so much about her because she had ran in 2006 and— I’ve followed politics my entire life, and I’ve been involved in different ways. But I followed her race in 2006 against Peter Roskam — it was a very close race — and after that I followed her career when she went to serve as head of the [Veterans Affairs] system in Illinois and then as undersecretary [for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs]. When she ran against Joe Walsh, I wasn’t actually part of that campaign but I followed that.

You hear all about her — the sacrifices, her personal sacrifices, the fact that she flew Black Hawk helicopters to the point that she almost gave her life for this country. It was such an amazing thing to work for her, because she views being a representative of a community and being a congressperson as another way of serving her country. And that is important to her. Honestly, it was inspiring. When I first thought about running, and saying, “Hey, maybe I can represent my community,” she was one of those people that helped to inspire me because I saw what she did and the sacrifices she made. It helped me make my decision to take a leap of faith in myself, even though I’m so young, but I thought maybe I could do something for my community and make an impact of some sort.

“We wanna represent our community and work for you, and we have the energy to do so.”

Speaking of “so young,” you’re an ally of Alderman Rosa, who won last year. You were running in the 36th ward but lost that bid. What changed between that loss and this year’s election to the state senate?

Carlos is a great friend of mine. I actually met Carlos when I was working in the Illinois House and he was working for Congressman Gutierrez.

I had lost, but it was one of those things that after my loss, as tough as that was— because I dedicated an entire year to that campaign. I had started knocking on doors essentially daily around the end of May in 2014, and I didn’t stop knocking on doors until Election Day in April of 2015. So it was almost an entire year of going out there.

Hector, to be quite honest with you, I just took a leap of faith and said, “Let me try something.” There were four people in the race initially, and I ended up in the runoff against the gentleman who eventually won. But on paper, if you took a look at Gilbert Villegas, I mean, he had all this experience — he was a Marine, he had worked at the state, he was a lobbyist. It was just one of those things in that I was this young guy going against this guy who had all these credentials on paper that you would probably say he has the best chance of winning.

But the thing is that, in an election, you gotta go out there and you gotta earn your support. You gotta earn the trust and support of your neighbors. You gotta go knock on doors and talk to them and be present, because you’re making an argument for yourself. You’re saying, “I want to represent you, and when you have issues in the community and you want to come to the office or want to talk your alderman or have a complaint, if you don’t see that person now when they’re running and trying to earn your support, you’re probably not going to see them when they’re in office.” So I would say that we outworked every opponent. And I say “we” because as much as I was the candidate, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I did and even to this point now if it weren’t for so many people and organizations and unions that supported me. One of the most beautiful things, Hector, was going out there and knocking on someone’s door, meeting them for the first time, and some of those people that I’d just met became some of my biggest supporters. They would come and volunteer and knock on doors with me — or without me — and make phone calls. I mean, complete strangers that became supporters, that became friends, that became like family. It was such a beautiful thing.

So, though I lost, I was inspired by those people, and I had a lot of people reaching out to me saying, “You should run for this and that.” I wasn’t really planning on running. What happened is that I started to volunteer for Senator Delgado and his reelection bid, and I brought some of my volunteers, some of the people that wanted to support me and were eager to continue the work in the community. We started helping him, and then he sorta one day had a conversation with me and said, “Omar, I’m seriously contemplating retirement, and if you still wanna represent your community in some way, you should consider getting on the ballot.”

So is that what happened? When you brought your supporters, he realized, “Hey, this guy has a lot of support”? Plus he was feeling like he wanted to retire, and so he saw it as a good opportunity — for you and him?

I don’t want to speak for the senator, but it’s sort of like that. Yeah, absolutely. And we were knocking on doors initially for him, gathering signatures and whatnot. And for a lot of different reasons the senator had been contemplating retirement for some time, and so it was really the perfect timing for him. He was just like, “I wanna go.” He didn’t like pick me. He suggested it to me.

And one of the things that Carlos — Alderman Rosa, rather — myself, and even Representative Will Guzzardi have in common is that, this man, Senator Delgado, had the foresight and saw each one of us, these young people, in our community trying to do something, and he vouched for us. He was one of the first politicians to endorse us in our races. He didn’t endorse me for alderman, but later on he endorsed me to replace him in his seat for Senate. And the same thing when he supported Carlos for alderman, and also when he supported Will in his second bid for state rep.

Senator Aquino stands with his mother and father as he's sworn by Judge Gloria Chevere
Senator Aquino stands with his mother and father as he’s sworn by Judge Gloria Chevere

I didn’t ask Alderman Rosa this, but was there any ageism that you had to overcome?

[laughs] Um… [laughs again]

You know what I mean.

No, I know exactly what you mean. And to be very honest with you, yes, you certainly— and if you ask Carlos in the future— I remember moments when I knocked on someone’s door and it was one of those things of “Who’s this young kid knocking on my door?” And there’s a lot of people that are like “I can do this” and whatnot. “Why should I support you?” And I tell people, “Hey, if you want to run, go right ahead and run. I’m not telling you not to. What I’m saying is that I’m out here because I wanna make a difference in my community. I’m telling you what my plan is — it’s A, B and C, and so forth. And I’m here at your door because I wanna make a difference. If you wanna do that, go right ahead.” It’s a democratic process, and people will vote for who they believe in, right?

But at the same time I’d say there’s a benefit in being young as well, because people want— especially now that so many people are tired of the same old politics, and they wanna see change, they want a fresh perspective on things. And Carlos, myself, Will and other Millennials that are running are offering that. They’re saying, “Hey, we’re educated, we’re from this community, we care, we’re compassionate, but we have a fresh perspective on things. And we’re out here because we know it’s something that’s bigger than us. We wanna represent our community and work for you, and we have the energy to do so.”

You’ve said you want to tackle certain issue, positioning yourself as the anti-Rauner candidate. You’re going after his service cuts, which obviously ties to your early experience. Can you talk about what Governor Rauner’s doing to the most vulnerable people in Illinois?

Since day one, since he’s been governor— and I personally believe that he bought the Governor’s Mansion, because of the unfortunate lack of campaign finance laws that we have. If you’re a multimillionaire, you can write a blank check to yourself, and that’s what he did. But nevertheless, once he got in there, he declared that he wasn’t going to sign any budget without these so-called reforms called the “Turnaround Agenda,” which is really an austerity agenda. And I say it like this: In the district that I represent is very working-class, so these cuts to programs — be it for mothers with childcare services, programs like the CCP for seniors that I worked for, HIV services, MAP grants and so forth — all this stuff is not theoretical to my neighbors. These are things that they either have personally felt or know a neighbor or family member impacted by these cuts. And so what the governor’s doing is very personal to me. I know a lot of my own family and neighbors that are struggling.

Rauner’s the man I call the anti-Robin Hood — he steals from the poor to give to the rich. So my thing with the governor is that I wanna make sure that moving forward we have legislation that completely changes the way we generate revenue in this state. I think we need to make sure that corporations and the wealthy are paying their fair share, and if that’s through a millionaire’s tax, if that’s through a progressive income tax, that’s what I’m for. Because realistically we can’t cut our way out of the budget impasse that we’re at right now, with all the problems that we have. We have to generate revenue in some way, but who do we generate that revenue from, and who can afford it right now? Certainly our community needs the resources, but it’s wrong to say to our neighbors, “Hey, we’re going to raise the property taxes so if either you own your home or you don’t, your rent’s gonna go up if you don’t own.” People are struggling nevertheless, and you see an exodus from the city because of it. I moved back to Humboldt Park — that’s where my family lives — and I have family members that have left the Humboldt Park area — due to gentrification and other reasons as well — but have to move out west or even move to the suburbs just because they couldn’t afford the cost of living here anymore.

“We need to go back to a more community policing model, where the police department was a part of the community, not just some security force in the community.”

I was just going to bring that up. I was raised in your district for a bit, and I still have family and friends there. Obviously it’s a battleground for gentrification. So what kind of policies are you looking to propose to combat it?

Look, I’ve gone to jog and ride my bike on 606. That’s beautiful and great and all, but the scary thing is, because of that, you take a jog and you start seeing some of the developers already coming in certain areas where, a few years ago, you would’ve never seen development there. But the only thing is they’re selling these condos or whatnot for a price tag that isn’t for the people who are living there right now. It’s about pushing people out.

I’m gonna be working with organizations like Grassroots Illinois Action, GIA-Humboldt Park, [the Logan Square Neighborhood Association] and others to make sure that we are pushing legislation to protect current homeowners and renters. I’ve talked to some fellow legislators at the city and county levels already. I’m trying to see if there’s a way that we can have some sort of tax exemption for those homeowners that have lived in and around the 606 area within a certain amount of years — kinda like a long-term homeowner’s exemption, but specifically designated for gentrifying areas.

I know Alderman Rosa’s proposing a rebate for people who live in their homes and make four times the poverty level. Do you support something like that?

Absolutely. And it’s just figuring out though— because at every level it’s a little different. Sometimes, at the state level, we have to pass legislation that would allow for home rule so that the city council can then determine and make ordinances that impact certain areas. So it’s about working together collectively — with Alderman Rosa, with [Cook County] Commissioner Arroyo as well because, for the most part, he’s the county commissioner that represents this district — to make sure we put legislation in the books for protecting people.

Just this month the minimum wage in the city went up to $10.50; it’s supposed to go up to $13 by 2019. Do you think that’s sufficient?

My thing is that I’m a supporter of Fight for $15. We need to be making livable wages for people — not only in the city, but we really have to take this fight statewide. I represent mostly the city of Chicago, but there’s a certain portion of Leyden Township and Elmwood Park that I represent as well. And so, especially in those border areas between the city and suburbs, or even near county lines, what you end up having is infighting between municipalities and counties. They’ll try to make it easier for businesses to move or whatnot so workers go there. So we need to make sure we’re setting that mark on a state level, to make sure that anyone who’s working in the state of Illinois is getting out of poverty. If you’re working, you should be able to make a decent living. I’m glad the city council did something, is taking some action and is going towards getting to $15 eventually, but the thing is there are people struggling now that can’t afford to wait three more years, when the cost of living then is gonna be higher. So we need legislation that impacts sooner.

Aquino chats with Cook County Commissioner Jesús "Chuy" García
Aquino chats with Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García

You ran against a candidate who was basically pro-charter schools. Just for people like my grandma who lives in your district and believes charter schools are a great idea, can explain why they hurt a community such as Humboldt Park or Logan Square?

So here’s the thing: there’s different arguments. One of the arguments I make is that I don’t believe there should be an expansion of charter schools. Just a few years ago, the city of Chicago and the school board told us that they couldn’t afford the amount of schools they had — so much so that 50 neighborhood schools were closed.

The other argument is about for-profit institutions. Charters like ASPIRA and some others orignially started out as the alternative schools. It was a way to help students that the system had failed and weren’t part of the education system. To prevent them from going into the criminal justice system, these charters were created as an alternative for them to come back and not only get a GED but actually get a high school diploma at an alternative school. Those were run by not-for-profit organizations.

That’s very different from the charters nowadays, especially the Noble Streets and so forth. What happens is that these are for-profit institutions, which means public money that we’re giving to a private entity to run these schools. Education and students are becoming commodities, where it’s “How do we educate these students with a dollar amount tied to it?” So that’s a problem.

And not only that. For instance, I just moved from my apartment which was half a block from Noble’s new Speer school, a high school that was put literally across the street from Prosser High School. During that time the community had said, “Hey, we don’t want another school — not only here, but in this community — because we have Prosser, we have Foreman, we have Steinmetz, we have Kelvyn Park. If you open a new school here, what’s gonna happen is that some students are obviously going to be poached from these schools, and the way we give money to schools is by the number of students they have. So if you have a new charter school that’s opening up and it’s poaching students from those neighborhood schools, then those schools that are already suffering end up getting less money. They get less funding.” So there’s a lot of issues.

Then the other issue is that my oponent not only was a supporter of charter schools, but she was the advocacy director — basically the lobbyist — for Noble Charter, and the probelm with Noble Charter is that Noble doesn’t allow their teachers to collectively bargain. So that’s a whole other issue. I was raised by public workers that were part of unions, that were able to make a decent living because of the labor movement. Noble believes that if their teachers somehow have union cards, all of sudden they’re less capable of teaching a student.

Even beyond that, I think it’s important that teachers have job security, and you need professional educators teaching our kids, not these Teach For America models of having someone that isn’t really trained to be a teacher, or having a two-, three-week course that automatically makes you a teacher. No, we need to make sure all our teachers that are teaching in the public school system are professional educators. It’s the same way where, if something’s wrong with my car, I don’t take my car to my doctor; I take it to my mechanic. And when I’m sick, I don’t go to the mechanic; I go to the doctor. So I don’t understand why, in some public education settings, we allow for almost anyone to have a couple weeks’ training and label themselves a teacher. That’s not— No. That’s wrong.

“I come from humble means, I come from a hardworking family, and I come from an area that has hardworking people.”

On a youth-related topic, in the past week we’ve seen police shootings of three black men and five Latinos. There’s a lot of tension in Humboldt Park, Logan Square and Pilsen centered on gentrification, with a lot of long-time residents see the police as agents of gentrification. What kind of initiatives are you hoping to launch that’ll bring your community together?

One of my degrees is in criminal justice from Loyola; the other is in sociology, specifically on race and ethnic relations studies.

The thing is that we need, especially in this city, we need to go back to a more community policing model, where the police department was a part of the community, not simply some security force in the community but really members of the community. There was a time when the police officers that served in a certain district actually lived there, so they lived there, they knew the people, and the people in the community knew them. It was about protecting and serving. Right now it’s a little different.

What we’ve been seeing in the past few days with Alton Sterling and Philando Castile goes even deeper into other issues — not necessarily about gentrification, but deeper issues as a society of prejudices that are still systemic and apparent concerning black and brown men, or just black and brown people in general. There are certain liberties that other people have that people of color do not. It’s one of those things that it’s a systemic issue. I don’t think it’s just a training issue with police officers. It goes beyond that. So there has to be a complete reform in this city and in our county and in our state.

I think that a good start is that we’re gonna have a new state’s attorney [in Cook County] named Kim Foxx, and part of that was because of what happened with Laquan McDonald here in Chicago. I think people in Chicago and in our county are standing up already and going to the ballot box to say, “Hey, we want change and are demanding it.” And I’m optimistic that, if we have people like Kim Fox, myself and some others across different levels, we can really make some true reforms to our criminal justice system in this city and state.

Here’s to that. But on a final note, what do you want Gozamos’ readers to know about you and what kind of state senator you will be?

What I want them to know is my story. I come from a family of two hardworking parents that came from an island called Puerto Rico. Both came from rural towns in Puerto Rico.

Which towns?

My mom’s from Quebradillas. It’s called Guajataca, the little town, but the municipality’s called Quebradillas. My father’s from San Sebastián. The little town he’s from is called Cibao. They decided in the 1970s to call Chicago home because they wanted have a chance at living the American Dream and have a better chance at a decent job that paid well. So they came out here. They raised my brother and I in the best way they could.

I was a product of Chicago Public Schools my entire life. I come from humble means, I come from a hardworking family, and I come from an area that has hardworking people. So I’m just humbled to have this opportunity to represent my community, to represent my neighbors, and I just wanna let them know that I’m gonna work hard for them in Springfield. I know there’s a lot of frustration right now with government and with the inaction in Springfield many times, and I just wanna let them know that I’m gonna be there to be their voice, to be their champion. My work is gonna speak for itself. I’m the youngest Latino senator ever in the state of Illinois, and that’s not just a mistake or dumb luck. That’s because I work hard. I have been blessed to get the support of many people and my neighbors and whatnot, but it’s because of hard work. And I’m gonna take that hard work to Springfield.