‘Written off’ 15 Ward in the thick of it — over gangs, guns and Burke

By Alexandra Arriaga

Residents are moving out of the South Side’s 15th Ward. A neighborhood high school is being phased out. Even the previous alderman opted to run in another ward four years ago after the boundaries were redrawn.

Current Ald. Ray Lopez says the ward has been “written off by Chicago politics at large.”

But you wouldn’t know it from the spirited battle underway for stewardship of the gun-and-gang-challenged ward — composed of West Englewood, Gage Park, Brighton Park and Back of the Yards.

Lopez is facing four challengers in the Feb. 26 election. And on top of that, a City Council colleague has also gotten involved, calling for Lopez’s ouster in a rare show of crosstown electoral warfare. Lopez was the ward committeeman four years ago after the ward was redrawn to 68 percent Hispanic, and incumbent Ald. Toni Foulkes chose to run for the 16th Ward to represent Englewood, winning in a runoff. Lopez won in his own runoff election, against Chicago Police Officer Rafael Yañez.

15th Ward aldermanic candidate Rafael “Rafa” Yanez met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Monday, February 4, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Yañez is waging a rematch.

“The alderman is talking about generational gun violence, and I’m talking about generational disinvestment,” Yañez said. “Since white flight, the resources fled along with the families.”

Yañez has positioned himself as a progressive, with the backing of U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, former Cook County Clerk David Orr, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Service Employees International Union Illinois Council, one of the unions with an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

Despite his background as a police officer, he’s running on a critique of Lopez’s vote in favor of the $95 million police training academy.

“I’m a police officer, I know we need training, we need better management, we need better accountability in the police department, there’s many things we have to reform,” Yañez said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re gonna put $95 million there right now when our schools are struggling.”

Lopez’s vote in support of building the police academy on the West Side also helped prompt Northwest Side Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) to support a group calling for Lopez’s ouster, dubbed “Fuera Lopez” (“Lopez Out”).

Lopez has suggested Ramirez-Rosa stick to his own ward. The two rookie aldermen have traded insults, with each comparing the other to President Donald Trump.

On the issue of gun violence, Lopez unapologetically takes a hard stance against gang members. Lopez has no regrets about a comment that prompted a notorious Chicago street gang to make threats against him. After a rash of violence in his ward in 2017 that included the fatal shootings of reputed gang members, Lopez told reporters he was “thankful today that no innocent lives were lost.”

Lopez and Yañez agree that gun regulation must occur at the state and federal level, but Lopez said he has no plans to stop focusing on the role of the gang members pulling the triggers.

“What I can do is make sure I’m calling out the individuals who are trying to use those weapons in our community. … If it makes life uncomfortable for gang-bangers, so be it,” Lopez said.

Lopez also makes no apologies for $5,250 in campaign contributions he received from Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who is facing federal charges of attempted extortion.

Lopez says if Burke is convicted, “I would consider returning that money.”

Federal investigators built their case against Burke with the help of Ald. Danny Solis (25th), who secretly recorded more than a dozen conversations with Burke.

“I’m sure I’m recorded, I’ve talked to Danny Solis, I’ve talked to Ed Burke,” Lopez said. “I know 100 percent without a doubt I have nothing to worry about when it comes to the investigation.”