The first thing incumbent Ald. Daniel La Spata needs to do to hold onto his 1st Ward City Council seat is weather a former rival’s resurgence.
Former Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno, attempting a political comeback following a series of scandals, is running for the seat he held for nearly a decade in the 2010s but lost in 2019 to La Spata.
But La Spata, a member of the City Council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus, will face challenges beyond his old foe. Two other candidates are well-known in the ward and have relatively deep pockets in the competitive race. Sam Royko, an attorney, is the son of Chicago newspaper legend Mike Royko. And community organizer Stephen “Andy” Schneider has long led influential historic preservation and development efforts in the area.
Rich campaign coffers have made the race particularly tight as each candidate entered the campaign season with about $100,000 to spend, according to state campaign records. The competitive race has also at times gotten ugly. A man threw a red Solo cup of beer at La Spata during a campaign bike ride in October, Block Club Chicago reported. And on Friday, two vandals smashed the windows of the alderman’s campaign headquarters, according to a campaign spokesperson.
If no candidate wins over 50% of the vote in the Feb. 28 election, the top two vote-getters will compete in an April 4 runoff.
In defeating Moreno four years ago, La Spata not only knocked off an embattled incumbent, but also rode a wave of support for Democratic Socialist aldermanic candidates who are building their power base on Chicago’s City Council. In 2019, La Spata was one of six socialists to join the council, among the most for any city council in the nation.
During his first term, he’s been an active alderman, championing affordable housing, building out more bike lanes on city streets and other progressive causes. He has said that “democracy, transparency and equity” are focal points of ordinances he introduces.
He also pushed efforts for a guaranteed basic income pilot program that Lightfoot later initiated, as well as environmental sustainability efforts and affordable housing projects.
“There is a lot that we need to expand on and build on, and there is no one running against me who shares those values,” La Spata said.
But while La Spata might have been busy with ordinances during his first term, constituent services in the ward’s near northwest neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Logan Square, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, Ukrainian Village and West Town have gone down and crime has gone up, his three challengers say.
Schneider, who works in real estate and film journalism, supported La Spata in 2019 after finding Moreno difficult to work with. But the new council member hasn’t been present enough in the community, Schneider said.
As president of Logan Square Preservation since 2012, Schneider worked closely with both La Spata and Moreno on preservation and development issues in the neighborhood — work Schneider says has taught him how to collaborate with community groups and engage residents.
Under his leadership, the group has raised more than $700,000 and helped preserve the Grace United Methodist Church as a community center, he said. The organization also successfully fought to have speed bumps installed in Palmer Square and for Logan Square’s circle to be redesigned, he said.
While Schneider notes his local bona fides and hits La Spata for not doing enough in the ward, he said council members need to take a broader focus to City Hall.
He’d like to create a sister neighborhoods program that connects areas so volunteers are better able to work together and, on crime, he’d focus on root causes with programs for jobs and housing stability at a city level, he said, adding anecdotally that several friends have recently been carjacked.
“I would be a voice that would think more about the city as a whole and less parochially,” he said. “The central issue of my campaign is finding a way to tie disparate communities together.” Schneider has raised over $120,000, much from area businesses, and he had about $89,000 to spend at the start of the year.
Like Schneider, Royko pointed to recent carjackings in his neighborhood as one reason he’s running. His girlfriend, he said, was carjacked while driving his vehicle in January 2021. He thinks Chicago’s biggest systemic issues, like disinvestment in the South and West Sides, need to be addressed to confront crime. He’d also push for more police, a return to the “community policing” model and expanded city mental health services, he said.
“People feel less safe now than they did within the last couple of years,” Royko said. “We can’t let that become a norm. We have to address it.”
Other issues he’d focus on, he said, include affordable housing, filling in empty storefronts and improving schools.
After his girlfriend’s carjacking, Royko said he founded the crime-focused Greater West Town Community Coalition, sparking Facebook discussion and catching press attention. The media wrangling might come naturally for Royko, the son of legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko, who died in 1997 after writing for the Tribune, Sun-Times and Daily News.
The columnist, a journalistic fixture and an outspoken critic of City Hall corruption whose words for many spoke to the city’s conscience, grew up above a Milwaukee Avenue tavern in the same ward his son is now running to represent. The candidate has long lived with the legacy of his father’s fiery love for Chicago.
“It’s a big shadow to live up to, and I’ll be fighting every day to do that. I want to give back,” he said.
Being Mike Royko’s son has its perks for the candidate. He was able to get campaign staff recommendations from David Axelrod and has hauled in around $150,000 in campaign contributions and had about $100,000 left at the start of the year. Now a commercial litigation attorney, he previously interned for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, and has been endorsed by Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, and former City Clerk David Orr.
Voters with memories long enough to recognize Royko’s last name are likely to also remember Moreno’s name.
In January 2019, he was accused of lending his Audi to a woman he was dating and then reporting it stolen. Soon afterward, a former staffer accused him of sexual harassment, which he denied. In December 2020, he was charged with a DUI and speeding after he drunkenly crashed into several cars in the Gold Coast neighborhood.
He pleaded guilty in both cases, receiving “second-chance” probation for obstructing justice and giving a false report to authorities in the January 2019 incident, as well as court supervision and community service in the December 2020 crash.
The scandals followed the traumatic death of a friend that he “chose to handle in a very unhealthy way,” but didn’t involve in-office corruption, Moreno said.
“I make no excuses for the personal mistakes that I made in my life,” Moreno said.
The former alderman remains in the race after an unsuccessful attempt was made to strike him from the ballot because of the false-report guilty plea. Royko was behind the effort, said Moreno.
Moreno, who now works for a printing company, was appointed to his former seat in 2010 by former Mayor Richard M. Daley and won reelection twice.
As he runs to return to the office he once held, Moreno said La Spata has ended programs that Moreno thinks should be revived, including one that distributed supplies to schools in the ward, an anti-graffiti program and a concerted effort to clean up the land under the many areas where the “L” runs.
While La Spata is aligned with Democratic Socialists, Moreno describes himself as a “progressive, pro-business Democrat” who sponsored a reparations ordinance for victims of police torture victims and supported a $15 minimum wage.
But like Royko, public safety is the main focus for Moreno as he campaigns, and he criticizes La Spata for his support of efforts to cut police department funding. One solution, he said, is building a satellite police station in East Village. He also said he wants to better fund violence interruption programs and mental health services for police and people in need.
As he tries to rebuild his political career, Moreno has been endorsed by former council colleagues, including ex-Aldermen George Cardenas, 12th, and Joe Moore, 49th, and outgoing Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, who just endorsed former CPS CEO Paul Vallas for mayor. He‘s raised about $85,000, which came from local business leaders and developers, as well as a $30,5000 loan from himself, and he still had about $81,000 on hand at the start of the year, records showed.
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Still, that pales in comparison with what La Spata has to spend on his campaign. Much of the more than $155,000 he has raised in the last year comes from unions, particularly the Service Employees International Union and Chicago Teachers Union. The incumbent has a long list of union endorsements and has also been backed by many local progressive groups and politicians.
It’s a different story than the one that faced La Spata four years ago when on the night he won, he described himself as an outsider upsetting the system-backed alderman who was out of touch and uninvolved in combating gentrification.
“People would say … politicians only come up four years, and then you don’t see them for another four years. And that’s not right,” he said during his victory speech, according to Block Club Chicago. La Spata won with 61% of the vote, part of a wave of progressives elected to City Council.
The incumbent’s current campaign also argued violent crime is down in the ward compared with the last four years of Moreno’s administration.
A Tribune analysis of city crime data comparing La Spata’s first term with an equivalent part of Moreno’s last term showed mixed trends in violent crime. While the rate of carjackings has nearly tripled under La Spata, overall violent crime has decreased 16% and robbery and shooting victimizations have dropped since he took over from Moreno.
La Spata agrees with his challengers on some issues, including the need to address economic inequality and the trauma that underlies city violence. He also wants mental health and social workers to be able to respond to certain emergencies and bike infrastructure to be built throughout the city. He also seeks to pass environmental justice legislation.
La Spata said he’s been working to make the ward’s once “corrupt, opaque zoning process” a more open and inclusive process by providing early looks at new developments for community members. He has also used a participatory budgeting process to allow residents to submit ideas and vote on how some discretionary infrastructure money will be spent.
While saying he thinks his office has handled constituent services well, he also said he’d continue to address citywide issues and continue his work in a “council that is more enabled to be a full legislative body” after seeing some legislation get “bottled up.”
“I think the council needs to work more independently of the mayor,” he said.