Saturday, August 15, 2015

Now Running for State Rep From Greater Bridgeport

Candidate Theresa Mah with neighbor Diana Tovar Cruz at God's Closet Clothing Pantry

When you vote for a candidate for government office you can listen to all their campaign promises to achieve specific goals, but in the end you have to have some confidence in their judgment once they get there.  So you want to know what they stand for, broadly speaking, what their ideals are.  But you also want to know they can actually make things happen once they’re in.

Two candidates are gearing up to run for State Representative of the 2nd District in the Illinois General Assembly – that’s the seat that represents most of greater Bridgeport, from Pilsen and Chinatown to Back of the Yards, McKinley Park and much of Brighton Park.  Right now, the State Representative for the 2nd District is Edward Acevedo, long time Democratic party loyalist and an assistant majority leader to Michael Madigan.  He isn’t running for re-election, instead his 29 year old son, Alex Acevedo, is running for the seat.

The younger Acevedo doesn’t have much of a resume yet.  When he first announced his intentions in June, Sun Times columnist Dan Mihalopoulos suggested his candidacy stands for “the time honored tradition of dynastic politics.”  In years past, that might have been enough – the son of a powerful party man could be counted on to stand for the party agenda, and he could use his connections to grease wheels and play his part in getting things done.

But today, as politicians struggle to get their arms around budget and pension issues their old school predecessors managed mainly to kick down the road, the younger Acevedo’s fate at the polls may also represent real change.  This week Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz says Acevedo would have resigned and appointed his son to side step an election, but Party Committeeman John Daley said no.  Hinz guesses Commissioner Daley decided to give the district’s changing demographic a fair chance to express itself in an election. The 2nd District was re-drawn in 2011, uniting Chinese voters previously divided into 4 districts into one “Latino-Asian coalition district.” Now the district is just over half Latino, and roughly equal parts Asian and White.

On August 24th, our McKinley Park neighbor Theresa Mah will launch her campaign for State Rep for the 2nd District from the Zhou B. Art Center in Bridgeport.  She has a strong resume of public service in a wide range of capacities, and a consistent record of legislative and policy change.  Judging by her achievements, Mah stands for giving voice to everyday people, and for building up the roadways to the American Dream.

Candidate Mah at Fiesta Del Sol in Pilsen
with Pastor Tom Gaulke and Vicar Toby Chow from First Trinity Church

It’s a consistent theme in her life and career.  It traces back to family stories she heard about her grandfather, a Chinese immigrant to the West Coast in the 1920s, and his struggles under discriminatory policies and low wage jobs.  People like her grandfather – first generation immigrants and laborers of all kinds -- have been integral to the building of this country, yet their labor is still ignored and dismissed. “Their stories aren’t told,” Mah says. Initially, she wanted to correct that as a history teacher.  She taught her students how to think critically about the role of the voiceless in building our society.

As a historian, she’s equally convinced of the profound impact that policy can play in people’s lives.  She wrote her dissertation on housing segregation, where government policies like redlining had devastating effects.  But policy can have equally powerful positive effects – think of the way that defining collective bargaining rights helped build the American middle class.

When Mah moved into a role as a policy advocate, she says giving voice to everyday people has been the connecting thread.  She worked as a policy consultant for the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, and later as a Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Quinn.  In these roles she worked on immigrant issues, but especially on policies that helped them reach for the American Promise.  Smoothing out hurdles to licensing of cosmetologists makes them less vulnerable to exploitation, and doing the same for engineers makes it easier for them to stay and apply their skills toward the Illinois economy.

She helped bring a badly needed a new library Chinatown.  Mah says libraries are an especially important point of cultural access for immigrant communities – the former Chinatown library was so undersized and heavily used that patrons would regularly find places to sit on the floor.

And the avenues that give immigrants access to the best promises of American society are the same ones that are essential to the working population at large. Mah is serving her second term on the Local School Council for Thomas Kelly High School.  In a time when the Chicago Public Schools are regular targets for cuts, Mah says Kelly shows what public schools can achieve: "It should be an example of a high achieving school in a lower income district.”

With the Crosstown Coalition working for a 31st Street Bus
Mah has been an active participant in the Bridgeport Alliance which made the bus one of its central campaigns

As a candidate, Mah can boast not just about what she stands for, but about her practical skills for working with all kinds of people, building coalitions, and finding the levers of state government to realize goals.  She says the Chinese Coalition averaged a piece of legislation a year while she worked with them.  She sums up her job in the Governor's Office as "problem solving." She took full advantage of the opportunity to talk to as many people as possible while she was there.  She learned what her colleagues were doing, what their agencies are responsible for, so for any given problem she could navigate a logical pathway from point A to point B. 

Today, as Mah knocks on doors to talk to people about her campaign, she’s been surprised how many people don’t know who their current State Rep is, even when they live within blocks from his office.  She says a big part of the conversations are about what the job of the State Representative actually is, and she brings it up as a lesson in the importance of keeping in touch with voters after the election so they know what their Representative is doing.

When the Sun Times’ Mihalopoulos wrote about the younger Acevedo’s campaign back in June , he remarked that political dynasties have been faltering.  He pointed out State Rep Will Guzzardi successful campaign against Joe Berrios’ daughter on the northwest side as one example, but he sounded unsure whether the southwest side is ripe for a similar change.

Theresa Mah is confident that it is.  She’s a veteran of other people’s political campaigns, and she’s assembled a team of advisors and staff, including a manager who led Susan Garza’s Aldermanic victory over a 16 year incumbent.  “It’s a winnable campaign,” Mah says of her run for 2nd District State Rep, “It’ll be won by talking to people.”

Talking to neighbors at a CAPS Smokeout in Hoyne Park
Mah says CAPS meetings are where the most engaged members of the community can be found