With less than a week until the March primary election, eyes are peeled on the 39th District state representative race that pits politically-connected incumbent State Rep. Maria "Toni" Berrios (D-Chicago) against community organizer and former Huffington Post reporter Will Guzzardi. Progress Illinois takes a look at the contest, which has been called possibly the "most important state legislative race in Illinois in the primary."
With less than a week until the March primary election, eyes are peeled on the 39th District state representative race that pits politically-connected incumbent State Rep. Maria "Toni" Berrios (D-Chicago) against community organizer and writer Will Guzzardi.
This is Guzzardi's second primary election challenge against Berrios, whose father is powerful Cook County assessor and county Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios.
Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman, said the 39th District contest is possibly the "most important state legislative race in Illinois in the primary."
"It indicates the weakening of the political machines, the [former Chicago Ald. Dick] Mell and Berrios machines on the Northwest Side of Chicago," Simpson noted. "Already, a number of independent aldermen have been elected in the area, and it would be a major step forward if Guzzardi were to win."
Berrios, who has held her state rep office since 2003, is Puerto Rican and represents a majority Latino district on Chicago's Northwest Side that covers parts of Belmont Cragin, Humboldt Park, Logan Square and Portage Park.
Guzzardi, a former Huffington Post reporter, currently works as Head Writer for the Office of College Admissions at the University of Chicago and is a community organizer in Logan Square. Guzzardi first moved to Logan Square in 2009 after graduating college from Brown University.
Back in 2012, Guzzardi lost the primary election against Berrios by only 125 total votes. Prior to the 2012 race, Berrios had mostly sailed easily to her re-election victories.
This time around, we can expect another nail biter.
"Guzzardi has a good chance, but because it is close, it's impossible to predict accurately," Simpson said of the Berrios-Guzzardi rematch. "It will turn on a few hundred votes."
Public education is one of the top issues in the 39th District race.
If elected, Guzzardi said he will work to make sure the state has quality neighborhood public schools that provide a good education for all students. Guzzardi said he differs with Berrios on certain public education policies.
"My opponent has been a big proponent of charter schools," he said. "She’s been a big proponent of vouchers, which would divert public money into private schools and defund our neighborhood public schools in a very dangerous way."
Calls to Berrios' campaign were not returned.
But when it comes to education-related legislation, Berrios did introduce a bill back in January, HB 2410, that would allow Chicago tax increment financing (TIF) surplus funds to be sent to the cash-strapped school district. She also co-sponsored legislation, HB 3283, that would have imposed a moratorium on Chicago school closings.
She also reportedly wants to see a moratorium put in place to halt new charter schools from setting up shop in the state, although in the past she voted for an unsuccessful measure, HB 4277, that would have ramped up charter school funding. Additionally, Berrios' "Issues" page on her website states that she has "fought for many after school programs and for better wages for teachers."
On other matters, Berrios filed state legislation earlier this month, HB 4420, that would require employers with at least 20 employees to provide paid sick time to their workers. A similar ordinance was also introduced in the Chicago City Council this month.
Meanwhile, Berrios has signed on to pending state legislation that would raise Illinois' minimum wage. And in December, Berrios voted against the controversial pension overhaul passed by the state legislature in December.
But these latest, more progressive efforts by Berrios are nothing more than "lip service," Guzzardi argued.
"At the end of the day, even in the past couple years, she's voted consistently against the interests of our community and what you might term progressive values," he stressed. "She voted to help enable the school closings. When (Chicago Public Schools) needed an extension, additional time to close our schools, she voted to help make that happen. And she voted consistently on the wrong side of the pension reform issue until the very end, when there was this contested race and the speaker had the votes he needed, and she flipped her vote to try to pay some sort of lip service to being a progressive."
According to a news release from Berrios' camp, the representative's legislative priorities include "protecting our neighborhoods from dangerous predators, increasing the minimum wage, and giving tax breaks to middle-class families while making the highest earners pay their fair share."
Guzzardi said he supports a graduated state income tax system, which would apply higher rates to larger incomes and lower rates to smaller incomes, and an end to corporate tax loopholes. He called out Berrios for being a "big proponent of these huge corporate tax breaks."
"My opponent has been in office for 12 years, and she has been answering to the folks who got her there — to the political interests, and the corporate interests and the special interest groups — and she has not been responding to the needs of our community," he said. "I am going to be elected by a grassroots organization of neighbors and volunteers who are working for this campaign and who believe in better representation. At the end of the day, when push comes to shove on the really tough decisions, I'm going to be accountable to those folks ... from the neighborhood."
Simpson weighed in about Berrios' voting record in Springfield, noting that she has mostly been a "rubber stamp" for House Speaker Madigan (D-Chicago) and the Democratic Party.
"She hasn’t distinguished herself with major legislation or been a major leader on any legislation that I know about," Simpson said. "But rhetorically, she is trying to counter the fact that Guzzardi is a true reformer and progressive."
"Mudslinging" in the 39th District race
The 39th District contest has turned dirty in recent months, with Berrios' camp sending out mailers in the area that, among other things, claim Guzzardi backs loose restrictions on sex offenders. Guzzardi said the ads are "just patently untrue" and are based on a few words taken out of context from an editorial he penned for his college newspaper.
"My opponent knows it's not true," Guzzardi stressed. "She and I have been in the same room, and she's heard me say that I have no intention of weakening the sex offender registry laws in any way. I've never advocated for doing that before, and it does not in any way represent my plans as a state representative."
Simpson noted that, unfortunately, attack ads usually do work.
"They always have an impact," he said. "That’s why they’re used ... and these have been particularly vicious."
Guzzardi, however, said the "mudslinging" from Berrios' camp has been met with backlash from voters in the district.
"I'm not concerned about how it's going to affect our chances, but I am disappointed about what kind of conversation my opponent is trying to have with our community," he added.
Groups like the Chicago Teachers Union, Democracy for America, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers back Guzzardi. Some other labor organizations in support of the 26 year-old candidate include SEIU* Healthcare Illinois-Indiana and the Fraternal Police Lodge Local 7.
Guzzardi also has the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, which is unusual for a progressive, because the newspaper tends to lean more conservative, Simpson explained.
Chicago Alds. Joe Moreno (1st), Scott Waguespack (32nd) and John Arena (45th) are some of the elected officials throwing their weight behind the community organizer, who has been in the streets fighting against school closings and gathering support for an elected Chicago school board.
"In the case of the 39th district, it sends a clear signal when we can turn this seat over in a couple of days that the Berrios reign needs to end, and it needs to end sooner rather than later," Arena told Progress Illinois. "We need to move on so that the Democratic Party can get back to doing the good work that it has a history of doing, and that’s why I'm fighting for Will."
For her part, Berrios has garnered endorsements from the Illinois AFL-CIO, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as well as her father, who says his daughter has "always been a progressive" and has been a leader on marriage equality and tax and union issues. Other groups in support of Berrios include Personal PAC, an Illinois pro-choice organization, and Equality Illinois PAC, which works to advance LGBT rights.
Chicago Alds. Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward), Ray Suarez (31st Ward) and Timothy Cullerton (38th Ward) as well as the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois also back the sitting state rep.
"The Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois are proud to support Toni Berrios for state representative because she supports firefighters," Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, said in a news release. "We need a representative who will continue to stand up for all of the working men and women in her district."
At the end of the fourth quarter, Berrios had $156,778 in her political campaign fund, while Guzzardi had $40,307 in the bank. Also important to note, Joe Berrios' 31st Ward Committeeman fund reported having $513,558 in the bank at the close of the fourth quarter, which ended December 31, and his "Committee to Elect Joseph Berrios Assessor" had $551,418.
Since the last quarterly report was filed, the "Citizens for Maria A. Berrios" committee has pulled in notable donations from two political funds steered by House Speaker Madigan — Friends of Michael J. Madigan and the Democratic Majority fund, according to records available at the Illinois State Board of Elections website. Berrios has also raked in contributions from groups like the Illinois Pipe Trades PAC and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce PAC, to name just a few.
Guzzardi's political fund has since seen contributions from groups like AFSCME Illinois Council 31 PAC, the Illinois Federation of Teachers COPE, and the Illinois Political Action Committee for Education, among many others.
Guzzardi said he is not concerned about Berrios' campaign cash.
"We knew what kind of resources we needed to muster to run the campaign that we needed to run, and we've gone above and beyond that," he stressed. "We have more than the resources we need to win the race."
There are no Republicans running in the 39th district. Be sure to check back with Progress Illinois on March 18 for our coverage of the 39th District primary election.
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