Miguel del Valle on Occupy Chicago: ‘This is What Democracy Looks Like’
"If Occupy Wall Street has taught us anything, it‘s that when people decide to move and move quickly and together, that things happen, good things can happen," says Miguel del Valle.
Former City Clerk Miguel del Valle, 60, came in a distant third in the mayor’s race early this year, but during his campaign he tapped into a progressive vein, championing for “world-class neighborhoods” and gaining a cadre of young supporters. Last Saturday, he and political strategist Delmarie Cobb hosted the first of several forums titled Will the Real Progressives Please Stand Up! Some 250 people showed up at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner City Studies on the South Side for the event, moderated by ABC 7 News’ Charles Thomas.
I caught up with del Valle by telephone earlier this week. He insists that he has no plans to run for office—“I wouldn’t rule anything out, but it’s not likely”—and says that he and his wife, Lupe, parents of four grown children, live off his pension in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood while he volunteers full-timemostly in the area of improving public education. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation, including his thoughts on Rahm, Barack, and Occupy Chicago.
CF: You told me after the election that you wanted to put your attention on “organizing around progressive issues in the neighborhoods.” You say now that the biggest neighborhood issue is education. Any progress?
MdV: Over the years [there have been] so many educational reforms and minimal improvement. The only constant that I could think of that is really making things stay the same in spite of all that activity is poverty out in the neighborhoods, in the communities where the underperforming schools are. If you don’t deal with those human conditions, then you’re never going to get the kind of achievement levels that we’re capable of getting. It’s not about intelligence; it’s about safety concerns, nutritional concerns, kids being left without fathers because they end up in jail. We’ll keep changing superintendents and we’ll keep trying and we’ll keep creating academic options, and we’ll see improvements here and there, but the real long-lasting positive effects won’t happen unless we’re also dealing the neighborhoods.
CF: Is Mayor Emanuel paying attention to the neighborhoods?
MdV: It’s still too early to tell. We’ll see what the impact of this budget is. Just this Saturday I talked to some folks who work for the library who are concerned about the reduction of hours there. Then there’s the closing of the mental health centers. I’ve seen no indication in his budget that resources will be dedicated to doing the kind of work and organizing that needs to happen in those neighborhoods. You’ve got to have people knocking on doors. And you’ve got to form these block clubs. And you have to deal with basic human needs of people at a local level. You have more transparency [under Emanuel]. You can see better, but you’re seeing the same things that’s always been there. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit he was able to pick right away. Getting rid of credit cards—that’s an easy thing to do, and there’s been a flurry of those, showing movement, but I’m still waiting for the real substance, and I’m hoping it will come. I would not be disappointed if this mayor ended up being a substantive mayor that really effected real change in neighborhoods. If he would to do that, then he should be supported for a second term, but I’ve yet to see that.
CF: Rahm asked you to be on his transition committee. You turned him down. Have you heard anything from him since?
MdV: No. I’ve said “hello” to him at events. That was it, just “hello,” no conversation.
CF: What do you think about Occupy Chicago? Have you stopped by talk to protestors or offer advice?
MdV: No, no, no. You’ve got to make sure to keep this movement pure. You don’t want this movement tainted by politicians. You don’t want this movement co-opted by political parties, Democrats or Republicans. You don’t allow union bureaucrats to come in and co-opt the movement. They can be partners in the process, but it should be kept as pure as possible, because they are what we’ve been waiting for: a grassroots movement.
CF: Does that go for President Obama? He seems to be trying to establish a tie to these Occupy protests.
MdV: I said both parties, didn’t I? When you look at Democrats and Republicans at a national level, and at a local level as well, there isn’t a whole lot of difference. Sure, I’m a Democrat and certainly I have supported Barack Obama and will support Barack Obama again in the next election, but Barack himself is not the answer. If he were, we wouldn’t be in the predicament we’re in. There has to be pressure from the bottom up, even to force Barack to do what in his mind he knows he should be doing but has not done. Barack should have worked hard to establish a jobs program in the first year of his administration, a WPA type of program, a public works program. It was desperately needed, and it needed to have a year-round youth employment component. My own son fits the profile. He moved to New York; he has a master’s in fine arts from the [Rhode Island School of Design]. He can’t find employment, and he has student loans that he has to pay back. He’s 26 years old. I’m not saying he’s part of the [Occupy] movement, but he has been there, he has attended.
CF: If you were mayor, would you have forced protesters out of Grant Park last Saturday night?
MdV: I would have allowed them to camp out—with controls, of course. This is a nonviolent movement, and we have to allow for this expression to occur. My background is in community organizing. We need to become a force. If Occupy Wall Street has taught us anything, it‘s that when people decide to move and move quickly and together, that things happen, good things can happen. Now some people might argue nothing happened yet, but the movement has gotten attention and that can set the stage and help create the climate that hopefully will lead to change. Maybe that change is getting more progressive types elected to office. Maybe it means doing something similar to what the Tea Party did when in the last election they practically took over the House of Representatives. But it shouldn’t only revolve around electoral politics. There has to be grassroots organizing at the neighborhood level around issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis.
CF: Had the protesters been in Humboldt Park, say, as opposed to Grant Park, would the mayor and/or the police superintendent have called in the police?
MdV: Grant Park, off of Michigan Avenue, yeah sure, of course that had something to do with the police action. I’d welcome [the protesters] in Humboldt Park. They’ve indicated that they’re going to find a park, so hopefully they will.
CF: There’s lots of attention, particularly on Fox News, on posters and signs with extreme messages, anti-Semitic messages.
MdV: When the Tea Party was getting started, someone would say something off the wall. It’s the same thing. This is what democracy looks like.
CF: So what came out of Saturday’s forum?
MdV: We discussed the need for neighborhood organizing and coalition-building. We asked what defines a progressive. To me a progressive is someone who believes in progress for all. We’re not seeing progress for all, so the question is what kinds of policies are going to come out of the city administration to address those issues. If a group of primarily young folks could come together and get the attention of the world, why can’t folks throughout the neighborhoods come together and do the same thing for the city of Chicago?
CF: You have been to Springfield to testify about the redrawing by the Democrats of district lines on the congressional remap. You told me that map is “inadequate.”
MdV: I’m speaking now as a Hispanic. I indicated in that hearing that they needed to make adjustments. On the congressional side, they could have—and should have—created another congressional district with a sizeable Hispanic population; but instead they basically kept Dan Lipinski’s district intact, and that’s where it would have come out of in part. So I think there are about three districts with 20-plus percent Hispanic population. They could have drawn one district, Luis Gutierrez’s 4th at about 65 percent and a second district a little over 40 percent. Hispanics were not treated well.
CF: So then you’re in agreement with the Republicans who have filed suit?
MdV: Yes. I’ve said that we’re the victims of our own success because now you’ve got people in office [he confirms that he means Gutierrez]. and their main concern is protecting their districts rather than fighting to create more opportunities. But I think that the Republican suit is weak in the sense that you don’t have African-Americans or Latinos formally joining in the suit. I don’t anticipate that Republicans will be successful.
CF: What do you think of Gov. Quinn’s stand on the casino bill?
MdV: I agree with the governor that changes are needed. We obviously need a casino in Chicago, but the bill, as written, has too much gambling in it. I’ve said that if I were mayor I’d go for a casino connected to McCormick Place so that the activity would be primarily with tourists. McCormick Place continues to be underutilized. I know that we’re going to put slot machines at racetracks, and the horse racing industry has wanted that for a long time, and I can understand that, but do we have to put slot machines at O’Hare and Midway Airports? Can we make sure that we don’t end up with video poker at every restaurant and bar?
Photography: Chicago Tribune