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Has challenger Will Guzzardi made northwest-side state rep Toni Berrios more progressive?

In the 39th District statehouse race, it's better left than never.

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All right, everybody—time for a political quiz! For ten trivia points and a bucket of fried chicken at the restaurant of my choosing, who's the most progressive-voting Democrat in the General Assembly?

If you answered with the name of someone from the so-called liberal north lakefront, you're hopelessly locked in a distant past that probably never existed.

But if you said Toni Berrios, the state representative for the 39th District on the northwest side, you win the chicken. Of course, there's a caveat which may allow me to keep a few of those wings for myself.

I think most of us can agree that the main reason Representative Berrios has been standing up against pension cuts, charter school expansion, and Mayor Emanuel's school-closing binge is because of Will Guzzardi, her opponent in the March 18 Democratic primary.

Toni Berrios is the daughter—and the pride and joy—of Cook County Democratic chairman Joe Berrios, who also happens to be county assessor.

Papa Joe, as he's widely known, has been beating the crap out of progressives and lefties on the northwest side since he was wearing bell bottoms and dancing to disco back in the 1970s.

C'mon, Joe—night fever, night fever, we know how to show it . . .

In contrast, Guzzardi is a 26-year-old writer who grew up in North Carolina and moved to Logan Square in 2009, shortly after he graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature.

Within two years of moving to Chicago, he decided to run against Toni Berrios because—well, why not? Ah, the audacity of youth.

Actually, it wasn't hard to imagine that he could at least give her a good run. The district covers parts of Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Belmont Cragin, and Portage Park, and the Logan Square precincts in particular are flooded with hipsters of Guzzardi's generation.

In addition, the Berrios family—like the Strogers, Daleys, Madigans, and Mells—has become a symbol of Democratic legacy politics that some voters find so offensive, even as other voters continually vote for the legacies.

Plus, there's always a rabble of old lefties and malcontents looking for a fight against the Berrios machine.

For better or worse, Guzzardi speaks their language. "Chicago politics is corrupt and broken," he says. "Our state's priorities aren't the same as the neighborhoods'. My opponent's part and parcel of that."

In the 2012 primary he came within 125 votes of winning. It was so close that he demanded a recount.

"The recount was straight out of The Matrix," he says. "It was held at this big warehouse on Pershing Road. You go into this tiny little room that leads into this tiny little elevator that opens onto this tiny little door, and when you open that door you step into an enormous warehouse with crates that are filled with ballots from various elections.

"We went through the ballots one by one, but in the end it wasn't going to affect the outcome. So I called her office to concede."

He did not, however, give up on his idea of becoming a state legislator, even though some of Berrios's allies tried to talk him out of challenging her again.

"It was suggested to me that I may consider running for alderman," Guzzardi says.

He won't say who made the suggestion, except to describe them as "various folks associated with the establishment."

He didn't hear from Chairman Berrios. "The only time I met the assessor was at the [Democratic] slating meeting for this race. I made my case to the committeemen. I said, 'We can have a really difficult and costly primary where we distract ourselves. Or you can be for party unity and drop Representative Berrios and endorse me.'"

Obviously, that pitch didn't go over well. The Democratic committeemen, following Chairman Berrios's lead, endorsed his daughter.

Still, Guzzardi says, "I felt we had momentum coming out of the last race and I owed it to my supporters to try again."

Representative Berrios wasn't about to make it easy for him. She moved to the left.

She signed on to a bill that would have slapped a moratorium on school closings in Chicago. She stood with the unions and voted against Governor Quinn's pension cuts. She's calling for a moratorium on opening new charter schools—which she had previously voted to expand.

And believe it or not, she endorsed a proposal that would automatically return surplus funds in the tax increment financing program to our dead-broke schools, from which the mayor diverted the property tax dollars in the first place.

That's right—Rep Berrios is running as a TIF reformer. Of course, Mayor Rahm Emanuel also says he's for TIF reform. So maybe what Chicago's TIF program really needs is fewer reformers.

Guzzardi says voters shouldn't be fooled. "Obviously, our campaign has forced her to the left," he says. "She voted against the pension reform bill. But that was only having voted for very similar legislation in the past and facing a tough reelection under pressure from organized labor, when the speaker [Michael Madigan] already had the votes he needed to win."

I phoned Representative Berrios for comment, but she didn't return my call.

Her father, however, tells me: "She's always been a progressive." He also notes that she's been endorsed by Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle and state rep Sara Feigenholtz.

Toni Preckwinkle with Cook County Democratic chairman Joe Berrios - RICH HEIN | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Rich Hein | Chicago Sun-Times
  • Toni Preckwinkle with Cook County Democratic chairman Joe Berrios

"She's always been good on teachers' issues," the chairman adds. "You have to remember—her mother is a schoolteacher. Well, she's retired now. But Toni was brought up to understand that education is important."

In fact, Rep Berrios believes that charter schools—which are notoriously cheap with salaries—should offer the same pay as regular public schools, says her father. "It should be equal pay for equal work."

Right on, Joe! Maybe you should run for mayor.

What about Guzzardi's accusation that his daughter is only voting progressive because he's running against her from the left? "Guzzardi likes to talk about what he's done—'I did this, I did that,'" Chairman Berrios says. "But he hasn't done anything."

With all due respect, Chairman, we sort of disagree.

I think that some version of what's going on in the 39th is happening in almost every Chicago legislative district where the voters are more liberal than the politicians they elect.

For example, in the 26th District on the south side, challenger Jay Travis has forced incumbent state rep Christian Mitchell to move closer to almost taking a stand against school closings—now that the mayor has closed 50 of them.

When it's not election season, Chicago Democratic legislators get away with voting like Republicans because city voters are often clueless.

In any event, I'd like to give Guzzardi credit for moving Rep Berrios a step or two to the left. If he loses, I say we dispatch him—or at least lefties like him—to run in every district in town.

Why should Toni Berrios be the only Democrat who votes like one?

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