BY MEGHAN STREIT
Peter Zelchenko is an outspoken writer and community organizer. Over the years, this Lincoln Park native has held several different jobs, and worked on projects almost too numerous to count. Now he's decided to try his hand in local government by running for alderman in the 43rd Ward.
Windy City Times: You have a really lengthy resume. What is it from your background that you think has most prepared you to be alderman of the 43rd Ward?
Peter Zelchenko: I've been communicating all my life. I'm a third-generation journalist—[with a] newspaper background. Maybe I haven't been full-time at the big newspapers, but I've understood how to do this all my life. Communicating has been second nature to me all my life. And the fact is that in the 43rd Ward, we don't communicate, which is what has gotten us into a lot of trouble.
WCT: In things you've written, you've been outspoken about the problems you see in Chicago government. Can you talk about what you think is wrong with our government.
PZ: We've had problems all my life, and for many generations before that. This is nothing new in Chicago. As I've been doing over many years, people need to speak up. We have very 'namby-pamby' people in office today. If things play out the way they look like they're playing out, we're not going to have very any outspoken aldermen unless we get some replacements in this cycle. The well-funded candidates are getting elected, and these folks are afraid to ruffle any feathers. That's how they got where they are in the first place. The best candidates aren't terribly well-funded, they've never worked for the city, but understand democracy, and these folks have less of a chance of getting elected. This ward is no exception.
Two-thirds of Lincoln Park's population are renters. They're not 'McMansion' owners, which is what most people think everyone here is. We've got low-income housing. We have African Americans throughout the ward. It's a very heterogeneous ward, and technically not being served by the city powers.
I've got some ideas about education that are very iconoclastic for someone who would be serving in the 43rd Ward. I'm saying the city schools are doing very poorly, overall. It's important for the 43rd Ward alderman to set an example and claim a leadership role in coaxing residents of these wards to exercise charity. Let's adopt these other schools in the city. We're doing fine here, now let's improve the entire school system. We've had 17 years of Richard M. Daley in charge of the school system, and it's been a real problem.
WCT: A lot of people with good intentions get elected, and then do the things they said they'd do.
PZ: Exactly. You've got four years, and most of the electorate isn't really awake anyway, and the newspapers aren't really covering it. It's really easy to fall off the wagon. You can't just have good intentions, you also have to have commitment to carry it out.
That's going to my main activity for the first few months, establishing a ward assembly, and the assembly is going to have veto power over me. I am going to communicate with the ward through a spin free publication that is journalistically neutral.
WCT: So you advocate for the press as the fourth branch of democracy?
PZ: Oh, yes. The Sun-Times is pretty outspoken, but all of the real issues are drowning in the pop culture. The Tribune fails to even report. That's why the alderman needs to be the voice of last resort because in many areas, there are no good publications. So I've got to got to do it, and I can do it.
WCT: Do you think people would get more involved if they had the information?
PZ: It depends on how you spin it. Most politicians are out there to say everything is wonderful, and when you say things like that, of course it lulls people into a sense of complacency. My publication is going to be provocative. It's going to say, 'This is what the alderman wants to do...Here are the pros and the cons. What do you think?'
WCT: One issue that remains really important in the national debate is same-sex marriage. What are your thoughts on that issue?
PZ: It is technically more in the state's jurisdiction, and yet the leaders of our city have direct access, and are on a first-name basis, with legislators at the state level—and they could even pass resolutions and debate things on the city level. It would be very interesting to see what every ward in the city thinks about gay marriage. I happen to be in support of it. I would not foist that opinion on my constituency; this is where we come into my position as a leader. I think that a good statement needs to debate...just to start the ball rolling and possibly even to coax the constituency.
WCT: Another issue that is important to the LGBT community, as well as to the African-American and Latino communities is funding for HIV prevention and treatment. What do you think the city could do to improve that?
PZ: There are a lot of groups competing for social funding. This is something that we obviously need to increase. It's going to be a huge wrestling match. Again, with the lakefront wards being the most affluent, need to take the lead. Even if we don't have the most HIV-affected populations. If we're affluent and part of the leisure class, we owe it to the public to bring it up, and we should definitely go to the mayor and push for budgets to expand that sort of coverage.