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ELECTIONS 2019, 44TH WARD. Austin Baidas on challenging Tunney for council seat
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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Lake View Austin Baidas is attempting to do something few have tried over the past 15 years: unseat Tom Tunney as 44th Ward alderman.

Baidas—who, like Tunney is openly gay—has been known for his philanthropic work ( sitting on the boards of Center on Halsted and Howard Brown Health ) as well as having positions within the administrations of former Gov. Pat Quinn and President Barack Obama.

He recently talked with Windy City Times about qualifications, term limits and the Ricketts family—with whom people have tried establishing a connection.

Windy City Times: How visible do you feel your campaign is? I feel that I see a lot more signs for the incumbent in this neighborhood.

Austin Baidas: We have opened a campaign office at 3127 N. Broadway, so we have street visibility there. We have a strong presence on social media. Also, we're out canvassing the neighborhood, talking to people—getting up at 7 a.m. talking the residents, and they're absolutely wonderful. People want to have conversations about the government.

WCT: This ward is known as one of the most progressive in the city. What else do you feel can be done to help the LGBT community here?

AB: We need an alderman who represents those progressive values. I've been running on family and medical leave, a $15 minimum wage and ending TIF districts so we're not diverting funds away from the services that people care about.

WCT: You actually supported the incumbent—for a while, at least; until 2015, you donated to Citizens for Tunney. What do you feel he's doing wrong now?

AB: When he was appointed alderman in 2002, it was a big step forward for the gay community. We had representation on city council; I respect that, and that's an important piece of our history.

Now it's time to move forward, and this is our opportunity with a new mayor. We can change things; we can fight corruption and insider deals, and we can actually have a government that represents the city we want.

WCT: Do you favor term limits for alderpersons?

AB: Yes—and I think we should change the name from "aldermen" to "alderpersons," by the way. [Smiles] I think they should be limited to two terms in office, and we should have fresh ideas in city council. There are a lot of smart people in the city; we should have a democracy here. We shouldn't have career politicians.

WCT: Should city council be reduced from 50 alderpersons?

AB: So, I think the important thing is that neighbors have an alderman who's representative of them. I think that, for democracy to work, someone has to be able to have conversations with people in the neighborhood. So it's important for us in Lake View to have a voice in city council.

Aldermen currently represent about 55,000 people each. Can they represent, say, 80,000 people? That's very possible—but representing, say, 500,000 people could prevent neighbors' individual voices from being heard at city council.

WCT: So the number could be reduced?

AB: Chicago has a large city government. The districts should be a size that residents can still have relationships with their aldermen. I'm fine with 50, but I'm also fine with discussions about reducing the size of city council.

WCT: There have been a lot of discussions about the Ricketts family—that they're backing you. Are they backing you or will they back you?

AB: I have not been endorsed by the Ricketts. I have not accepted any money from the Ricketts, nor will accept any money from the Ricketts. More importantly, I have no business interests with the Ricketts. I am running for alderman solely to be the representative of the residents of Lake View. I've also taken a pledge not to accept corporate donations or donations from PACs—or donations from right-wing billionaires. [Editor's note: A list of Baidas' donors can be found at]

WCT: Please talk a little about what you've done for the LGBT community.

AB: [Laughs] I'll end up talking a lot about what I've done.

I started my career in the business community. During the great recession in 2008, I saw a number of my friends get hit hard, and that drove me to work in government. I went to work for Barack Obama at the Department of Transportation, and I also worked a couple different jobs with the State of Illinois, including being associate budget director.

When I first got involved in government, it was to do practical things—find deficiencies, save money, make the government run better—but I was also able to see the power of the government to change lives. In 2013, I was the highest-ranking openly gay member of the governor's office, and I got to work with an incredible team of activists to help pass marriage equality. Seven months after we passed marriage equality, my uncles—who just celebrated their 35th anniversary together—came to Chicago to get married. It was incredibly powerful to see family members who called my uncle's partner his "roommate" come together to support, recognize and celebrate their relationship.

Directly in the community, I've participated in AIDS Rides, and I spent eight years on the board of directors at Center on Halsted—and one accomplishment was building the LGBT senior apartments, thanks to a grant from the State of Illinois that we were able to secure.

I also have served on the board of directors of Howard Brown Health, and that's an amazing organization that provides healthcare to over 30,000 residents. The key thing with Howard Brown Health is that it's culturally competent healthcare. LGBT people can feel comfortable talking with their doctors about issues important to them.

One of my current frustrations with the alderman is that he voted for the $5.6-million tax break for Presence Health [Illinois' largest Catholic health system], which follows strict religious doctrine. So a rape victim taken to their emergency room will not be given emergency contraception, and they don't offer abortion care, stem-cell research or in vitro fertilization. Howard Brown is fighting every day to make sure there's LGBT-competent healthcare in Chicago, and when you're voting to give a tax break to an organization that doesn't follow our values, I think that's wrong.

WCT: What do you feel are your greatest strength in this race and your biggest weakness?

AB: So I think this is a chance for Chicago to get the government we want, with a new mayor coming in and new city council members—to get a government that represents our community. It's time for Chicagoans to say "enough is enough." Our greatest strength is that we can change the city.

My biggest weakness is that this is my first time running for political office. I'm not a career politician or a polished speaker—I'm Austin. What you see is what you get.

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