PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday February 23rd, 2016, 5:25pm

Candidates In 2nd Senate District Clash On Charter Schools, Progressive Credentials

Progress Illinois previews the Democratic primary race between Angelica Alfaro and Omar Aquino, who are competing for the Illinois Senate seat being vacated by retiring state Sen. William Delgado (D-Chicago).

Democratic candidates running for Illinois Senate in the 2nd legislative district are sparring over their progressive credentials, political affiliations and positions on charter schools. 

Angelica Alfaro and Omar Aquino are competing in the Democratic primary to replace retiring state Sen. William Delgado (D-Chicago), who has represented the majority-Hispanic 2nd district on Chicago's Northwest Side since 2006. The 2nd Senate district covers the Chicago neighborhoods of Belmont Cragin, Hermosa, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Montclare and West Town as well as the suburb of Elmwood Park.

Aquino, 28, a former employee of U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D, IL-8), ran for alderman in Chicago's 36th Ward last year. Aquino, a Belmont Cragin resident, lost to Gilbert Villegas in the April aldermanic runoff.

Humboldt Park native Alfaro, 30, worked as an advocacy manager at the Noble Network of Charter Schools before taking an unpaid leave of absence to launch her Illinois senatorial campaign. On her campaign website, Alfaro describes herself as a "community advocate," who has "mentored hundreds of local students to get on the path to and through college."

Delgado has endorsed Aquino, as have other elected officials including Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Chicago Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th) and state Rep. Will Guzzardi (39th). The Chicago Teachers Union, Grassroots Illinois Action and the SEIU* Illinois Council are among the organized groups that back Aquino.

Alfaro has earned endorsements from Chicago Alds. Joe Moreno (1st), Brian Hopkins (2nd), Will Burns (4th), George Cardenas (12th) and Danny Solis (25th). Pro-charter school groups Stand for Children IL PAC and INCS Action PAC also support Alfaro.

Both candidates have each been endorsed by the Equality Illinois PAC and Planned Parenthood Illinois Action.

Aquino and Alfaro both claim to be progressive.

Aquino has sought to cast himself as the real progressive in the race and the only candidate with experience working in government.

"I've dedicated my life to public service," said Aquino, whose first job out of college was as a case manager for the state's Community Care Program, which connects low-income seniors with personal attendants who can assist them in their homes.

He has labeled Alfaro as a "Rauner Democrat," pointing to her financial support from organizations and wealthy individuals aligned with the state's Republican governor, including the nationwide education reform group Stand for Children. Before becoming governor, Bruce Rauner was instrumental in the 2010 launch of Stand for Children's Illinois state chapter.

Wealthy Rauner ally James Crown and former Exelon Corporation CEO John Rowe, a Noble board member who served on the governor's gubernatorial exploratory committee, are among Alfaro's top donors.

"I think it's kind of laughable to call yourself a progressive when ... you receive money from people that are allies with the governor," Aquino said, adding that, "They're the reason why we have a governor right now that has waged war on working-class families."

Alfaro said she is also receiving campaign contributions from community members, who "know that I would represent them" if elected to the Senate.

"I'll be beholden to them, and I will represent them in Springfield," she added.

Alfaro accused Aquino of being "backed by the political machine."

"He's being backed by Joe Berrios, and I'm a lifelong Democrat, not a lifelong politician," she said. "And that's really what sets us apart ... This is a grassroots campaign that I'm running, which is not what I'm seeing from my opponent."

Berrios is the Cook County Assessor and Democratic Party chairman. Aquino worked as a legislative aide to Berrios' daughter, Toni, when she served in the Illinois House.

"In terms of trying to say who our associations are with, I think that's a red herring. I think more than anything, Miss Alfaro should sort of look in the mirror and see where her associations are actually coming from and if those people really truly care about the community that we live in," Aquino said, adding that he has "vowed to stand against Governor Rauner's attack on working families, his attack on labor, his attack on working people's rights."

IllinoisGo, an independent expenditure PAC aligned with Rauner, has also been active in the 2nd district race. The PAC's stated mission is to defend Democratic lawmakers who support "difficult, yet responsible, choices our state government needs" against "special interest attacks." It has sent out pro-Alfaro political mail, touting her backstory as a first-generation college graduate and "daughter of Mexican immigrants and proud union workers."

Alfaro played up her family's ties to organized labor, specifically her parents' membership with UNITE HERE Local 1, in an interview with Progress Illinois.

"I think it's really unfortunate that my opponent is trying to paint me as like anti-labor," she said. "The fact that I grew up in a union home, I just want to emphasize what that meant for my family ... The Alfaro family owes a debt of gratitude to organized labor, and I just want to make sure that (is) very clear. And I look forward, if I'm able to be honored to represent the 2nd district, where I was born and raised, ... to working hand-in-hand with organized labor against Rauner's anti-working family agenda. And I plan on being very strong about that."

On education issues, both candidates say they support an elected school board in Chicago. Their positions differ when it comes to charter schools.

Aquino said charter schools "make our education system and our students into commodities."

"That's something that I'm totally against," Aquino said.

He supports a statewide moratorium on charter schools and expressed openness to the idea of curbing the Illinois State Charter School Commission's powers. The commission can overrule local school boards when they reject new charter school proposals.

"I'm certainly not for that commission," he said.

Alfaro didn't take a clear position on the Illinois State Charter School Commission.

"I want to be able to look into that a little more," she said. "I think we need to think more critically. I shouldn't be, 'If it's charter, say no to it. If it's charter, say yes to it.'"

Alfaro said she is an advocate for all schools, not only charters.

"I support all schools, and we need not to pit school types against one another," she said. "We need to put children first. I don't care if it's selective, if it's IB (international baccalaureate), charter, traditional -- the best way to move our city and our state forward is by working together to come up with solutions to help all of our families in our city."

Both candidates are proponents of a $15 minimum wage in Illinois.

"I can't fathom to think that people are working full-time, they have families, they are working more than one job, and they're forced to live in poverty," Alfaro said. "So this is something that's very important to me."

Alfaro, however, would not definitively say whether she would sponsor or cosponsor legislation to increase the state's hourly wage from $8.25 to $15.

"I would definitely be open to it," she explained. "I haven't really spoken to specific bills that I would sponsor or cosponsor."

Aquino, meanwhile, said he would sponsor or cosponsor a $15 minimum wage bill "with no hesitation."

"I know that we need legislation (to) raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour statewide so you don't have counties competing against each other within our state," he said. "We have to be investing in our community members, in our workers, and making sure that they're provided with fair pay."

At the national level, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is the only White House hopeful who supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Democratic rival Hillary Clinton backs a $12 an hour federal minimum wage.

Asked about the presidential race, Aquino said he is leaning toward supporting Sanders over Clinton in the Democratic primary.

"It's great to see a presidential candidate that's trying to stand up for working families, for collective bargaining rights, that wants to have universal health care,"Aquino said of Sanders. "If the election were held today, I'd be voting for Bernie. But there's four weeks to go ... I may change my mind."

Alfaro said she hasn't decided which Democratic presidential candidate to back.

The Illinois primary election is March 15. There are no Republicans running for the Illinois Senate's 2nd district seat.

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association is hosting a forum with the 2nd Senate district candidates this Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. The forum will be held at McAuliffe Elementary School, 1841 N. Springfield Ave.

*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.

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