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Mundo Hoy Profile: Alderman Gilbert Villegas

New floor leader says city has ‘accidentally’ attracted tech jobs; an actual plan will help

By Megan Neary, January 20, 2020 8:26 am

Semper Fi: As Floor Leader and Chair of the Latino Caucus, Alderman Gilbert Villegas brings skills learned in the USMC to the City Council. (Photo: Megan Neary)

“I’m excited that I’m working in the floor leader capacity and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the city council and the mayor to make Chicago successful,” declared Alderman Gilbert Villegas in an interview with Chicago Mundo Hoy. Villegas, who represents the 36th Ward, told the site, “Floor leader has been an interesting position just because of the fact that I’ve gotten to interact with my colleagues a lot more.”  He added that the position has given him the opportunity to learn more about the “subtleties of the issues facing each unique ward” and has provided a chance, with his colleagues, to “work together to address those issues.”

When asked how he felt the position was going so far, he stood up, saying, “I gotta knock on wood.” After knocking on the doorframe, Villegas smiled and said “So far I haven’t lost a vote,” adding, “so far I think I’ve been doing an okay job.”

They say “there’s no such thing as a ‘former’ Marine” and Villegas, who served during both Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, reflects that quiet confidence. Villegas took office in May 2015, when then-Alderman Nick Sposato was redistricted into the 38th Ward. In Villegas, the new 36th, consisting of the Belmont-Cragin, Galewood, Hermosa, Humboldt Park, Montclare and Portage Park neighborhoods, got a representative with a long history of advocacy on matters of importance to the Latino community.

Villegas oversaw Government Affairs at the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA), where he  led the lobbying efforts in Springfield to pass SB351 and SB3249, ensuring minority and women owned businesses have a principal opportunity to participate on state-funded projects. Alderman Villegas helped create the Minority Contractor Training Program, which he claimed has “trained over 300 businesses that sought to perform on federally and state funded infrastructure projects.”

Before HACIA, Villegas served as the Deputy Director of the Office of Business and Workforce Diversity at the Illinois Department of Transportation, where he sought to strengthen minority access to participation in the state’s $2.2 billion infrastructure program.

So it’s little wonder that as Alderman, Villegas has introduced and passed legislation to provide opportunities for Minority, Women and Veteran Owned businesses. That includes leading the effort to include an Oversight Commission on hiring practices for the $8.5 billion O’Hare modernization plan.

In addition to leading the floor, Villegas chairs the Economic, Capital, and Technology Development Committee, is Vice Chair of Committees and Rules, and sits on the Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards, Budget and Government Operations, Contracting Oversight and Equality, License and Consumer Protection, Workforce Development, Aviation, and Finance Committees. He also chairs both the Latino and Veteran Caucuses.

As chair of the Economic, Capital, and Technology Development committee, Villegas said he will focus on creating economic development opportunities, making sure capital is expended efficiently, and encouraging innovation, modernization, diversity and inclusion. He intends to “leverage technology to create efficiencies but also to create opportunity.” He will also “focus on recruitment of IT firms and take a look at assisting those IT firms that are here.” He said Chicago has managed to attract several IT firms “on accident” and, with a plan in place, could attract more, which could advance the mayor’s goal of growing the population. Villegas said, due to the many development opportunities in the South West Neighborhoods, he’s “not concerned really about the price of real estate going up like San Francisco.”

Villegas is also dedicated to providing his constituents with the services they need. For example, once a quarter, Villegas offers a free legal advice clinic in his office during which a volunteer attorney is available to review wills and legal documents and give advice on small legal cases. “Sometimes getting legal advice can be costly,” he observed, and he saw pro bono advice “as a need,” adding, “the response has been pretty good.”

Villegas also takes an active role in enhancing the education opportunities offered at the schools in his ward. For example, at Steinmetz College Prep, he has worked with Robert Morris University to implement a dual-credit program. Steinmetz was recently awarded a $100,000 literacy grant from Chance the Rapper, who Villegas said “the kids in high school really look up to.”

With the Census approaching, Villegas stressed the importance of “educating people of the importance of it and explaining to them that for each person that’s counted there’s federal dollars attached to it.” He acknowledged that the much-debated “citizenship question” — which the Trump Administration had originally intended to include on the once-a-decade survey until being been prevented from doing so by the Supreme Court — may cause uncertainty. Still, said Villegas, people “shouldn’t be afraid to be counted and they shouldn’t be afraid of their government.”

Villegas is committed to the economic development of the city, particularly the neighborhoods, and believes that uncertainty over how company taxes will be assessed, with Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s initial assessments shifting much of the tax burden from homeowners to businesses, has made “investors a little bearish of investing in Chicago at all, let alone in the neighborhoods.” However, he believes 6B and Class L tax incentives or the designation of TIF districts and the use of neighborhood opportunity funds can be used to attract businesses to neighborhoods and “the multiplier on that investment is just worth it.” “Unfortunately, Villegas said, “the department of planning just doesn’t have a sense of urgency and time kills deals.” He said if the city can’t be “quick and nimble” “we’re gonna be on the outside looking in.”

Megan Neary

A graduate of Ohio State University, Megan Neary is an experienced journalist who has written for many Midwestern publications, including the Record-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @MeganNeary2.
Megan Neary

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