Former Rambler strives to be in the front of the 2nd Ward pack
In Chicago’s 2nd Ward, Loyola alum Steve Niketopoulos is battling for the lead in a six-person race for the aldermanic seat. The 2nd Ward encompasses a sprawl of neighborhoods including Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park and Streeterville.
Niketopoulos, 36, graduated from Loyola with a degree in cultural anthropology in 2002.
In 2011, the city completely transformed the boundaries of the 2nd Ward. It now reaches across the city in a narrow corridor, encompassing diverse, disconnected groups of voters. Eastern European communities in the Ukrainian Village, the gentrifying streets of Wicker Park and the shopping centers and skyscrapers of Water Tower will all be governed by one alderman. The ward was redrawn in such a way that the home of the current alderman Bob Fioretti was left outside of its boundaries. Fioretti claimed this was done to eliminate him from the 2015 race. He has now chosen to run for mayor, leaving the race without an incumbent and without a clear leader. Six candidates are all in the running, including Niketopoulos, Bita Buenrostro, Brian Hopkins, Alyx S. Pattison, Stacey Pfingsten and Cornell Wilson.
“It’s a very special race,” said Niketopoulos, who is running for alderman for the first time. “The 2nd Ward has 14 different communities. We need a new formula to make sure every one of those communities gets what it needs.”
Currently, Niketopoulos finds himself 3-5 percent out of first place, despite “not throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars” into his campaign as he claims his competitors have done. He says he believes he will pull even in the coming weeks due to the popularity of a highly unusual campaign music video he produced himself.
It features Niketopoulos’ friend Jon Steinmeier as the dreadlocked Steinomite, who raps about his qualifications as an “alderman with a plan.” The video features Steinomite sharing a “Ward Up!” rallying cry and bragging about “regular meetings with Batman,” among other, more serious, qualifications.
“If you can incorporate music into a movement or culture, you can define it,” he said.
This insight can be traced directly to his time at Loyola.
“I got really involved in the radio station because I wanted to promote the anthropology club. The first time I was at the station to promote the club, they caught me on my way out the door and talked me into doing a midnight to 4 a.m. shift,” Niketopoulos said.
In these late-night shifts, he explored the station’s incoming stream of world music, including diverse Ethiopian alternative, Brazilian garage rock and Vietnamese imitations of Western music. He looks back at this as a period of studying and trying to understand different cultures, which he says has influenced his work in the 2nd Ward.
“Many politicians don’t take the time to listen to people, to see what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
He believes he has practiced “effective ways to get people involved.”
After college, Niketopoulos began a career in radio, which eventually transitioned to educational television. From there, the 2nd Ward native built relationships in his
community, primarily in organizing a neighborhood crime prevention program. The program incorporated Facebook and door-to-door campaigns to build a network of information and relationships.
“I applied anthropology and cultural enrichment to my approach,” Niketopoulos said. “I combined my relationships with aldermen and my relationships with the community and it made my community groups and initiatives grow faster than what others have achieved.”
Crime initiatives were foremost among his work and included neighborhood watch programs that started in Ukrainian Village and have spread to 19 different Chicago neighborhoods.
The new alderman will have to address the consequences of the redrawing of the ward, which has confused residents’ sense of being represented. Regarding major city issues, Niketopoulos wants to see a change of priorities in city spending to address its financial problems, prefers an elected school board and advocates for greater transparency of the tax increment finance system.
Still influenced by his education at Loyola, Niketopoulos will spend the next few weeks trying to define his campaign as an authentic, community-oriented one before the election on Feb. 24.
Corrections: The Phoenix originally published Nikotopoulos as preferring a hybrid elected/appointed school board and opposing pension restructuring. In fact, Nikotopoulos prefers an elected school board and wants to see reprioritization of city spending to deal with the pension finance problem.
Community activist Rich Martinez challenges Southeast Side incumbent
Loyola alum Rich Martinez, 42, is challenging 16-year incumbent John Pope for the 10th Ward aldermanic seat for the third time. He sees his campaign as representative of working-class communities that are struggling against the entrenched power and privilege of the incumbency. The 10th Ward covers much of the Southeast Side, and was redrawn in 2011 to become a “Latino supermajority” ward, according to Martinez. This will be the first election since the redraw that will see if Latino residents will elect a Latino leader.
Since graduating from Loyola with degrees in criminal justice and political science in 1994, Martinez has been immersed in city government and community organizing. Born from three generations of steel workers in the Southeast Side, he was the first in his family to earn a four-year degree. His double major caused him to split his time between the Lake Shore and Water Tower campuses. Martinez sees his time at Loyola as a “blessing.”
“I was exposed to some really great teachers in both schools. My courses challenged me. I had a chance to meet a lot of great people and diverse folks from all around the Midwest,” said Martinez.
He first worked in the 1994 reelection campaign of then 10th Ward Alderman John Buchanan. Martinez got an education in “the good, the bad and the ugly” of city government, moving through jobs in City Council, the state House of Representatives, Cook County and the Water Recollection District. All the while, he remained connected to local community organizing.
“I’ve had 20 years of service to my community. At the young age of 23 I was the co-founder of a non-for-profit, which provided $100,000 annually to local schools. I worked in CAPS [Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy], a local high school council [and] the Southeast Lions Club,” Martinez said.
In the last few years, environmental justice issues became a central concern to Martinez, along with struggles against powerful energy companies.
“I helped lead the fight against a Leucadia polluting coal plant across the street from a high school. From there, I co-founded the Environmental Justice Alliance of the Southeast Side. We authored environmental justice principles, which are providing a framework for future development,” he said.
According to Martinez, environmental justice is one of the three central issues of the campaign, along with public safety and job creation. Martinez is also part of the visioning phase of creating a corridor of green businesses in the Southeast Side, but a cleanup needs to take place first.
“Asthma, cancer and heart disease are terrible problems in our neighborhood, especially for children and the elderly,” he said. “There are huge parcels of highly polluted land and brown fields.”
Martinez will have to successfully frame the election with these issues because he is facing 16-year incumbent John Pope, who has more than $200,000 in campaign funding.
No external poll information is currently available, but Martinez said he is confident.
“Voter fatigue is high. I’ve been on the ballot before. [Pope] has accepted contributions from these polluting firms and so he represents them and their interests. I’m representing the families of the 10th Ward,” he said.
Martinez sharply criticized the current state of Chicago government, and said he believes that people are “hungry for change” and that change is imminent in many parts of the city.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of arrogance and hubris in most of the incumbents, and they’ve forgotten why they were elected,” he said. “I want to be a public servant. That’s what my Christian faith teaches me. A lot of these elected officials are about serving themselves, and the voters are finally getting tired of that.”
He cites the developing pension crisis, school closings and the increased taxes on working-class families as triggers for a sea of change in the coming election.
“Voters are ready to raise the level of expectation about those who steward their community,” he said, adding that the most important principle for elected officials is “Jesus’ second greatest commandment: love your neighbor.”
Martinez’s campaign website can be found at martinez10.com.