When Ugochukwu Okere was studying social work and political science his sophomore year at Loyola, he decided he wanted to work in government.
Okere didn’t waste any time and started campaigning for alderman of Chicago’s 40th Ward during his final year at Loyola. Since graduating in May, he has turned in triple the 473 signatures needed to get on the ballot for the February election.
Okere seeks to unseat Pat O’Connor, who’s been alderman of the 40th Ward since 1983, according to O’Connor’s website. The 40th Ward includes Edgewater, Lincoln Square and West Andersonville — neighborhoods near Loyola.
Peter Ousley, a Chicago politics professor at Loyola, said aldermen generally help residents in the community with common issues such as potholes, broken street lights and problems within local schools. Aldermen serve underneath the mayor and are re-elected every four years.
On Dec. 1, Okere plans to host an event thanking campaign volunteers for the work they’ve done. The next day, Okere plans to host a Day of Action, which involves canvassing for the campaign. Okere said he held similar events throughout the summer.
Okere said he felt influenced by Loyola’s message to be a “person for others” when he was choosing which career to pursue after graduation.
“Loyola instilled in me this idea that my profession, whatever it is I’m going to do, I want it to be at the benefit of working people, of marginalized people,” Okere said.
Okere said he’s fighting for working class people, immigrants and youth. He said a large part of his campaign is based on interacting with and encouraging people to participate in government.
“It’s a movement that’s focused on lifting all voters, especially those who are working class and marginalized,” Okere said.
His campaign is based on three concepts: co-governance, equity and understanding interconnected struggles, he previously told The Phoenix.
Co-governance is the idea all citizens should be included in government and equity means that resources should be fairly distributed, Okere said. Understanding interconnected struggles is recognizing the broader impact of community struggles, according to Okere.
Okere said he has included 40th Ward residents’ individual concerns in his campaign. For example, he now plans to make the ward more handicap accessible.
“One of the residents I met was blind,” Okere said. “He told me about the fact we only have one audio assisted crosswalk in the entire ward.”
Some other issues Okere plans to address include homelessness and welcoming immigrants to the city, according to his website. He said his main priorities are to expand affordable housing in the ward and improve the school system by pushing for an elected school board. Chicago schools currently operate under an appointed school board, according to the Chicago Public School Board’s website.
“When you get into office, obviously you have to have priorities,” Okere said. “Everything on my issues page are things I want to accomplish.”
In October, O’Connor was accused of making racist comments by Okere, according to a statement on Okere’s Twitter. O’Connor criticized Okere for raising campaign money by promoting his Nigerian heritage on a fundraising invitation, according to the statement.
Okere told The Phoenix he was surprised someone who was in power for so long could still have these ideas about race.
“I would’ve thought that he would be able to keep those kinds of sentiments under wraps, but we saw in full disclosure that day that he still has those beliefs,” Okere said. “He still has those out of touch and cruel ideas about residents in his community. This isn’t a community that is steeped in racism, this isn’t a community that supports these kinds of ideas.”
An email sent to The Phoenix from O’Connor’s spokesperson said O’Connor felt Okere’s invitation was “exclusionary” because it included the phrase “Building Nigerian Political Power.” The email said O’Connor believes the message is misguided because the ward includes several racial groups.
“No one race or ethnicity makes up the majority of the ward,” the email said. “A person who seeks to be the 40th Ward’s Alderman should want to have his ward be his base of support and power. But for such a young man, whose work experience is made up of summer jobs and one political internship, I suppose I should cut him some slack.”
Ousley said he wouldn’t predict anything, but Okere could have a chance at winning the seat due to his organized campaign and some residents’ negative opinion of O’Connor. Multiple wards could see incumbents lose to new candidates in the spring, according to Ousley.
“Maybe at the end, the large numbers of incumbents that are in difficult fights will find a way to prevail, but this will not be an election that doesn’t include a lot of conflict and tension within the wards,” Ousley said.