Celina Villanueva

State Rep. Celina Villanueva (D-Chicago) is in line to replace State Sen. Martin Sandoval, who has announced that he is resigning from the state legislature on Jan. 1. 

Villanueva was the only candidate to file nominating petitions to run in the March primary for the seat in the state Senate’s 11th District, a seat Sandoval has held since 2003.

The 11th District includes Riverside south of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad tracks.

Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who formerly was chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is resigning a few months after his Cicero campaign office, his Springfield office and his Chicago home were raided by federal agents in what appears to be a far-ranging investigation into political corruption in Illinois. 

He has not been charged with a crime, but has not returned to Springfield to carry out his legislative duties since the raid.

Villanueva, 34, was appointed to represent the state’s 21st District (which also includes Riverside south of the BNSF tracks) in the House of Representatives in July 2018.

She replaced Silvana Tabares, who was appointed alderman of Chicago’s 23rd Ward, replacing Michael Zalewski, the father of state Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside). The elder Zalewski resigned his aldermanic seat in May 2018.

Villanueva is likely to be appointed to Sandoval’s seat in January. By state law Democratic ward and township committeeman in the 11th District have 30 days after Sandoval officially steps down to appoint a temporary successor to serve until 2021.

“What I’m hoping for and wishing for is a transparent process, and I am more than happy to submit my resume for consideration for the office,” Villanueva said. 

Sandoval announced on the day before Thanksgiving that he was resigning on Jan. 1. A special one-week filing period was declared from Dec. 2 until Dec. 9 for potential candidates to gather the 1,000 signatures on nominating petitions for the seat. 

Villanueva, who had already filed to run for re-election as a state representative, was the only candidate to file for the senate seat and withdrew her nominating petitions for state representative.

The 11th Senate District stretches from the southwest side of Chicago into the near western suburbs and includes the portion of Riverside that is south of the railroad tracks. Villanueva’s current House district makes up half of the Senate District. The House district of the Speaker of the House and state Democratic Chairman Mike Madigan makes up the other half of Sandoval’s Senate district.

After Villanueva decided to run for state Senate, 23-year-old Edgar Gonzalez Jr. filed to run for Villanueva’s state representative seat in the 21st District. He, too, is the only candidate whose name will be on the ballot in the March primary. No Republicans filed to run.

Both Villanueva and Gonzalez have ties to U.S. Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-4th). Gonzalez graduated from Harvard College in May and has worked since June as a constituency services liaison for Garcia. Villanueva worked as an outreach coordinator for Garcia when he was a member of the Cook County board.

Garcia said he has known Villanueva for most of her life, since he worked with her parents who were community activists in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago.

“I’ve known her since she was a little girl,” Garcia said. “I’ve had a chance to see grow up, get an education.”

Villanueva said that she resents any implication that she has become a state legislator merely because of her ties to Garcia.

“I’m a woman of color that has been busting my butt for a very long time to do the work of the community even without being a legislator,” said Villaneuva, who was working for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights when she was appointed to the state House in 2018. “I think that I have more than proven the fact that I am in this for the community and in this to do the grunt work and the hard work that it takes to be a legislator.”

Villanueva sponsored the Keep Immigrant Families Act that became law this year and prohibits local law enforcement agencies from entering into agreements with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to enforce immigration laws.

“People, regardless of their immigration status, still should have the right to call the police if they’re the victims of a crime, if they witness a crime,” Villanueva said. “They shouldn’t be afraid that someone is going to pick them up because they are doing their public service.” 

Garcia told the Landmark that he is very proud of both Villanueva and Gonzalez Jr. Garcia began working in independent progressive politics in Little Village in the early 1980s. He served as an alderman, state senator, and county board member before being elected to Congress in 2018.  

“The only reason why we are in a position to leverage additional political power is because we have paid our dues,” Garcia said. “We have stayed true to good ethics and transparency in our work, and those things speak volumes in good times and in bad times. Right now that history and those values are having a moment to shine in.”

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