By Bob Skolnik
Residents of Riverside south of the BNSF railroad tracks are now represented by the youngest member of the state legislature.
On the evening of Jan. 10, ward and township Democratic committeemen from the 21st District of the Illinois House of Representatives met at the headquarters of the Lyons Township Democratic Party in Summit to elect 23-year-old Harvard graduate Edgar Gonzalez Jr. to replace Celina Villanueva, who earlier this month was selected by Democratic Party officials to replace Martin Sandoval in the state Senate.
The 21st District stretches from the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago to Summit.
Gonzalez was a unanimous choice to serve out Villanueva's term and appears to be a lock to be elected to full two-year term in November, since he was the only candidate who filed to run for the office in the March primary.
Similarly, Villanueva appears certain to be elected in November to fill out the final two years of Sandoval's term, because she was the only candidate to file for that office in the primary.
"I'm completely honored, I'm completely humbled," said Gonzalez. "I'm from Little Village, I'm a neighborhood guy, born and raised. I live two blocks from Cook County Jail."
Gonzalez is not quite the youngest member to ever serve in the General Assembly. In 2015, Republican Avery Bourne was appointed to fill a vacancy in the state House when she was just 22 years old.
In 2004, Aaron Schock was elected to the state House at age 23. But Gonzalez, who just turned 23 on Christmas Day, apparently will be the youngest Democrat and certainly the youngest Hispanic to ever serve in the Illinois state legislature.
Gonzalez, like Villanueva, has a close connection to 4th District Congressman Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, who has emerged as a power broker on the Southwest Side of Chicago. Since graduating from Harvard, Gonzalez has worked as a community services liaison in one of Garcia's Chicago offices, concentrating mostly of Social Security and veterans' issues.
"Edgar, in despite of his youth, has been involved in many community issues and causes for several years even while he was going to Harvard," Garcia told the Landmark. "He is a very bright and capable individual with lots of promise."
Gonzalez said that he became interested in politics when Garcia ran for mayor of Chicago in 2015, when Gonzalez was a senior at Whitney Young High School.
"I think I was very inspired by Chuy, his fight for working class people, for families like my own and the fact that he came from an immigrant family like my own," Gonzalez said.
Since 2015, Gonzalez has worked on a number of campaigns on the Southwest Side for candidates supported by Garcia and other Hispanic progressives. Despite living with his parents in the 12th Ward, Gonzalez serves as the vice president of the 22nd Ward Independent Political Organization and has worked on the campaigns of 22nd Ward alderman and committeeman Michael Rodriguez.
Gonzalez's parents immigrated to Chicago from Mexico about 25 years ago. His father works as a repair technician at UIC and is a member of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399. His mother is a former school aide who was a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
"I'm proud to say that I'm part of a union family. I would say that I definitely want to advocate for labor, for unions, for working class individuals like my father, like my mom, down in Springfield," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he wants to fight for equitable school funding and make sure that the criminal justice system treats people from all communities fairly.
"I want to make sure that the criminal justice system is working for all of our communities, for everyone across the district, and I want to make sure that our schools are properly resourced, properly staffed, properly funded," Gonzalez said.
State Sen. Steve Landek (D-Bridgeview), who also serves as the committeeman for the Lyons Township Democratic Party, voted for Gonzalez and said that he will bring a fresh voice to the legislature.
"I think he's serious about the work he wants to do in Springfield, and I think he'll be a unique addition to the group," Landek said.
Landek knows something about starting young in politics. In 1975 at age 19, Landek was elected to Bridgeview Park District Board of Trustees, becoming the then-youngest person ever elected to be a park district commissioner in Illinois.
Gonzalez had options to perhaps work in finance or consulting as a graduate of Harvard, but he said that he has always wanted to return to his community and work to make it better.
"I knew I wanted to serve my neighborhood; I knew I wanted to serve my community," Gonzalez said. "I was raised to look out for my neighbors, to look out for my family. I just want to make sure that I'm in the best position to serve my community."
Gonzalez now has to find a place to live while he is in Springfield. He said that the state legislature will reconvene on Jan. 28. He said that he thinks that in some ways serving in the state legislature will be like being back in college.
"I'll be working with a bunch of colleagues, I'll be having to go to briefings and seminars and taking notes, just like in college," Gonzalez said. "It's going to be a familiar setting in some ways. I'm really looking forward to it."