Among the freshman lawmakers sworn in to Illinois’ 101st General Assembly are two Democrats with a few differences, but many more similarities.
Ram Villivalam was elected to the state Senate, and Aaron Ortiz to the state House. They won districts on opposite ends of Chicago: Villivalam representing parts of northern Chicago and the north suburbs and Ortiz representing neighborhoods on the Southwest Side. Villivalam has experience in politics while Ortiz is a novice. But their differences end there.
Both Ortiz and Villivalam arrived in Springfield planning to push a progressive agenda. Both men support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Both defeated long-time incumbents. Ortiz challenged former state Rep. Dan Burke, the brother of embattled Ald. Ed Burke, for the Southwest Side seat that Burke held since before Ortiz was even born.
Villivalam challenged former state Rep. Ira Silverstein, the 20-year incumbent who was accused of sexual harassment and eventually was found by the General Assembly’s inspector general to have acted in violation of state governmental ethics laws.
Villivalam, who previously worked for Congressman Brad Schneider and currently sits on the board of directors for the Gun Violence Prevention PAC, defeated Silverstein by more than 20 points in the Democratic primary. Silverstein resigned his seat just days before the new legislative session.
“I won my primary election back in March, but now I have the responsibility of representing 217,000 people,” Villivalam said. “I’m ready to move forward. I’m ready to turn the page.”
Both men were born to immigrants. Ortiz’s parents moved to America from Durango, Mexico, settling in the Gage Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side where Ortiz grew up.
Villivalam is the first Asian-American elected to the state Senate and the first Indian-American elected to the General Assembly. His father was a civil engineer in India and his mother was a teacher. When they came to America in the 1970s, they were unable to find work in their previous fields, so his father took a job as a dishwasher, and his mother found work as a cashier.
“It was tough. They struggled,” Villivalam said. “My dad became a civil engineer and my mom became an I.T. director after she went back to school and got her master’s in computer science while taking care of two children. They’re the reason I’m here. That’s what coming to this country is all about, and I will take the full weight of that every day I step foot in this capitol.”
The two men embody an emerging sect of the Democratic Party that is younger and more progressive. Ortiz said he still plans to vote for Michael Madigan to return to the Speaker’s gavel despite Madigan’s financial support for his opponent.