Maria Antonia "Toni" Berrios made history in 2003 as the first Puerto Rican woman to join the Illinois House of Representatives. Since then, Berrios, whose father is Democratic heavyweight Joseph Berrios, has presided over Illinois' 39th district, which spans parts of Logan Square and Belmont-Cragin.
On March 20, the five-term incumbent will face off against 24-year-old Will Guzzardi, an unlikely opponent who left his Huffington Post editorial position to "clean out the old and bring in [ the ] new."
Windy City Times caught up with Berrios to talk about consumer protections, legislative priorities and that famous family.
NOTE: View downloadable election guide charts at the following link. This election chart was updated online on Tuesday March 13 with corrections and updates. www.windycitymediagroup.com/pdf/WCT_2012_primarychartsforweb.pdf .
Windy City Times: You come from a political family. Did you always plan on working in politics?
Toni Berrios: I didn't think so, but I found out after I got into office that my first grade teacher told my mom, out of all of us kids, I was the one that would follow my dad's footsteps. It was interesting to hear. [ When I joined the state House ] , I was asked to run by other elected officials. They thought I'd be good for the position, and I figured I'd stand up to the challenge.
WCT: You chair the House Consumer Protection Committee. What are you working on?
Toni Berrios: Consumer protections are very important to me. One of the pieces of legislation I currently have requires clear language for contracts. So, if someone gets a new cell phone, we're asking for the contract to be in plain language. We want the everyday person who's getting a phone to understand the entire contract. I'm getting opposition from a lot of different companies because they want to keep those small clauses in there that people don't understand or just don't find.
We really want consumers to have more information in their hands that will help them when they're signing the contracts.
Another bill that we're working on is for property taxes. They're so high in the city of Chicago, and property values have gone down. It's unfair for anyone to have to pay these outrageous prices. There's legislation that we voted on that states: As the property value goes down, the property taxes can't go up in a 12-month period.
WCT: You've done a lot of work with Vida/SIDA [ the Humboldt Park HIV/AIDS organization that focused on Latino/a clients ] . Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Toni Berrios: I advocate for their funding, attend their events, and share their events on my community calendarthings like that. I want to make sure the information gets out there, just on LGBT issues and the other items they work on.
I was also very supportive of their new housing project. It's transitional housing for homeless LGBT youth in the Humboldt Park area. It's the first program of its kind on the Northwest Side in the Latino community where homeless youth who are LGBT actually have a safe place to sleep.
It's something I've partnered with them on, and I've been promoting. I've vowed to help them as much as they need me towhatever's needed, [ whether it's ] fighting for funding, or just making sure that the children in the community know there's a place for them to feel safe at. [ Vida/SIDA ] did all the planning, but they kept me in the loop the entire time.
WCT: Do you identify as a straight ally?
Toni Berrios: I'm definitely an ally. I'm even endorsed by Equality Illinois. I voted for civil unions, and I talked to some of my colleagues who were undecided and asked them to vote in favor of the legislation too.
WCT: What were those conversations like?
Toni Berrios: They went pretty well. [ People ] definitely understood where I was coming from, and they understood the necessity of the legislation.
WCT: Why were they hesitant?
Toni Berrios: Just because it was an LGBT issue and it went against their religion. When I asked them: Please do this. It's the right thing to do for the community; it's the right thing to do for civil rights… Then they changed their minds.
WCT: Do you support full marriage equality?
Toni Berrios: Yes, I do.
WCT: Your opponent in this election, Will Guzzardi, wrote a Huffington Post piece where he suggested that because you come from an old-school political family you aren't the best choice for the House. What did you think of that?
Toni Berrios: My response has always been: I'm the state representative. I'm the one who has to come down to Springfield and vote on issues that are important to my community and fight for resources that are important to my [ constituents ] .
As for my background: My family is my family. You can't change who your family is. They're all there to support me, but other than that, I'm the one who's down here putting in the hours, putting in the days. And this is my full-time job. It's not like I have any supplemental income coming in. It's what I enjoy doing.
WCT: In January, the New York Times wrote an article detailing how your father worked as a lobbyist on video-poker legislation that you later voted for. Guzzardi has brought it up in his campaign. What's your response?
Toni Berrios: My dad is not a lobbyist any more, for starters. When he became assessor, he said he'd give up his lobbying contract, and that's what he's done. When he was down here, he'd never talk to me about legislation. There were always a team of lobbyists for different bills, and I was always assigned someone else so there was no conflict of interest.
I'm part of the community. Making sure I can bring back the resources that my community needs has been my number-one priority since I started as state representative. I've found funding for more parks and green space; we now have a brand new field house. I plan to continue to fight for the community.
To learn more about Toni Berrios, visit www.toniberrios.com .