Rock Island radical
Alderman Dylan Parker bucks trends politically and socially
By Ted Cox
Don’t talk to Alderman Dylan Parker about millennials abandoning Illinois.
The youngest member of the Rock Island City Council, elected a year ago at 28, bucked the trend as someone who actually moved into the state.
“I moved from Iowa,” Parker said over a late lunch at the QC Coffee and Pancake House in his home 5th Ward as he jostled his 11-month-old daughter, Antigone, on his lap. “I grew up in Iowa, over in Davenport, and moved over here to Rock Island probably eight years ago.”
He dismissed the common perception, often repeated by right-wing, anti-tax political groups, that Illinois is losing millennials because the state has nothing to offer young adults embarking on a career.
“I said no, no, no, no. I don’t like living in Iowa. I like what’s going on in Illinois,” Parker said. “What drew me to Rock Island was, I went to college over in Davenport,” he added, “but if you wanted to talk philosophy over coffee or do anything cool, basically, you did it in downtown Rock Island. All of the neat bars and fun things and interesting conversations and intellectually engaging activities were happening in Rock Island. The culture here is what drew me.”
Parker quickly cited a local nonprofit theater group with a range that spans opera, ballet, Shakespeare, and the Greek classics, saying, “Where else can I go in the Quad Cities to watch a free opera in a public park?” And the town’s historic emphasis on diversity, emphasized a half-century ago and still a source of civic pride today, was a draw as well.
“I grew up in a very — not quite suburb, but pretty close to a suburb,” Parker said. “All my neighbors were white and pretty much the same. The neighborhood I live in in Rock Island now, you see women in head scarves, you see just a magnificent diversity of people, religions, skin colors. It’s nice. I like it.”
And where some might attempt to create divisions in that diversity with worries about crime, Parker waved that notion away, citing how his older kids, 12 and 8, are free to walk the streets of their Broadway neighborhood on their own with little concern. “In Rock Island, yeah, I’m comfortable with that,” Parker said. “It’s a walkable area. It’s got kids who play outside.
“People complain about the loss of the 1960s America neighborhood where kids play outside until dusk. That happens in my neighborhood. It’s fantastic. I love it. It happens with kids who don’t all look the same too, which is nice. That’s why I moved from Iowa to Rock Island. It’s a better quality of life.”
Parker has bucked the prevailing trends politically as well, although in that regard he might just be more representative of a millennial movement, in that he’s an unabashed, card-carrying, red-rose-Twitter-feed-touting, municipal-broadband-internet-advocating friend of Bernie Sanders.
“Increasingly, there’s the joke around town that I’m the socialist on council, right?” Parker said. “It’s not a joke. I don’t deny. If somebody asks me, I’m a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
“That’s the thing,” he added. “DSA members across the country ask me about running as a socialist in an election. ‘How did you do it?’ Frankly, socialism didn’t come up at all in my election. People weren’t asking me about it. I wasn’t banging on doors saying, ‘Vote socialism for City Council.’”
Rock Island’s 5th Ward is a fairly liberal area, he said, and his only opponent was more of a mainstream Democrat. At a candidate forum, however, Parker did espouse the common-sense and increasingly prevalent idea of the city providing free internet service to its residents. “If you want to have equitable development in Rock Island, perhaps we should consider having the city be an (internet-service provider) and provide broadband internet for all residents,” Parker said. “Frankly, that is a very socialist idea. I didn’t say ‘socialism.’ But I still to this day have people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, that internet thing you talked about, that is a really good idea.’”
The eight-person City Council, comprising seven aldermen and the mayor, has thought enough of the concept that it has formally charged the administration with looking into the cost and feasibility of the proposal, especially as there’s widespread dissatisfaction with the local service being provided by AT&T and Mediacom. “So it’s not like this is going to happen tomorrow,” Parker said, “but at least it’s the City Council’s official policy that this is good and we need to find a way to get there.”
According to Parker, that reflects the city’s pragmatic, can-do, hands-on approach to government. “That’s the goal, right? To get the majority and actually be able to do things,” he said. “Rock Island is a pretty liberal city.” There’s a solid voting bloc on the left made up of three thirtyish aldermen and another in his 30s, and while Parker described the mayor as a supporter of Gov. Bruce Rauner who’s “a millionaire himself,” he said the city government is intent on the common good.
“It’s a very interesting dynamic, but it’s so nice because he and I work together fairly well,” Parker said. “We both know there are issues where we’re not going to move each other,” such as the minimum wage on his side and right-to-work on the mayor’s. “Really, for as polar opposite as we are, we’ve been doing a good job of coming together where we can.”
Parker said he’s a product of the town’s liberal history, but that he also takes pride in “re-establishing the identity of Rock Island as being a working-class community. For decades Rock Island really identified and prioritized its working-class roots.”
Unlike, say, Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, his fellow Democratic Socialist and a political animal going back to his days as class president at Whitney Young High School, Parker insisted he is shy, a hesitant public speaker, and not a natural politician. But, like Ramirez-Rosa, he said his political career grew organically out of his neighborhood activism, fighting for issues his neighbors were concerned about and what they wanted to see done.
“So many politicians come from the outside and decide they’re going to run for office,” Parker said, only to find they have to school themselves on what their constituents really want. “If you come out of the neighborhoods, you’re already there. You already know what the issues are for the people in that area. You’ve already been advocating. You’ve already built the trust of your neighbors, because they know you’ve been fighting for their issues.”
The Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America holds an online fundraiser for Parker today on the way to his speaking at the Democratic Socialists of America Debs Dinner next Friday in Chicago at the Letter Carriers' Union Hall on the South Side.
Parker has seen his personal and political lives converge as well. A diesel mechanic when he ran for office and won, he made a major career change at the end of last year by taking a job with the Indiana, Illinois, Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, a nonprofit put together by contractors to act as a watchdog to make sure there’s a fair playing field on government projects and that rogue businesses don’t undercut others by skirting requirements. “They underbid, and they make it so the guys following the rules can’t compete,” he said. “It’s a very interesting job.” It has also allowed him to donate his modest $6,000 aldermanic salary to local nonprofits.
“I’ve been an activist for a lot of years,” Parker said. “Really, I never had planned on running for elected office. I had no real idea how to do it. I don’t come from a political family. I don’t have political connections. I’ve created them because I’ve worked at this, but no, I was not expecting to be in the role I’m in today.”