Danny Solis’s rise and fall, from promising activist to disgraced Chicago politician to FBI mole

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Danny Solis once was a rising star in community activism. He led citizenship and voter registration drives and helped set up schools — all part of a singular mission to empower his Mexican American community.

But after joining the Chicago City Council, Solis stumbled. He sold his political soul for Viagra and massage parlor visits on demand, along with campaign contributions — then tried to reclaim it by wearing a wire on two of the biggest powerhouses in the history of Illinois politics.

Ultimately, Solis became one of the most productive moles the FBI has ever unleashed on the Illinois political landscape.

For two years, Solis continued to show up at City Hall — and serve as the City Council’s powerful Zoning Committee chairman — while recording countless private conversations with now-indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) as well as with the developers and business people from whom Burke allegedly tried to muscle business for his law firm.

The former 25th Ward City Council member also recorded allegedly incriminating conversations with then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who faces his own federal corruption trial, and business people Madigan was soliciting.

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Without the vast amount of audio and video recorded by Solis, prosecutors might have struggled to build their case against Madigan and Burke, and two of the longest-serving Democrats in state history might still be in power.

As useful as Solis has been to prosecutors, there’s another side to the former council member, a picture painted in a affidavit inadvertently left unsealed by authorities and first disclosed by the Chicago Sun-Times in January 2019. It portrays Solis as deeply in debt, hounded by creditors and constantly on the prowl.

Prosecutors described a series of two-bit crimes by Solis that ultimately prompted him to cooperate with them to save his own political neck, infuriating his City Council colleagues.

Ultimately, Solis’ rise and fall is a tragedy — for himself, his family and his community, says Juan Rangel, a former executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization, a Pilsen-based community development group.

“It’s almost too simplistic, but it’s greed, it’s vanity, it’s all of those things,” Rangel says. “And it’s so unfortunate because there was so much promise. And it all came tumbling down for stupid stuff.”

Then-Ald. Danny Solis (right) with Ald. Ed Burke at a 2016 Chicago City Council meeting. Working as a government mole, Solis secretly recorded convesations with Burke that led to Burke’s indictment. Then-Ald. Danny Solis (right) with Ald. Ed Burke at a 2016 Chicago City Council meeting. Working as a government mole, Solis secretly recorded convesations with Burke that led to Burke’s indictment. Brian Jackson / Chicago Sun-Times

Coming to America from Mexico

A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Solis arrived in Chicago in 1956 with his parents. He was 6 years old, one of six children.

His father, Santiago, was a factory worker who had come to America illegally without the family and was later deported. A few years later, Santiago Solis returned to Chicago with a visa, his wife and four of his children.

Danny Solis’ mother, Alejandrina, worked in an industrial laundry. The Solis family settled in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood on the Near West Side before moving to Pilsen when Danny was a teenager.

Devout Catholics, Santiago and Alejandrina sent their children to Catholic schools. Born in the United States, Solis’ sister, Patti Solis Doyle, would become an even bigger political power player than her big brother, Danny, working as chief of staff for former first lady and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Phil Mullins played soccer with Solis at St. Mel High School on the West Side on a team that was almost entirely made up of immigrants. Teachers at St. Mel were often activists for progressive causes.

“We were young men who romanticized some of the Cuban revolutionaries,” says Mullins, who came to Chicago with his parents from the U.K. “The Civil Rights movement was happening all around us. It was a diverse school where the daily news of the world was very real, and you couldn’t help but have those conversations about social justice.”

He described Solis as a charismatic friend who was quick to crack a joke, always balancing schoolwork and athletics with part-time jobs at flower distributors, mail-order centers and other gigs to help support his family.

Daniel Solis with his parents in 1998. Daniel Solis with his parents in 1998. Brian Jackson / Chicago Sun-Times

A start in community activism

After serving in the Marine Corps Reserve and attending the University of Illinois at Chicago — leaving one course short of a degree in education, according to a 2011 interview with Chicago magazine — Solis cut his teeth in community activism as executive director of Pilsen Neighbors.

The founders of that organization were Mary Gonzales and Greg Galluzzo, part of the New Left generation of 1960s disciples of Saul Alinsky. They followed the Alinsky model of putting pressure on authorities to achieve social justice.

Gonzales and Galluzzo went on to found the United Neighborhood Organization and hired Solis as UNO’s executive director.

Solis’ likability, work ethic and values made him an effective organizer and later a natural politician, according to Mullins, Solis’ right-hand man at UNO.

At one point, the three principals had a falling out for control over UNO.

Solis pictured at an UNO event in 1990. Solis pictured at an UNO event in 1990. Jack Lenahan / Chicago Sun-Times

“Greg and Mary didn’t believe UNO should be involved in school issues because they were issues you couldn’t solve,” says Rangel, who replaced Solis as UNO’s executive director, only to have his own falling out with Solis.

“Danny wanted to be involved in school reform. That put him on [then-Mayor Richard M.] Daley’s radar,” Rangel says. “He was a new mayor who needed to continue building bridges. Daley [had done] poorly in the Black community, better in the Latino community. He needed to keep building that up.”

Former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., says he met Solis when the former alderperson was still serving as UNO’s executive director.

“I partnered with him at citizenship events,” Gutierrez recalls. “We would do them on the [Daley Center] plaza, swearing in hundreds of citizens.

“At the end … we completed the process so 50,000 Chicagoans could become citizens of the United States of America,” Gutierrez says. “It’s one of my biggest accomplishments.”

Gutierrez was “absolutely floored” when he learned of the work Solis agreed to do as a mole after being caught in his own web of corruption.

“I always saw Danny as someone who was … committed to public service,” Gutierrez says.

Mullins marveled at Solis’ “tremendous nose for grassroots issues. He understood education. He understood immigration.

“He wasn’t an intellectual activist. He was a hardcore, pragmatic activist, probably to a fault. But he never sold out the community, in my experience,” Mullins says.

Ascent to City Council

In 1996, Daley picked Solis to replace convicted Ald. Ambrosio Medrano (25th), who pleaded guilty that year to accepting $31,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI mole. Ironically, Medrano was hailed as a hero by his City Council colleagues for refusing to wear a wire.

An ally of both Daley and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Solis became chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, a powerful post that oversees development across the city.

An opponent says Solis prioritized his own agenda above everyone else’s. John DeLeon — now Medrano’s attorney — came up in Pilsen’s organizing scene alongside Solis. While DeLeon was working for the community group El Centro de la Causa, he went to the freshly elected council member to “bury the hatchet” on their longstanding political rivalry and to ask Solis for his letter of support to retain key charity funding for the the group.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks to former Ald. Daniel Solis (25th) after a 2012 event. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks to former Ald. Daniel Solis (25th) after a 2012 event. Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times

Solis shook hands and agreed to do so, according to DeLeon. He later learned that Solis gave El Centro a bad report, leading to their funding being pulled — and forcing them to sell their building, DeLeon says.

“That, to me, proves where his heart was,” DeLeon says. “Danny, instead of doing the right thing and supporting this community pillar, bad-mouthed it for his own personal gain, to eliminate his political opponents.

“Danny’s for Danny, and he’s always been for Danny,” DeLeon says. “He’s always been a good pretender. And he was never a sincere, community-minded person when he became alderman.”

Eventually, Solis fell into debt and committed an alleged series of offenses that led to his cooperation with federal investigators. Those included free trips to massage parlors and a steady supply of Viagra in exchange for steering City Council action to benefit a Democratic political operative.

Solis also allegedly accepted free weekend use of an Indiana farm once owned by Oprah Winfrey for a graduation party for Solis’ son — and around the same time proposed a city ordinance favorable for the farm owner’s business interests, according to the federal affidavit.

Former Ald. Daniel Solis (25th), pictured in 2015. Former Ald. Daniel Solis (25th), pictured in 2015. Brian Jackson / Chicago Sun-Times

Solis’ daughter, Maya Solis, tearfully described the gut-wrenching conversation her father had with the family after the massage parlor sex act allegations were disclosed by the Sun-Times.

“I can’t imagine that it was easy — having to tell the family that you love, and would do anything for, difficult information,” says Maya Solis, who works as a regional director at the Chicago Park District. She was recently accused of failing to report an underling’s sexual abuse allegations. “It was a very difficult time. I’m just thankful that there was love and support.”

With the help of counseling, Maya Solis says she has forgiven her father and believes the two years he spent as an undercover FBI mole will erase the bitter memory of his own transgressions.

“I could tell there was a strain but never understanding why,” Maya Solis says. “My dad is a man of few words and doesn’t open up. … In hindsight, I remember times when he was always thinking, preoccupied. And you just wondered, what’s going on? Something must be stressful at work. … Now, I understand. It must have been really hard for him to not be able to share it with anybody and to have to internalize it.”

Prosecutors have said they do not plan to call Solis as a witness in Burke’s Nov. 6 trial unless it becomes necessary, but Burke’s defense lawyers say they intend to call him to the stand. Though Solis has a bribery charge pending against him, he has a deferred-prosecution agreement that would allow him to avoid a criminal conviction and jail time as long as he complies with the agreement’s terms.

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot says “the notion that not only will he not do any jail time, he will keep his taxpayer-funded pension, offends me to the core.

“To have a guy like that do what he did — to monetize his position as the chair of a powerful committee, to leave his community without proper representation for years,” Lightfoot says, “it seems like there ought to be some accountability.”

Then-Ald. Daniel Solis (25th) celebrates his runoff election victory in 1997 with daughters Marisol (left) and Maya (center) at the Apollo 2000 Theater. Then-Ald. Daniel Solis (25th) celebrates his runoff election victory in 1997 with daughters Marisol (left) and Maya (center) at the Apollo 2000 Theater. Phil Velasquez / Chicago Sun-Times

Solis ‘lost his way’

Rangel sizes up Solis as someone who had his heart in the right place when he began as a community organizer but ultimately lost his way.

“The Danny I met back then in the late ‘80s is a far cry from the Danny Solis I last spoke to about 10 years ago,” Rangel says. “As Danny became more influential as an alderman, as kind of a leader in the Latino political community, he grew considerably more insecure and just became very difficult to work with.

“I don’t think he knew,” Rangel says, “how to handle the growing power and influence that came with his job … History will view him as a coward. He didn’t stand up for his community. The ultimate selling out is what he did at the end.”

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