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Hispanic gains in representation


Manuel Galvan

By all accounts, the March primary was a victory for Hispanics. Latino candidates won seven for seven Democratic races in Chicago, assuring themselves of twice as many members in the Illinois General Assembly and the first Hispanic congressman from the Midwest.

And while there is still a November election to contend with, it is all but a formality in this one-party town, where there were no Republican primary candidates in the two Hispanic state Senate races or in the four House contests.

"You're seeing a greater number of Hispanic candidates because there is more excitement at the local levels and because of voter registration efforts," said Gabriel Lopez, executive director of the Illinois Hispanic Democratic Council.

The number of Hispanic candidates in each of the races guaranteed Latino victories. But while redistricting long-favored Hispanic gains in the General Assembly, a congressional seat remained in question until January when 33rd Ward Alderman Richard Mell dropped out of the race. Hispanics are the majority in Mell's near northwest side ward, and the alderman enjoys a friendly relationship with them. His congressional bid, however, was seen by many as one of a spoiler. It reminded them of the early 1980s when old guard aldermen kept their seats in changing wards by splitting the Latino vote. Mell withdrew after strong pressure from Hispanic leaders and the realization that Mayor Richard M. Daley's support of Alderman Luis Gutierrez (26th) for the Democratic nomination in the new congressional district would translate into money and foot soldiers.

Alderman Michael Wojick (35th) and Joseph Berrios, a commissioner on the Cook County Board of (tax) Appeals, also exited the 4th Congressional District race, leaving Gutierrez to battle former 25th Ward Alderman Juan Soliz, a one-time ally turned adversary. Gutierrez captured 60 percent of the vote, beating Soliz by 11,768 votes.

Gutierrez faces token opposition in November against Hildegarde Rodriguez-Schieman, who was unopposed in the Republican primary and nominated with 3,547 votes.

In the Illinois Senate races, Alderman Jesus Garcia (22nd) took 52 percent of the vote against two opponents to win the Democratic nomination from the southwest side 1st Senate District. Incumbent state Sen. Miguel Del Valle easily kept his northwest side 2nd Senate District seat by racking up 72 percent of the vote for the Democratic nomination. Garcia, like Del Valle, is reform-minded and doesn't go along just to get along. Their victories as "noninsiders" should send a message to the Democratic leadership that Hispanics respect representatives well-rooted in the community, who neither abandon nor compromise their principles.

The two Hispanic incumbent state representatives also kept their seats. State Rep. Ben Martinez won the Democratic nomination on the near southwest side's 2nd House District with 44 percent of the vote against two opponents. State Rep. Miguel Santiago won the Democratic nomination in his near northwest side 3rd House District without opposition.

In the southwest side 1st House District, Chicago police officer Rafael Frias captured 39 percent of the vote against a pair of opponents in the Democratic primary. In the near northwest side 4th House District, Edgar Lopez edged out businessman Daniel Ramos in a challenged, 25-vote squeaker from a field of four in the Democratic primary. Lopez, Berrios's administrative assistant on the board of tax appeals, earned himself the nickname of "Landslide Lopez" in the county office.

The seven Hispanic candidates are well on their way to joining a dozen Latino elected officials in the Chicago area and another two dozen outside Cook County, including Fairmont City Mayor Charles

32/May 1992/Illinois Issues

Suarez, Silvis Mayor Joe Terronez and LaSalle County State's Any. Joseph Navarro.

In addition to the increase of elected officials, an exit poll of Hispanic voters by the Midwest/Northeast Voter Registration Education Project found a possible strategy shift in coalition politics. When asked, "Which racial group do you feel forming political coalitions with would most benefit Latinos?" 34 percent chose "Anglos" and 16 percent "African Americans." Yet, 50 percent of the voters polled selected "Neither."

Juan Andrade Jr., executive director of the voter group, said the response goes beyond a cooling attitude toward the Chicago City Council coalition of Hispanic aldermen with the Daley forces. It also goes beyond a reluctance to return to the black-brown coalition of the Harold Washington administration. The response shows Hispanics are beginning to make a subtle statement, Andrade noted. They are learning not to show their hand in a game of political poker, as the city's Latino population moves toward a 30-30-30 split with blacks and nonminorities by 2000. Asians will account for most of the remaining 10 percent. "Hispanics are realizing we are the wild card in a given election," Andrade said. "Whites can't keep what they have and blacks can't get what they want without us."

Latinos also gave a vote of confidence to the primary winners. When asked how much the first elected Hispanic congressman from Illinois would "help in solving the problems important to you?" 47 percent said "Much," and another 46 percent said "Some." In a similar question about the state senators and representatives, 49 percent said "Much," and another 43 percent said "Some."

Past Midwest/Northeast voter surveys have shown that Hispanics choose candidates largely on the basis of qualifications and issues, rather than strictly ethnic origin. Andrade believes Latino voters' hopes for a difference with these Hispanic candidates shows their optimism. "These are the people the community has selected," said Andrade, "and the voters believe this will translate into better results" for serving their needs and representing them in Washington, D.C., and Springfield.

Manuel Galvan is a Chicago writer and marketing consultant.

May 1992/Illinois Issues/33

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