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Election 2011 Mon Sep 13 2010

Chicago's First Latino Mayor--Gutierrez' Case

Is one of Mayor Daley's legacies ending the city's explosive racial politics?

Given the concerns that the race-based "Council Wars" of the 1980s could boil over again without a strongman at the top, that seems to be a hard case to make. Something that was truly ended wouldn't loom as an existential threat. The Mayor incorporated major identity groups into his ruling coalition using a not dissimilar approach from that of Harold Washington: minority contracting rules, grants and contracts to influential community organizations, and appointments of local leaders to influential city and state boards and commissions. He kept a balance that didn't fundamentally alter Chicago's racial politics, but merely placated the actors most willing or able to intensify those politics.

If identity does come to play an important role in the coming election campaign, years of idle speculation tell us that a Latino is the best placed to win the day. The Latino population has grown significantly in the last two decades--to approximately 25% of the population, when "Hispanics of all races" are computed--while the Black population has dropped by about 10%. Given the Black-brown affinity on economic issues and the prevalence of mixed white-Latino neighborhoods, there is some circumstantial evidence for that view. The candidacies of Luis Gutierrez and Miguel Del Valle could help us walk through whether there is a strong likelihood of a Latino Mayor in 2011.

Within days of Mayor Daley's announcement that he wouldn't be seeking reelection, Chicanisima on the Tribune's ChicagoNow network speculated on the possibility of a Latino Mayor, and a group calling itself Chicago Latino Coalition 2011 came together to begin steering the community towards heavy participation in the election.

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There are two announced Latino candidates--both Puerto Ricans--who have the organizational or financial heft to make a serious run: City Clerk Miguel Del Valle, who cut his teeth in Mayor Washington's administration, and Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a national leader in Latino politics who made his name when he took on and defeated a Machine aldermanic candidate in 1986 and tipped the Council majority in Mayor Washington's favor.

As of July, Del Valle had less than a thousand dollars to spend, but he has a dedicated network of local activists, political operatives, and neighborhood organizers that will ensure he gets on the ballot and moves his message early. Gutierrez has nearly $400k in the bank and, given his national profile and deep roots in the Latino community in greater Chicagoland, a vast network of givers.

He also has something else: a sincere beef with Rahm Emanuel and President Obama on an explosive issue. Immigration.

Gutierrez introduced legislation late last year to comprehensively overhaul the nation's immigration system, and aggressively criticized President Obama and specifically Rahm Emanuel for playing politics with the issue. Latinos are hardly one-note voters and immigration is not at all a local issue--but in drawing a contrast between himself and Emanuel's inevitable candidacy, Gutierrez will have a strong record and fiery issue: He plays politics, I take on my own party to do what's right.

Of course Gutierrez has his own problems. He's hardly universally acclaimed by the Latino community. He was tied to the bribery scandal of former Alderman Ike Carothers and developer Calvin Boender.

But in a showdown that will likely feature three high profile candidates from each of the city's major demographics--Emanuel, Gutierrez, and the socially conservative Senator Reverend James Meeks--Gutierrez would be able to do the presumptive front runner Emanuel the most damage without necessarily alienating white and Black voters.

Should Gutierrez' unpopularity with a wing of liberal reformers or his potential ethical problems sink him early as a cross-section candidate, will the emerging Latino population buttress him? Here the narrative of the growing Latino population as political power brokers also faces a numerical problem: the number of registered voters in the heavily Latino wards has not significantly increased over the last three years in the relevant election cycles ('07 municipals, '08 and '10 primaries). In some cases the numbers of registered voters in those wards declined. This tracks to an overall trend, but that only further limits the potential truth of the narrative that Latinos are emerging as an increasingly important bloc of voters.

Of course, as we've discussed on Mechanics many times before, the idea of racial bloc voting is a bit of an anachronism and certainly not a rule: white, Black, and Latino voters regularly vote in large numbers for candidates of other races. A Latino candidate will not get only Latino votes, nor will Latinos give their votes to a candidate based solely on their ethnic affinity. But in terms of building on a base to survive a multi-candidate field, any candidate--white, Black, or Latino--will require some unified base to propel them forward. That base can be geographic, young professionals, working class homeowners, union voters, whites, Lakefront liberals, renters; it doesn't imply a racial element. But insofar as a Latino candidate will build a campaign outward from their base of power and with an established network of community organizations, political operatives, and funders, the larger the base, the greater the likelihood of building the necessary early momentum to overcome a "celebrity" millionaire candidate like Rahm Emanuel.

Del Valle suffers from less name recognition and less money, but is very widely liked, holds a city-wide position, has decades of experience and is an experienced hand at politicking on the streets. He's less polarizing than Gutierrez, who evokes strong emotions, and has an independent phylogeny to his politics stemming from his time in the Washington administration while offering some continuity with the Daley era. This latter point is important: for all the howling of activists over the corruption and dysfunction of the Daley era, there will be much hand-wringing over a return to the chaotic years of the 1980s that saw the city's population decline by some 300,000 people. But even more so than Gutierrez, who will have a major fundraising advantage, Del Valle would need a strong base of voters to generate the campaign infrastructure needed in a short campaign.

In winning a seemingly insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination to the Cook County Presidency, Alderman Toni Preckwinkle essentially traded on her independent reputation and built on a previous campaign--Forrest Claypool's run against John Stroger in 2006--to put an electoral infrastructure into place over a fairly short election season. Daley's decades in office and sudden exit have precluded anybody from taking the same approach. This will make political prediction, always treacherous, practically impossible.

Will Chicago see its first Latino Mayor at a time when America is waking up to its new largest minority group? We can't know. But to assert their rightful political strength, the city's battle-hardened Latino politicos will need to set themselves to creating a fervor of civic engagement similar to what Harold Washington's campaign did in 1983--and with only months to go, that isn't a foregone conclusion.

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Dennis Fritz / September 15, 2010 1:04 PM

Black and Latino voters certainly vote for candidates of other races. Whites, however, almost never do, or at least not in large numbers. And historically, that has been almost as true of whites from "liberal" lakefront wards as it has been of whites from Northwest and Southwest Side wards.

Look back at the numbers from Harold Washington's election--either one--and you'll see he pulled in a shockingly low number of votes from largely white wards. And that was as true for Edgewater as it was for Bridgeport.

IrishPirate / September 17, 2010 1:52 AM


do you recall how well Toni Preckwinkle and Barack Obama did in recent elections? In the white communities?

This isn't 1987.

I don't claim racism or racial voting patterns are over. The impact has just lessened.

Dennis Fritz / September 17, 2010 11:07 AM

I do recall, Irishpirate.

But I also recall that from the very beginning of his campaign, Obama signaled, subtley but unmistakably, that he wasn't going to pay any special attention to issues of particular concern to African-Americans. Obama carefully distanced himself from prominent civil rights figures. Even on the night of his victory, after he'd crossed the proverbial finish line, Chicago's best-known civil figure--the Rev. Jesse jackson--wasn't even invited onto the victory stage. He was left standing on the grass in Grant park like everyone else. Obama got large number of white votes by bending over backwards to prove he was not a "black candidate." But even so, the election of the nation's first black president unleashed mass hysteria among the Tea Party crowd, something that never would have happened had Hilary Clinton won.

Toni Preckwinkle's case similarly proves little . She was a black woman running against a black incumbent, Todd Stroger, who is one of the most despised public officials in the state, if not the entire country. Donald Duck would have given Stroger a run for his money.

IrishPirate / September 17, 2010 5:51 PM


you do recall Terry "Very Pasty and Irish" O'Brien also got trounced by Preckwinkle. She carried overwhelmingly white wards handily. O'Brien only did well in some machine wards and/or wards with a large Irish population.

I also seem to recall Harold Washington distancing himself from "Reverend" Jackson on primary night in 1983 and afterwards.

President Obama couldn't have won if he portrayed himself as the "black candidate".

He rightly portrayed himself as the "candidate who happens to be black".

As for the tea party and the other wingers, while Obama's skin tone does drive them nutz, it's merely a question of degree.

They also acted like nutz regarding Bill Clinton.

If Hillary were Prez I imagine they would be nearly equally as nutty or maybe even nuttier because of her lack of a penis.

Again, I don't believe racism or racial voting is over. However, the impact has been lessened.

This ain't "Epton, before it's too late" Chicago anymore.

Dennis Fritz / September 17, 2010 10:51 PM

"President Obama couldn't have won if he portrayed himself as the 'black candidate'.

He rightly portrayed himself as the "candidate who happens to be black."

That is exactly my point. Racism hasn't abated one single bit--it has simply changed form.

Fifty years ago, a politician might have had to openly embrace racism to get white votes. Today, that same politician can only get white votes by pretending racism doesn't exist. Racial inequality, racial injustice--these are things no mainstream dare talk about. That is utterly taboo. Any politican who violates that taboo will never get a significant number of white votes.

As far as O'Brien goes, he might have done much better if he'd been better known. But he'd spent most of his career toiling away semi-anonymously at the water reclamation district. Preckwinkle was a Cook County Board member already. It wasn't really an even fight.

IrishPirate / September 18, 2010 3:29 AM

You're thinking is on the fritz...Fritz.

Preckwinkle was and is a Chicago alderman.

If you want to believe that racism hasn't abated at all that's fine. Some people believe President Obama was born in Kenya, that doesn't make it true.

I know it's difficult for some people to believe, but racism has lessened.

President Obama distanced himself from many traditional civil rights leaders because many of those leaders are divisive. Some are worse that divisive.

Mayor Washington recognized that and apparently so does the President.

Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America. He wasn't elected President of only those folks who are American and black.

Now personally I wish the President would address the problems of black Americans more openly. Both those problems caused by continuing racism and those problems which are internal to the black community. However, I know why he doesn't.

We have two wars, an economy in the toilet, Republicans who apparently want to criminalize masturbation and a host of other problems which he needs to address.

Now I believe that first and foremost the President of the United States should be the President of the United States.

Not a white man. Not a black man. Not a Texan. Not a female. Not a Christian. Not a Hindu. Not anything except President of the United States.

Race is certainly an immutable characteristic in an individual, but it doesn't need to define everything.

America is a better place now regarding race than it was mere decades ago. You may choose not to believe that, but the fact that the President is a White Sox fan says something positive about the changes that have occurred in the land of the Red, White and Blue.

The White Sox still suck eggs, but perhaps you get my larger point. Perhaps not.

Dennis Fritz / September 21, 2010 9:42 AM

Did I actually write that Preckwinkle was a Cook County Board member? Crap. That's what I get for writing while I'm half in the bag. Excuse my while I pull my foot out of my mouth.

Has racism lessoned in an absolute sense? I don't believe so, but let's say for the sake of argument it has. So what? You don't measure racial justice by comparing the status of black people in the present to their status at some point in the past. You measure racial justice by comparing the status of black people in the present to the status of white people in the present. By that measure, we are far, far away from a "post-racial" society.

IrishPirate / September 22, 2010 5:13 AM

We're never going to agree on that.

I think America is a much better place "race wise" than just mere decades ago.

We can agree that we are far, far way from a post-racial society.

I'm not sure such a thing is likely in the next few centuries. Check back with me in 2210 and we'll see how America is doing.

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