Chicago’s Latino voters could be key in the mayor race newstrendslive

Amid the turquoise walls and sea life figurines adorning a marine-themed mariscos restaurant in Belmont Cragin, a crowd ebbed and flowed around U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García.

Then the wave of supporters parted as a woman toting a stack of papers flagged down the congressman, who was out campaigning to become Chicago’s first Latino mayor.

Hermelinda Flores’ eyes reddened as she showed García photos of potholes, abandoned grocery carts loaded with trash, and Modelo beer bottles around her kids’ nearby school, Luther Burbank Elementary.

“We are a mostly Latino school of almost 750 students and we have never received help,” Flores texted the Tribune later in Spanish. “My words to (García) is that support for Latino schools is needed.”

Flores, a Mexican American who’s lived in the neighborhood almost 30 years, said she will support García in the Feb. 28 mayoral election because she believes he will deliver the help she seeks. And she was not alone. Throughout García’s hourlong appearance in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood — home to Chicago’s largest population of Latinos — a sense of frustration with the status quo at City Hall was a recurring theme among constituents, who highlighted fears over crime, struggles to afford housing and eroding quality of life.

“Mayor Lori Lightfoot is forgetting about the Latino communities in her schools,” Flores said.

Chicago’s Latino community is a historically overlooked player in local politics but is expected to be important in the mayoral race, with García the perceived beneficiary. Despite making up roughly 30% of the city’s population, Chicago’s Latino voter turnout tends to be much smaller than that of Black and white residents.

In a nine-candidate field, Latinos offer a potential boost for García in his bid to advance to a possible runoff.

García was born in Durango, Mexico, before moving as a boy to what is now the Mexican immigrant enclave Little Village. He became an alderman in 1986, joining a multiracial coalition against the white City Council members who opposed Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, in what became known as the Council Wars. After he lost his first run for mayor in 2015, García was elected to Congress and has grown his base beyond the Southwest Side.

But whether Latinos come out in force and consolidate around García remains to be seen.

Jason McGrath, a Chicago-based pollster who advises Lightfoot, said he doesn’t expect García to inspire a groundswell of support among those who might not otherwise vote, akin to Harold Washington’s run for mayor in 1983 or Barack Obama’s first presidential bid in 2008.

García has “got to figure out how to win a race with the electorate that’s out there. Will there be some that come out because he’s on the ballot? Sure,” McGrath said. “(But) it’s really hard to change the electorate.”

Still, García’s allies expect the Latino vote to be a key piece of his electoral base.

“It’s going to be substantially smaller than the white vote and Black vote, but Chuy’s going to do very well,” said Frank Calabrese, a political consultant who helped the City Council’s Latino Caucus during the ward remap and who said he has advised García’s campaign in an unpaid capacity.

Lower voter turnout has made Latinos a less coveted voting bloc for Chicago candidates. The Latino community in Chicago has also been plagued by internal divisions.

Under Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, the Hispanic Democratic Organization — derisively known as the Hispanic Daley Organization — feuded with García and his allies. Top Latino officials, including U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, supported Rahm Emanuel against García in 2015.

Still, the first round of the 2019 election showed a large number of voters in Latino wards supporting one of their own in a multicandidate field. Of the 12 wards with the highest Latino population, either Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza or longtime public official Gery Chico won all but two in the first round of voting, according to results from the Chicago Board of Elections.

A May 2019 report from James Lewis, an analyst with Rob Paral and Associates who has worked at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, studied whether bloc voting is still a reality and found that during the last mayoral election, Latino voters organized themselves most strongly around candidates of the same ethnicity. Mendoza and Chico overperformed with Latinos compared with other demographics.

“In other words, as a group’s share of a precinct’s population rises, that precinct becomes more likely to vote for a candidate of that group, and vice versa,” Lewis told the Tribune.

The problem for Chico and Mendoza in 2019 was that they weren’t able to peel off enough support from other blocs to make a runoff. Chico won 6.2% of the vote. Mendoza won 9%. It’s a problem García hopes to address with support from progressives, lakefront liberals and Black voters. As the lone Latino in a five-candidate race in 2015, García won 33.5% of the vote in the first round, forcing Emanuel into a runoff.

This time, García is again the only Latino candidate, but other contenders hope they are able to peel off Latino support with their policy plans. Issues most important to Latino voters mirror those important to the average Chicagoan, said Jaime Dominguez, a professor of political science at Northwestern University whose research has touched on Latino politics in Chicago.

“Crime is No. 1,” he said, perhaps more so since the recent attacks on street vendors in Little Village.

Dominguez and others point out, though, that older voters — especially property owners — are more likely to support an increased police presence, while younger voters tend to lean more toward police alternatives.

“Second, I think, is the tax relief issue,” Dominguez said. According to the Cook County treasurer’s office, property tax increases in majority- or heavily Latino wards like the 22nd, 25th, 26th, 30th and 35th, were particularly stark. Higher bills are especially painful for senior homeowners on a fixed income, Dominguez pointed out, and older homeowners are likely to vote.

The third most dominant issue is schools, and concerns over more work stoppages by the Chicago Teachers Union, Dominguez said.

Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas shakes hands with a Chicago police officer during the annual Columbus Day parade in October.

Candidate and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas said he expects to do well with Latino voters “because of my longtime position on public safety, because of my work in (CPS) and because I’m speaking to an issue right now that is just having a devastating impact on largely the Latino communities: getting just killed by gentrification, with higher property taxes.”

He argued that “some of the strongest support for police” comes from Hispanic communities. On property taxes, he said, “it creates a great hardship on immigrant, first-generation and second-generation families” and criticized the city for what he said was “suddenly driving their costs, their property taxes, up significantly with no relationship to their capacity to pay.”

On the campaign trail, businessman Willie Wilson frequently highlights his support from some Latino church pastors and often peppers his speeches with declarations that, among other groups, he is Black, white, Polish, Filipino and Latino — a broad statement he hopes will resonate with voters no matter their background.

Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson, left, receives the endorsement of Ald. Raymond Lopez on Jan. 4.

Wilson, who also received an endorsement from Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez, said his appeal to Latinos will come from his years of philanthropy as well as his “down-to-earth” demeanor that helps him relate to everyday residents. Still, he acknowledged there have been historic tensions between Latino and Black Chicagoans, which he attributes to both communities feeling as if they have been shortchanged by the city.

“It’s something that’s gonna take time to overcome,” Wilson, who is Black, told the Tribune. “I focus on pulling people together. … We go in and help with a lot of things in the Latino community, same we do to other communities. We treat them all equally. That’s the human side of me.”

Wilson has also expressed some criticism of the city’s handling of migrants bused to Chicago, saying in a debate this month, “We got people right here in Chicago (who) cannot pay rent, don’t have food to eat, don’t have a place to live. I have nothing against helping anyone, but you got to look at the home first.”

At the same debate, Ald. Sophia King, 4th, echoed other mayoral candidates who claimed Lightfoot was ill-prepared to cope with the recent influx of migrants. “Being a sanctuary city is not the problem,” King said. “We can’t be welcoming to the migrants and not the people who are here in our city already. That is where the tension lies.”

Ald. Sophia King, 4th, hugs fellow candidate Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, before a candidates forum Jan. 7.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson touts support from Northwest Side Latinos including Aldermen Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, and Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd, and U.S. Rep. Delia Ramirez.

For Albany Park resident Em Gonzalez, supporting Johnson is a no-brainer. The 29-year-old, who doesn’t believe policing and incarceration are part of the solution to crime, said the commissioner, who has derided such systems as “wicked,” is the clearest choice.

“It’s hard, because ‘Chuy’ García is somebody that is part of my community by proxy of identity,” said Gonzalez. “However, just because someone shares an identity with me, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily speaking for me. … Brandon Johnson aligns more on what would be meeting the needs, specifically, of the Latinx community in Chicago in a way that maybe ‘Chuy’ García is a little out of touch with.”

Candidate and community activist Ja’Mal Green said his record protesting gun violence and entities such as Chase Bank — which ultimately promised to increase mortgage lending to Black and Latino families following his demonstrations — will speak for itself among Hispanic voters, particularly younger ones.

While Latinos are quite familiar with García, Green said, that has become a disadvantage for the veteran politician, who Green claimed was “nowhere to be found” when communities such as Little Village and Pilsen were struggling during the pandemic.

“The young demographic of Latinos who share a big percentage of the vote … they want change,” Green said.

State Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner discusses security and policing with street vender Gio Lopez as Buckner campaigns in the heavily Latino Little Village neighborhood on Jan. 13.

On a recent morning, state Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner, another mayoral candidate, walked down 26th Street in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and spoke about crime with street vendors.

“They’re spooked,” he later told the Tribune. “They don’t know that there’s a real plan for their safety. … They want a balanced approach,” including more detectives and funding for community groups and “also making sure that we have, not a co-responder model, but a complete mental health responder model for certain calls.” His campaign calls for creation of a “511″ line to ensure mental health and crisis specialists are deployed for certain medical emergencies.

King has advocated for increasing the police ranks alongside an more violence prevention services, and told the Tribune crime is resonating with voters across the spectrum. Her public safety plan pledges to address “far longer 911 response times and much lower clearance rates for violent crimes like murders and shootings” in Black and brown neighborhoods. If elected, she has promised to expand the city’s program that sends nonpolice professionals to emergency calls involving substance abuse, mental health crises and homelessness.

King has highlighted her work on raising the city’s minimum wage and championing the city’s guaranteed income pilot — which was offered regardless of immigration status — to Latino voters.

Buckner said he had heard from Latino voters a frustration about the fights between the mayor and CTU. His wife is a first-generation Cuban Ecuadorian American, he said, “so we have a lot of conversations at home about what the community needs. And so I’m really, really positive about the fact that I think that I’m gonna be able to get a considerable amount of Latino vote. … People are clamoring for leadership.”

In a statement, mayoral candidate Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, said he has heard from Latino aldermen and voters that housing affordability is a top concern. “We have to build and designate more affordable housing, and look at programs to offer property tax abatement to homeowners who have been in these neighborhoods for several generations.”

Sawyer said he’s concerned about the enrollment decline in CPS among Latino students, whose numbers are falling faster than any other group’s.

“This is due in part to gentrification displacement, and in part to charter school enrollment,” Sawyer said. “Latinx communities need a fix and a boost to public schools as much as any other group in Chicago.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, a candidate for mayor of Chicago, enters a media briefing room following the first televised debate of the race Thursday.

Lightfoot isn’t giving up on Latino voters. Her campaign said she has “worked to deliver real, tangible wins for Latinos across Chicago.”

“Throughout her administration, Mayor Lightfoot has worked to right systemic wrongs to revitalize communities, support minority-owned businesses, protect immigrants, and build a city government that actually reflects the diversity of Chicago’s neighborhoods,” Lightfoot spokeswoman Hannah Goss said in a statement. “The Mayor’s pandemic leadership ensured an equitable vaccine rollout to ensure Latino communities were protected and helped countless small businesses survive, and she has guided this city with humanity and grace to support the recent influx of migrants being sent to Chicago.”

West Lawn resident Bryan Hernandez, 22, didn’t follow city politics during the last mayoral election, when he became eligible to vote. He and his wife were focused on taking care of his infant son, and Lightfoot’s victory was a blip on his radar.

“I just didn’t come around to it,” Hernandez said about voting in 2019, adding that a lack of engagement from city leaders made him believe that “Latinos have never really been a part of anything.”

But as his son grew, taking his first steps amid the backdrop of a pandemic and crime wave, Hernandez began to fear for his family’s future in a city that felt increasingly unsafe. When he turned on Univision this month and caught García’s speech unveiling a public safety platform that the candidate said uplifts and doesn’t vilify cops, Hernandez decided he would cast his first vote in a municipal election for him.

He hopes other young Latinos will be similarly inspired, quipping that García’s background could give him a boost in that demographic.

“He’s like an uncle, you can say,” Hernandez said.

At the mariscos restaurant, García celebrated the multitude of communities south of the border from which many Chicagoans trace their ancestry. He kicked off his speech with a Spanish greeting for “all the boricua who are here,” to sharp whoops and laughter at his nod to the strong Puerto Rican population on the Northwest Side.

“But there are also Columbians, Peruvians, people from South and Central America and the Caribbean — from all of the Americas this afternoon,” García said before switching back to English.

García himself said he believes he has an advantage among Latino voters as the only such candidate in the race, “given Chicago’s history of ethnic politics and bloc voting.”

But he also seemingly acknowledged that isn’t enough on its own.

“At the same time,” he said, “I want a multiracial, multiethnic, across-geography coalition to win.”

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