Gutiérrez Takes a Pass, Opening Door for Latino Candidates in Chicago

Congressman Luís Gutiérrez is out of the mayoral race for Chicago – clearing the field for three Latino candidates vying to upset favorite Rahm Emanuel to become the city’s first Hispanic mayor.

The nine-term congressman said he had unfinished business on immigrant issues.

“Across this nation, immigrants are counting on me,” he said during a speech Wednesday afternoon at the Rafael Cintrón-Ortíz Latino Cultural Center in Chicago.

“Our immigrant community is under attack – but we’re fighting back,” Gutiérrez added. “And I am fortunate enough to be on the frontlines of the battle.”

An influential voice in national Hispanic and immigrant issues, Gutiérrez carried the most political weight among his Latino counterparts. The vacuum created by his decision leaves an open field for the Latino candidates to scoop up votes, endorsements and funding.

Miguel del Valle, 59, who in 2006 became the first Latino assistant majority leader in the State Senate in the Illinois General Assembly, is the city clerk and has been involved in local politics for more than three decades. Rev. Wilfredo de Jesús, 46, a minister and commissioner of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, is a lifelong Chicagoan with close ties to the African American community and religious groups. And Gery Chico, who was outgoing Mayor Richard Daley’s chief of staff for three years and a former president of the city’s public schools, is the chair of the City Colleges of Chicago.

“For the first time we can see daylight and have the potential to have one of our people leading one of the biggest cities in our country,” de Jesús, a Puerto Rican, says. “Just like African Americans did with Barack, Latinos can see the same thing.”

The nonpartisan primary is scheduled for February 22, with a possible run-off if none of the candidates gets 50 percent of the vote.

Hispanics represent 15 percent of Chicago’s 1.5 million registered voters, according to estimates from the city’s Board of Elections. That’s about 200,000 out of the city’s nearly 800,000 Hispanic residents.

The candidates have to meet certain criteria – tens of thousands of signatures, millions in fundraising and a campaign team – by next month to get their names on the ballot.
“That’s a big step,” said Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He doesn’t believe all three candidates will be able meet those standards.

“They may have to combine resources,” Simpson, a former alderman, said.

The candidates are not at that point yet. Each one believes he’s the right man to tackle the issues plaguing the city, particularly in the Latino community.

“The issues Latinos in the city are concerned about are the same as the rest of the population,” said Miguel del Valle, 59, who was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, and has lived in the city since he was four years old. “It’s public safety, education and jobs.”

He said 30 percent of homicides go unsolved, public schools are under-performing and jobs are disappearing.

“We’ve lost too many jobs in the city,” he added. “If we’re going to see our revenue picture improve, we’ve got to create jobs.”

Beyond the issues, there’s the formidable candidacy of Rahm Emanuel, who just resigned as White House Chief of Staff.

“I’m not focused on Rahm Emanuel,” said Gery Chico, 54, who has Mexican, Greek and Lithuanian roots. “I’m focused on Gery Chico.”

Chico, who was recently endorsed by former alderman Manny Flores—another Latino who had considered a mayoral run—is likely to benefit the most from Gutiérrez’s absence.

“The field is getting much smaller, and now it’s a matter of who’s left and who can be a competitor citywide,” Chico said. “We can raise money, build coalition, have volunteers, and we will be able to compete and win this election.”

Whoever wins the election, Simpson believes a viable Latino candidacy will go a long way toward blazing a trail for future candidates.

“Even if they didn’t win, if they were in the runoff…it would be a seismic shift in the power of the Latino community,” Simpson said. “It would really mean they were major players. If they don’t win this time, they could win next time.”