March 12, 2003


A lot of Chicago politicians and city officials were once convinced that the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a longtime appendage of Mayor Rich Daley's political organization, represented the future of Chicago politics -- namely: that the city's first Hispanic mayor would come from their ranks.

But the organization's lackluster performance on Feb. 25, in five contested aldermanic races in Hispanic-majority wards, has raised the specter that the HDO could soon be perceived as the THDO -- the Toothless Hispanic Democratic Organization.

Run by former Daley aide and attorney Victor Reyes and current city official Al Sanchez, the HDO became legendary during the 1990s for channeling resources and precinct manpower into key Hispanic wards on behalf of pro-Daley candidates, especially in opposition to the more liberal Independent Political Organization, which is led by U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4) and state Senator Miguel del Valle (D-2). The HDO usually crushed its opposition. Last month, that "crushing" didn't occur.

Under the 2001 remap, Chicago has nine wards with Hispanic majorities. Two of them have white aldermen who won on Feb. 25 -- Ed Burke (14th) and Dick Mell (33rd). Incumbent Ray Suarez (31st) was unopposed in the Puerto Rican-majority 31st Ward. In Guterriez's 26th Ward, where he was once alderman and committeeman, Alderman Billy Ocasio, Gutierrez's choice, kept the seat, and the HDO did not intervene. But in the other six races, the HDO won two, lost one, gave one anti-HDO incumbent a pass, and faces two runoffs on April 1, in the 1st and 12th wards. To retain their credibility, and to not be derided as the THDO, the HDO-backed candidates must win both of those runoffs. Here's an analysis:

35th Ward (Logan Square): The HDO's lamest, least excusable performance was in this Puerto Rican-majority ward, which incumbent Vilma Colom has represented since 1995. Colom beat Rey Colon in 1999 by a solid majority of 4,819-3,044, winning 61 percent of the vote. Colon ran again this year, blasting Colom as a pro-Daley, pro-Mell stooge and promising to be "independent" of both. This was the kind of contest that the HDO supposedly was born to win.

Yet, to the enormous embarrassment of Mell, Daley and the HDO, Colon convincingly defeated Colom, 4,444-3,212 -- a sizable 58 percent share for the challenger. Colon's only significant supporter among public officials was del Valle, a longtime nemesis of the HDO; everybody else, from the mayor down, backed Colom.

So what happened? The HDO's excuse is that, figuring that Colom was a cinch, the organization sent its workers into the 30th Ward. More plausible is that Hispanic voters, annoyed at Mell, known as "Old Gringo" due to his meddling in Hispanic wards, sent him a message. That would be all the more remarkable because Mell's son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, is Illinois' governor. But most plausible is that Colom became arrogant and out of touch with the voters, and she paid the price. Nevertheless, the HDO should have won this one.

Here's another scenario: According to some insiders, the HDO allegedly cut a deal with del Valle in which they promised to abandon Colom, letting Colon win, and to give del Valle a pass for renomination for state senator in 2004. In exchange, del Valle would not oppose the renomination of pro-HDO state Representative Willie Delgado (D-3), who beat pro-del Valle challenger Jose Anthony Alvarez by 24 votes (5,168-5,144) in the 2000 Democratic primary. So the real loser in 2003 is Alvarez in 2004.

If this sounds incomprehensible and convoluted, welcome to the word of Chicago Hispanic politics.

30th Ward (Near Northwest Side, Cragin, Avondale): In this new ward, HDO-backed Ariel Reboyras obliterated his opposition. Reboyras, who is Puerto Rican, was endorsed by Daley, state Senator Iris Martinez (D-20), the HDO and outgoing Alderman Mike Wojcik. Roughly 40 percent of the ward's voting population is white, and that vote broke heavily for Reboyras. Hundreds of HDO workers invaded the precincts on election day.

The result: In an anemic turnout, Reboyras got 4,561 votes (77 percent) to just 637 for Joe Pagan, 514 for Julio Vargas and 177 for Miguel Sotomayor. That's a turnout of 5,889, which is just about a third of the turnout in the farther northwest white-majority wards. But Reboyras was a pro-Daley, pro-HDO winner.

25th Ward (Near West Side: Pilsen and the precincts around the University of Illinois at Taylor-Halsted): Incumbent Danny Solis, a Mexican-American, is the mayor's favorite Hispanic alderman. Solis was opposed in 2003 by former alderman Ambrosio Medrano, who was convicted of taking bribes in 1997 in the federal "Silver Shovel" probe. The HDO and Daley strongly backed Solis, and he won, but not very impressively, getting 3,799 votes (54 percent) to Medrano's 2,601 (37 percent) and Antonio Zotta's 688. Medrano will try again, for ward Democratic committeeman in 2004 and for alderman in 2007.

22nd Ward (Near South Side: west Little Village, south Lawndale): Incumbent Ricardo Munoz, in this Mexican-American area, is an ally of former state senator Jesus Garcia, who was an ally of del Valle, back in the days when they were supporters of Mayor Harold Washington. Munoz opposes the mayor on many City Council matters. The HDO initially supported Roy Diaz, a city Water Department employee who got on the ballot but then withdrew from the race, and Munoz won another term unopposed, with 3,197 votes. In 1999 Munoz got 4,189 votes against four opponents, so his political base is slipping. He might be ripe for an HDO ouster in 2007.

12th Ward (South Side: east Little Village, Brighton Park): Ray Frias, a former city police officer, once loomed as the Mexican-American most likely either to be mayor or to replace Gutierrez in Congress. But Frias, while a state representative (1993-95) made a huge mistake: He supported the medical industry's caps on lawsuit damages, infuriating Tim Degnan, the former state senator who was Daley's chief Springfield lobbyist. But retribution was not soon in coming. Frias ran for alderman in 1995, and Daley backed him, so he won easily. Frias appointed his brother, Fernando Frias, to his House seat. But then Fernando Frias lost his race for the nomination in 1996, and in 1997, Frias was indicted for taking bribes in the "Silver Shovel" probe, but he used an entrapment defense and was found not guilty.

Frias had always been an HDO loyalist, and he was a rival of Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Mareno, but, in an inexplicable convolution of events, the HDO in 2003 allied with Mareno, who is running for Cicero town president, to back George Cardenas against Frias. On Feb. 25 Cardenas got 2,173 votes (46 percent) to Frias' 2,121 (45 percent) and Jose Rodriguez' 420. In the April 1 runoff, Daley, Degnan and the HDO are now solidly behind Cardenas, who is favored to beat Frias.

1st Ward: Incumbent Jesse Granato is not a clown, but his major foe thinks he is. "He's inept and ineffectual," said Manny Flores. "He's an embarrassment (to the ward)." In a major upset, Flores finished first on Feb. 25 with 3,386 votes (49 percent) to Granato's 3,330 votes (48 percent) and Howard Crawford's 214.

As a general rule, when an incumbent finishes second in the initial election and is forced into a runoff, he loses. But Granato, who is of Italian-American and Mexican-American heritage, was endorsed by a phalanx of Democratic powerhouses, including Daley, Mell, Blagojevich, the HDO and the remnants of former U.S. representative Dan Rostenkowski's 32nd Ward organization. They'll push hard to salvage Granato on April 1.

Granato was once a staffer to Alderman Ted Matlak (32nd), and he was elected in the newly created 1st Ward in 1995, beating anti-HDO candidate Victoria Almeida by 234 votes in the runoff (3,870-3,636). In 1999 Granato beat anti-HDO candidate Cynthia Soto in the runoff by 360 votes (4,664-4,304).

Granato finished first in the primary in both 1995 and 1999, but this year he finished second. Flores, a 31-year old assistant state's attorney, doesn't have the baggage of Alameida or Soto, who both were allied with the IPO, and the HDO will find it difficult to go negative on him. The 1st Ward was altered significantly by the 2001 remap, absorbing a sizable amount of territory north of North Avenue from the old 26th, 32nd and 35th wards. Roughly half the ward is new. The HDO will flood the ward with precinct manpower, but Flores is favored to win. He's a much better fit for the ward than Granato is.

Citywide, only five wards, the 1st, 6th, 12th, 15th and 21st, have runoffs on April 1. The 6th, 15th and 21st are South Side black-majority wards. Since there is no mayoral runoff, the HDO can deploy all its troops in the 1st and 12th wards. If it doesn't prevail in both, the HDO will definitely be the THDO.