March 26, 2003


It is often remarked in political circles that if the white ethnic Democrats who populate Chicago's Northwest and Southwest Sides -- those of Irish, Italian, Polish and East European ancestry -- lived in New York City, in the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn or Staten Island, the vast bulk of them would be Republicans.

In New York City, there are clear lines of partisan, ideological, racial and cultural demarcation: The conservative, primarily working class whites in the outlying boroughs vote Republican, while the blacks, Puerto Ricans and liberal whites in Manhattan vote Democratic. A fixation on proliferating crime was the impetus which propelled Republican Rudy Giuliani into the mayor's job in 1993, and the Republicans have held the mayoralty since. Giuliani's leadership after the September 11 terrorist attacks enabled Republican Michael Bloomberg to win in 2001.

But Chicago is another world, unique unto itself, with cultural, racial and ideological battles fought within the confines of the Democratic party. There is no Republican party, and a Republican nomination for any office is worthless. Therefore, all focus is on dominating the Democratic party's nominating process, and the conservative, ethnic wing of the party, exemplified by Mayor Rich Daley -- who would be Republicans anywhere else -- have easily dominated and dispatched any opposition from the liberal wing, which consists of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Lakefront white liberals. In fact, many liberal Hispanics, such as U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4), are aligned with Daley, because he is in power, and the city's Mexican-American population, which is culturally conservative, is solidly behind Daley. Chicago has had an Irish-American mayor for 61 of the past 70 years, and no change is in sight.

While habit, history and a thirst to win draws ambitious politicians into Chicago's Democratic politics, an opposite situation exists in west suburban Cicero, where the Republican machine rules. Republicans have controlled the town since Al Capone's days, back in the 1920s, when Capone lived in Cicero's Hawthorne Arms Hotel and ran Chicago's mob and Cicero's Republican party. Up through the 1980s, Cicero's population was primarily of East European ancestry, with Poles and Slovaks dominant -- and heavily Republican.

However, even though Cicero's population is now over 77 percent Hispanic, primarily Mexican-American, Cicero's habit, history and politicians' thirst to win hasn't changed. Republicans still dominate the town, and Republican Hispanics occupy key offices: Ramiro Gonzalez, a Mexican-born immigrant who was named by the town's Republican establishment to replace convicted Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, is a huge favorite to win the April 1 election for the remaining 2 years of Loren-Maltese's term. All of the town trustees are Republicans, and most are Hispanic.

Control of Cicero is much prized, since the town has an annual budget of $50 million, and 650 patronage jobs. The law firm of former Chicago alderman Ed Vrdolyak has billed Cicero $1.19 million in attorney fees over the past decade, and Vrdolyak and Town Supervisor Joseph Virruso are the real powers in the town's Republican party. They reportedly picked Gonzalez.

Gonzalez' 2003 Democratic opponent is the shopworn and much-traveled Joseph Mario Moreno, a Cook County commissioner since 1994 and a Chicago resident who moved into Cicero in December 1999. Moreno, who is Mexican American, was elected, while a Chicagoan, as Democratic state central committeeman from the Hispanic-majority 4th U.S. House District in 1998, defeating incumbent Miguel del Valle, who is Puerto Rican. That infuriated a number of Hispanics, including Gutierrez, a del Valle ally, who has endorsed Republican Gonzalez in this year's election. Moreno lost a bid for Democratic ward committeeman in 1996 in Chicago's 25th Ward.

After relocating to Cicero, Moreno immediately took on Loren-Maltese in the 2001 election and got creamed: Loren-Maltese, who was then "under investigation" by the feds, got 9,492 votes (59.5 percent), to Moreno's 6,444. Republican Town Supervisor Joe Virruso won 8,967-5,810. And in the contest for the two trustee spots, Republicans Josephine Herrera and Ramiro Gonzalez got 8,541 and 7,984 votes, respectively, to Democrats Elizabeth (Lisa) Hernandez and Joe Garcia, who got 5,916 and 1,045. Lisa Hernandez is the wife of Democratic Township Comitteeman Charlie Hernandez, who was first elected in 1998, and Charlie Hernandez is a close ally of Moreno. In 2002 Lisa Hernandez sought an Illinois House seat in the newly created, Hispanic-majority 24th District, centered on Cicero, but lost 7,926-6,685 to Republican Frank Aguilar, who became the state's first Hispanic Republican state legislator.

Loren-Maltese was convicted in August 2002 of conspiracy in a scheme to steal $12 million from Cicero in fraudulent insurance payments and was removed from her job. Gonzalez was elected by his fellow trustees to replace her. Also convicted were Emil Schullo, Cicero's former police chief, and Michael Spano Sr., the reputed Cicero mob boss. When Gonzalez was appointed, Moreno ripped him as just a "different face representing the same corrupt organization" in Cicero and added that Gonzalez "does not represent reform."

Moreno has a point: Political corruption and organized crime influence have been rife in Cicero for over 70 years. According to information supplied by the Illinois Police and Sheriff's Association, the dominant mobster from the 1970s onward in Cicero was Rocco Infelise, who ran the town's bookies, gambling and strip joints and whose territory extended as far south as Indiana; Infelise also was an officer in Teamsters Local 714. Infelise was a protZgZ of Joseph Ferriola, who was in line to succeed reputed Chicago-area mob boss Joey Aiuppa, but Ferriola died and Aiuppa was jailed.

Back in Cicero, Infelise engineered the appointment of Frank Maltese as town assessor in 1982, a $65,000-a-year job. Maltese became close to Cicero Town President Henry Klosak, and he got his fourth wife, Betty Loren-Maltese, a job with the Liquor Control Commission. When Klosak died in 1992, Maltese, who was then under indictment, got his wife named as the new town president, and she was elected in April 1993. Maltese died in 1993, but Betty's career was skyrocketing, and in 1994 she became township Republican committeeman. Using her clout, she raised money at an astonishing pace, with her annual golf outing and ad book generating almost $1 million a year. But Loren-Maltese's Republicanism was entirely self-serving: She tried to defeat one Berwyn/Riverside-based Republican state representative, backed a Democrat for county commissioner in 2002, and supported U.S. Representative Bill Lipinski, a Democrat, against Republican foes.

But the demographics of Cicero were changing. Stretching from Roosevelt Road to 39th Street, between Harlem and Ridgeland, Cicero was (and continues to be) a monotonous expanse of spacious but not overly expensive brick bungalows, lining street after street, with huge factories and plenty of bars. Many of the ethnics who populated the town worked at the Western Electric, Hotpoint and General Electric plants or at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's sewage treatment plant in Stickney, just to the south. Sportsman's Park was a huge draw in summer months. The town's population, which was 69,130 in 1960, dropped to 61,232 by 1980, and more than 25 percent of the population was then age 60 or older. That's when the exodus of whites began and the influx of Mexican Americans started.

The town's population is now over 85,000, Hispanics are 77 percent of the population, and Mexican Americans constitute over 80 percent of those Hispanics. And because Loren-Maltese and the Republicans embraced those new voters and got them involved in the party and the town, a solid majority of Cicero's Hispanics support the local Republican machine.

The Feb. 25 primary paints an ominous picture for Moreno, who got 3,008 votes in the Democratic primary (out of 3,146 cast), while Gonzalez got 5,682 votes in the Republican primary (out of 7,718 cast). Given that he lost by 2,948 votes in 2001 to the controversial, non-Hispanic, but not-yet-indicted Loren-Maltese, Moreno is getting no traction against Gonzalez this year. Gonzalez is studiously ignoring the events and personalities that led to his current job, and he is astutely building a winning coalition: He emphasizes that he is able to provide town services, he has mandated that 55 percent of the town's police and other employees be Hispanic, and he named Wayne Johnson, a former chief investigator for the Chicago Crime Commission, as police chief.

Moreno has declared that he intends to use the Cicero president's job as a steppingstone to run for U.S. senator. That's not smart. Republican workers are blasting him as a "carpetbagger" from Chicago. That's very effective. But there's another dynamic at work here: The Hispanic Democratic Organization, run by former mayoral aide Victor Reyes and current Chicago official Al Sanchez, have the manpower to flood Cicero with workers, neutralizing the 200-plus Republican precinct worker operation.

But, according to insiders, the HDO wants Moreno to lose, so as to be rid of him. State Senator Martin Sandoval (D-12), a Mexican American elected in 2002 and a close ally of Reyes, has moved from Chicago into Cicero, which contains a sliver of his Senate district. His aim, according to Hispanic sources, is to run for Cicero town president in 2005 and to knock off Hernandez as township Democratic committeeman in 2006. That could explain why the HDO is not active on Moreno's behalf.

My prediction: Cicero has more than 24,000 registered voters, but barely half that number turn out in local elections. Corruption is not an issue; services are. The Republicans will crank out 8,000-plus votes for Gonzalez, and he will win easily.