March 19, 2008


There is considerable national conjecture about whether Hispanics harbor a racial bias against blacks. In the Ohio presidential primary, for example, Hillary Clinton got nearly two-thirds of the Hispanic vote.

But there is less conjecture in Illinois. In the Feb. 5 primary election, Barack Obama topped Clinton in Chicago's 11 Hispanic-majority wards by 43,208-39,619. Clinton won seven of those wards, and five were on the Southwest Side, where working-class Mexican Americans dominate. Obama won four of six wards on the Near Northwest Side, where Puerto Ricans dominate, beating Clinton by 28,759-21,418. Overall, Obama got 52.1 percent of the Hispanic vote.

The key question: If Obama is the Democratic nominee, how much of the pro-Clinton Hispanic vote will shift to Republican John McCain?

Another enduring question, namely, when will Cook County's slumbering Hispanic vote finally arise, was answered on Feb. 5. Call it the "salsa tsunami." In every key contested race where a Hispanic candidate ran against an Anglo candidate, the Hispanic candidate won. The Hispanic vote was the crucial difference in countywide races, providing the victory margin for Anita Alvarez for state's attorney, Frank Avila for Metropolitan Water Reclamation commissioner and Jesse Reyes for Circuit Court judge. In local races, Hispanics overwhelmingly backed incumbent Board of Review Commissioner Joe Berrios and state Senator Iris Martinez (D-20), both of whom beat white foes.

The biggest loser was Alderman Dick Mell (33rd), derisively known as "Old Gringo" in the Latino community. Mell strongly believes in family values, which means putting his family into public office. Mell can take credit for foisting his incompetent -- and possibly corrupt -- son-in-law, Governor Rod Blagojevich, upon the great State of Illinois. Last year his daughter Deborah, who is lesbian, decided that she wanted daddy to make her a state representative so as to further her agenda of gay marriage. To do so, he had to strong-arm state Representative Rich Bradley (D-39) into running for state senator against Martinez.

That arrogance set off a chain reaction causing "Humpty Dumpty Mell" to fall off his wall and lose his second major election in 11 months. In 2007 he gloriously failed to oust Rey Colon as 35th Ward alderman. This year Mell assembled all the King's horses and all the King's patronage men -- which were three deep in the district's precincts -- for Bradley. Yet Martinez prevailed with 51.3 percent of the vote, topping Bradley 13,649-11,128, with 1,867 votes going to Carlos Guevara. That is a margin of 2,521 votes.

"This is not a dictatorship," declared Martinez. "How dare he presume to tell Latinas and Latinos how to vote? How dare he decide that I must be removed to make room for his daughter?" And, laughed Martinez, "The people rebelled. He barely beat me in his ward."

There are 137 precincts, and all or parts of nine wards, in the 20th District, which stretches from Argyle Street to Bloomingdale Avenue, between Damen Avenue and Long Avenue. It has a Hispanic population of 48 percent and a Hispanic voter pool of 43 percent.

Only three Democratic committeemen backed Martinez: Alderman Rey Colon (35th), county Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (26th) and Alderman Manny Flores (1st), but they delivered big in their 50 precincts. Colon won his heavily Puerto Rican ward for Martinez with 59.3 percent of the vote (4,451-2,570), Flores won with 61.4 percent of the vote (1,764-956), and Maldonado won with 69.3 percent of the vote (458-135). In the 32nd Ward, where Committeeman Ted Matlak is retiring, Alderman Scott Waguespack endorsed Martinez, and she won 205-140. In those four wards, Martinez won by 6,878-3,801.

In the other five wards, with 87 precincts, where Bradley was the endorsed candidate, the result was mixed. In the 39th Ward (12 precincts around Albany Park), Randy Barnette carried Bradley 1,271-859 (with 56.9 percent of the votes cast). In the Puerto Rican 30th Ward (12 precincts), Alderman Ariel Reboyras carried Bradley 1,327-1,032 (51.9 percent). In Mell's 33rd Ward (30 precincts), Bradley won by 3,318-2,777 (51.3 percent). In Berrios's Puerto Rican 31st Ward (27 precincts), the county Democratic chairman was pushing himself first, and he won his ward 5,031-1,213 in the Board of Review race, but Bradley fared far less well, losing to Martinez 1,260-1,943 (with 34.6 percent of the votes cast). Bradley's people well note that there was a drop-off of 3,771 votes from Berrios to Bradley -- more than Martinez' districtwide victory margin. In the 38th Ward (two precincts), Patty Jo Cullerton lost Bradley by 151-160. In those five wards, which contain his House district, Bradley won 7,327-6,771.

"We had a community campaign," said Martinez, who spent more than $400,000, with at least $250,000 coming from the Illinois Senate President Emil Jones' political account. "I am the only Latina in the Illinois Senate," she said. "Women in my district were enraged that the ward bosses wanted to replace me with a man, and all voters were enraged by the lies and distortions of his campaign." Martinez lacked Bradley's precinct manpower, but she allocated her money to cable television and Spanish radio ads, Hispanic print media and direct mail. Martinez also endorsed Obama.

Martinez astutely positioned herself as a potential victim of the big, bad gringos, gaining the sympathy and support of Hispanics in general and of women in particular. "That killed us," acknowledged Barnette, referring to the outpouring of female voters. In the state's attorney's race, where Alvarez ran against five men, she won the 1st (45 percent), 26th (51.4 percent), 30th (48.3 percent), 31st (54.7 percent), 33rd (36.9 percent) and 35th (48.1 percent) wards. Overall, she got 20,394 votes in those wards. Alvarez voters -- women, Hispanics and white pro-Obama liberals -- also opted for Martinez.

In 2002, when Martinez was first nominated, she beat Alderman Mike Wojcik (30th) by 13,839-8,660, with 61.5 percent of the vote in a turnout of 22,499. In that contest, Martinez was endorsed by all Hispanic committeemen and by the now-disgraced Hispanic Democratic Organization. In 2004, when Martinez was renominated without opposition, she drew 14,164 votes.

In 2008 turnout was 26,634, the remnants of the HDO backed Bradley, and it was 2002 all over again: Martinez got 13,649 votes, a few hundred less than in 2002, which came from her Hispanic base, while Bradley, with 11,128 votes, improved on Wojcik's showing by about 2,500 votes. The Hispanic votes that Berrios and Reboyras diverted to Bradley were more than offset by a higher Hispanic turnout and by the votes of Hispanic and white women.

Bradley lamely tried to recreate himself as a Hispanic. His mother is Mexican American, but he neither looks Hispanic nor speaks Spanish. "If he thought he could be a 'born again' Hispanic he should have changed his name," Martinez said. "His wife (Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Cynthia Santos) shortened her Greek surname, and everybody thinks she's Hispanic. She got a big Hispanic vote."

Ironically, back in 2002, Bradley, first elected in 1996, pondered running under the surname of Cerda-Bradley, but his new 40th Illinois House District was majority white and still is, and he ran as just Bradley. A loyal minion of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, Bradley really wanted to stay put, but he cloaked himself in the mantle of "change" in his race against Martinez, portraying her as a stooge of Jones and Blagojevich. She labeled him a stooge of Madigan. "He wasn't Spanish enough," said Barnette of Bradley.

The bottom line: The "Gringo Guys, especially "Old Gringo," figured that the desertion of the HDO, coupled with Bradley's backing by Berrios and Reboyras, would render Martinez a political pussycat. They were wrong. Having trounced Bradley, Martinez is now a political "La Tigresa," and she is well positioned to run for Congress in the Hispanic-majority 4th District when incumbent Democrat Luis Gutierrez retires. In a large field of men, Martinez, like Alvarez did in 2008, would win.

Even though he ostensibly backed Bradley, Berrios emerged as a big winner. The Board of Review handles all commercial and residential property tax appeals, and it has three commissioners, each of whom represents one-third of Cook County. With close to $3 million in his campaign fund, Berrios faced wealthy white attorney Jay Paul Deratany in the 2nd District, which includes 38 Chicago wards and five suburban townships; it contains all the Hispanic wards, plus the Northwest Side and Southwest Side white ethnic wards.

Berrios prevailed by 153,053-107,889, with 58.7 percent of the vote. His performance in Hispanic wards was spectacular: He won the 1st, 33rd and 35th wards with more than 60 percent of the vote, the 12th, 22nd, 25th, 26th and 30th wards with more than 70 percent, and the 14th and his home 31st wards with more than 80 percent.

What is clear is that ethnic Hispanic rivalries have dissipated. It's no longer Puerto Ricans against Mexican Americans. No longer North Side versus South Side. Hispanic voters are registering, turning out, and voting for every Hispanic-sounding surname on the ballot. Hispanics have finally become a political power in Chicago and Cook County.