June 24, 2009


Call it a demographic "brownout." Contrary to conventional presumptions, Chicago's once-surging Hispanic population has peaked, due to three factors:

First, America's economic crisis has dampened immigration and encouraged return migration, especially to Mexico. Sectors with high Hispanic employment, such as construction, landscaping and the restaurant industry, have suffered, and jobs have evaporated. The streets are no longer paved with gold. The incentive to immigrate has vanished.

Second, the paralysis in the housing market has stalled demographic change. Over the past two decades the concentration of Puerto Ricans in the Logan Square/Near North Side area has expanded ever outward, as has the Mexican-American population in the South Side/Little Village/Pilsen area. The now-defunct boom in mortgage availability encouraged Hispanic renters to become home owners, even with dubious income. Hispanics are a disproportionate percentage of foreclosures in Cook County.

The collapse of market prices and the lack of loan availability mean that homes are not being sold, and buyers cannot be found. On the Northwest Side, around Belmont-Central, Albany Park and in portions of the 38th, 33rd and 39th wards, the influx of Hispanic buyers has abruptly ceased.

Third, for Hispanics who can afford to relocate, the proverbial yellow brick road leads to the suburbs, where housing is of better quality or less expensive. Berwyn and Cicero have huge Mexican-American populations, as do Melrose Park, Franklin Park, Elmwood Park, Stone Park and Northlake in the western suburbs and Bensenville, Addison and Wood Dale in northeast DuPage County. Other centers of Hispanic concentration are Aurora, Elgin, Des Plaines-Wheeling, Bolingbrook-Romeoville and Waukegan-Zion.

Fourth, it is estimated that 70 percent of Hispanic population growth now emanates from natural family increase, not immigration. Hispanics have a higher birth rate than blacks and whites and a lower death rate, as their median age is lower. Hispanic families are growing where they currently reside.

As of 2000, the Hispanic population of Chicago was 442,000, up 72 percent from in 1980, and it is expected to hit 750,000 by 2010. According to preliminary census data, the regional Hispanic population grew 24 percent from 2000 to 2007, but it has topped out.

If the area's Hispanic population has reached its zenith, the political implications are significant, and they could represent a "glass ceiling" on Hispanic political clout. Here's why:

Eight of Chicago's 50 aldermen are Hispanic, but the city has 11 Hispanic-majority wards, with the 14th, 10th and 33rd wards held by a white alderman. There has been substantial Hispanic growth in the 38th, 36th and 13th wards, but not enough to elect an alderman. The Hispanic population has been declining in the 1st and 26th wards, and the Humboldt Park aldermanic seat recently vacated by Billy Ocasio (26th), who took a job in state government, could flip to a white alderman in 2011.

Ocasio wants Mayor Rich Daley to appoint Wilfredo De Jesus, the senior pastor of the New Life Covenant Ministries, with 4,000 parishioners, as his replacement. De Jesus' conservatism on social issues, typical of the Assemblies of God denomination, and his opposition to a gay-only high school, have unleashed a media fury, with De Jesus being called homophobic. The southern end of the ward, north of Hubbard Street west of Ashland Avenue, and along Grand Avenue, has a growing white yuppie population, and the ward is now at least 30 percent white. De Jesus will face an avalanche of money and hostility if he runs in 2011. My prediction: De Jesus is not electable, and a white candidate could win.

The anticipated departure of City Clerk Miguel del Valle, who aspires to be the chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, removes him as a future mayoral candidate. Del Valle, a Puerto Rican from the North Side, resigned as a state senator to be the clerk, replacing James Laski. He did so to position himself for a mayoral run. Perhaps convinced that Daley won't retire any time soon, del Valle is bailing out.

The clerk's job was once a "Polish spot," occupied by Polish-American Democrats John Marcin (1955 to 1979), Walter Kozubowski (1979 to 1993) and Laski (1993 to 2006), the latter two convicted of crimes. Now it's a "Hispanic spot," and Daley surely will appoint a Hispanic politician to succeed del Valle, with the favorite being Alderman Ray Suarez (31st), chairman of the City Council Housing and Real Estate Committee and an ally of county Democratic chairman Joe Berrios, who is the 31st Ward Democratic committeeman.

The abrupt retirement of county Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who had been expected to run for Cook County Board president in 2010, opens the door for Berrios, one of three Board of Review commissioners, to run for county assessor. Incumbent Jim Houlihan is a likely contender for Todd Stroger's job as county board president, and Berrios would have a clear shot at the powerful assessor's job if Houlihan does not run.

Reapportionment: After the 2010 census, Chicago wards, county board districts and state legislative and congressional districts must be redrawn to reflect population shifts. The Democrats will be in total control of the redistricting process.

According to Hispanic sources, there will be pressure to create a second Hispanic-majority congressional district, even though Illinois' population loss will reduce the state's delegation to the House of Representatives from 19 to 18. At present, U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4) occupies a convoluted, C-shaped district which runs from the DuPage County line at Northlake east through Chicago's Puerto Rican areas, and also from Hillside east to Cicero-Berwyn and into Chicago's Southwest Side Mexican-American precincts. The population of the district is 69 percent Hispanic.

In theory, two barely Hispanic-majority districts could be created, with a northern district stretching into DuPage County and west to Elgin, taking in parts of Des Plaines and Wheeling, and with a southern district following Interstate 55 southwest to Bolingbrook and Romeoville and encompassing areas around Aurora. Since "compactness" is not a requirement, since Hispanics are a protected class under the federal Voting Rights Act, and since Democrats in Springfield will control the process, it could happen.

Gutierrez would be the incumbent in the north district, but he could face competition from state Senator Iris Martinez (D-20), county Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (8th), Alderman Manny Flores (1st) or a west suburban politician. Given his name identification and solid city Puerto Rican base, Gutierrez would be favored.

In the south district, Aldermen Danny Solis (25th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd) or George Cardenas (12th) could run, but the most aggressive candidate would be state Representative Linda Chapa LaVia (D-83) of Aurora.

In fact, as the 2010 statewide situation unfolds, at least three Hispanic politicians -- Martinez, LaVia and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Frank Avila -- are pondering bids for lieutenant governor. The favorite in the Democratic primary is state Representative Art Turner (D-9), an African American, but a Hispanic contender could use the race to increase his or her visibility, with an eye toward 2012.

Chicago mayoral: The city's population is 43 percent white and Asian, 41 percent black and 16 percent Hispanic. However, of Chicago's 1,416,101 registered voters, 45 percent are white, 43 percent are black, and 12 percent are Hispanic. There is, quite clearly, a paltry Hispanic voter base.

But Chicago has a runoff provision. Were Daley to retire, and were a runoff between a black candidate and a Hispanic candidate to ensue after a contested nonpartisan primary, white voters might opt for the Hispanic candidate. But, at present, Gutierrez, del Valle and Berrios lack the credibility to win.

2011 Aldermanic preview: The new census won't be finished until December of 2010, which is too late for use in redrawing Chicago aldermanic boundaries for the 2011 election, so the election will be run in existing wards.

30th Ward: Incumbent Ariel Reboyras was more than a cog in the Hispanic Democratic Organization machine; he was a founder. In his convoluted ward, which extends from Grand Avenue to Addison Street along Pulaski Road, west to Austin Avenue along Belmont Avenue, and south to Fullerton and Central avenues, Reboyras won his first term with a solid 70 percent of the vote. A staunch Daley supporter, Reboyras endorsed Rich Bradley against Martinez in the 2008 state Senate primary. He can expect a Martinez-backed opponent in 2011. There is still a sizable Polish population in the Milwaukee-Pulaski area. Attorney Bob Groszek is planning to run. Outlook: Reboyras, absent a federal indictment implicating him in Hired Truck Program wrongdoing, will win.

1st Ward: Incumbent Flores views his job as a steppingstone, not a lifetime commitment. The ward is a convoluted U-shape -- from North and Ashland avenues south to Hubbard, west to California Avenue and north to Belmont. An attorney, Flores appeals to both yuppies and Hispanics. Outlook: Flores is safe.

35th Ward: Incumbent Rey Colon's Logan Square ward has a 20 percent white voter base, but Colon defeated Alderman Vilma Colom in 2003 and foiled her 2007 comeback, winning the runoff with 62.3 percent of the vote. Colom had help from Alderman Dick Mell. Outlook: Colon is unbeatable.

31st Ward: Suarez was elected in 1991, and he was reelected with 86 percent of the vote in 2007. He has $988,565 in his campaign account. If Suarez, age 62, becomes clerk, Berrios will choose his successor.