Latino Power: A rising population is pushing political change

May 1, 2004

A boisterous crowd filled the Senate gallery last May to witness legislator after legislator rise to support a measure that would enable children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities.

The proposal had 26 sponsors in the upper chamber, most of them Democrats. But many of the lawmakers who spoke in support were Republicans. Sen. Rick Winkel, a Republican from Champaign, told the chamber he initially opposed the idea but changed his mind after talking with a girl in his district named Claudia, who otherwise would not qualify for the cheaper tuition. Only Sen. Chris Lauzen, an Aurora Republican, spoke against the legislation, which called for the children of undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition rates as long as they had lived in Illinois for three years and promised to try to become citizens.

The proposal passed 55-1, though it probably would not have come before the full Senate just a year earlier. Two weeks later, the newly formed Latino Caucus marked its first major victory when Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the measure into law.

Other smaller victories followed for the 13-legislator group that is “still in [its] toddler years,’’ as one member describes it. But as the nascent Latino Caucus strives to grow into a sizable legislative bloc, it has become active on a wide range of issues.

The alliance continues to push for a measure to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, despite suffering a stinging defeat in the House. Latino lawmakers sparred with Blagojevich over cuts he made to human services in last year’s budget, and the governor has reinstated some of that money in his budget proposal for next year. Their persistence on other issues appears to have paid off, too. Blagojevich’s budget plan also calls for $2 million to combat high dropout rates among blacks and Latinos and to launch an initiative to help immigrants become citizens. 

The Latino Caucus’ high profile, and its rising impact on policy, has been aided by several developments. Analyses of the 2002 U.S. Census show the state’s immigrant population — especially immigrants from Mexico — growing across the state, particu-larly in traditionally Republican segments of Chicago’s suburbs. The Latino Caucus was created in 2003 after the Democrats stormed to power. In the prior year’s election, Latinos nearly doubled their ranks in Springfield. 

And such political shifts as the Democratic takeover of the Senate and the governor’s emphasis on education, a key caucus concern, thrust Latino legislators into the spotlight.

Sen. Miguel del Valle, a Chicago Democrat and the senior lawmaker within the caucus, says the difference in the political climate for Latinos in the Capitol is “night and day” from just five years ago. “The people are there,” he says. “They live in your district. So any good official will want to know something about the people who live in their district.”

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle approach del Valle and other Latino Caucus members more often to learn about issues affecting Latino communities, and some have developed substantial expertise themselves, he says.

The Latino Caucus is diverse. Del Valle, a Chicago community activist born in Puerto Rico, is one of its most prominent members. Democratic Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, a self-described “conservative” Aurora business owner whose family has lived in the United States for six generations, is one of its newest.

One member from Chicago’s Northwest Side, Rep. Richard Bradley, is often mistakenly identified as a non-Latino member of the group. 

The Democrat even had to produce his birth certificate and his mother, who is Mexican, to prove he’s Latino and avoid a legal showdown with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund during the 2001 redistricting process. Bradley jokes that his new district is a good match for him: It’s half-Latino and so is he.

There is, in fact, one non-Latino in the group: Rep. Daniel Burke, who qualifies for membership because his Chicago district is primarily Latino. The caucus also includes two suburbanites, one Republican and a delegation of Chicago Democrats consisting of party regulars and independents. 

Caucus members have managed to put aside considerable differences to work on their common concerns. “When we walk into meetings of the caucus, it’s not Demo-crats vs. a Republican. It’s us working together and moving forward to see what we can do in Springfield to benefit our communities,” says the Republican in the group, Rep. Frank Aguilar of Cicero.

Long-running rivalries among Latino lawmakers that once hamstrung their efforts are on hold thanks to an agreement to “leave Chicago politics in Chicago.” Since the formation of the first Latino House district in 1982, factions within the Latino community have fought for representation in Springfield. Those neighborhood rivalries also played out in ward and city politics.

Del Valle, then a community activist, entered state politics when the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund asked him to be the lead plaintiff in a 1981 lawsuit to fight for the Latino House district. The new seat went in 1982 to Joseph Berrios, then a Democratic precinct committeeman, which angered independents, including del Valle. That marked the beginning of competition between establishment candidates and independents among North Side Latinos.

Del Valle became an ally of the late Harold Washington and helped to elect him as Chicago’s mayor. Washington later supported del Valle in his 1986 bid for the Senate, when he ousted Sen. Ed Nedza, the committeeman from the 31st Ward who had previously supported Berrios. The emergence of the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a well-heeled group created by Mayor Richard Daley during the late 1990s, also contributed to the continuing strife.

Things settled down after the 2002 election, though, when the North Side factions consolidated their power base, explains contract lobbyist Gabriel Lopez.

Del Valle and his allies continue to hold the legislative seats in his district, which includes Humboldt Park, Logan Square and West Town. 

Meanwhile, the camp of Hispanic Democratic Organization-backed candidates and other “regulars” hold posts in the neighboring district around Irving Park, as well as on the South Side.

Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, says much of the ongoing conflict “has sorted itself out” for now. During the March primaries, both sides largely left each other alone. “That’s indicative of the fact that there’s a working alliance among legislators, and that seems to be holding.”

The détente began with conversations between del Valle and Democratic Rep. Edward Acevedo, a Chicago cop from Pilsen who joined the legislature in 1995. The breakthrough occurred when they “talked to each other as two normal people,” Acevedo recalls.

As it turns out, both were involved in running Boys Clubs in their respective neighborhoods. “It was the first time we talked to each other man-to-man and friend-to-friend,” and they agreed to work on issues important to both of them, Acevedo says. The pair now act as co-chairs of the Latino Caucus. Berrios’ daughter, Rep. Maria Antonia “Toni” Berrios, is one of the new legislators who boosted Latino representation in Springfield in 2003. In an interview, she was complimentary of del Valle and said she bore him no ill will. Her father, she says, never talked to her about the negative side of politics.

“It’s easier said than done to leave all of our differences outside,” says Rep. Susana Mendoza, who hails from the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, “but we all recognize, independent of personal feelings and political feelings, that there is a broader picture and we are in a histor-ical time for us and for Hispanics.”

There’s no denying the unprecedented influence of Latinos in Illinois and across the country. According to the 2000 Census, Latinos at 1.5 million make up 12 percent of Illinoisans. That’s a 65 percent jump from a decade before, in a state where the total population grew less than 9 percent during the same period. “The numbers speak louder than words,” Acevedo says. 

Hoyt, the executive director of the immigrants’ group, notes that this latest wave of immigration is different from the many that preceded it. Instead of settling in “urban ports of entry,” immigrants, including Latinos, are increasingly starting off in the suburbs. 

And it’s not just traditional Latino destinations such as Cicero, Elgin and Aurora that have long had a Latino population. Naperville, Schaumburg and Palatine also rank among the top 10 Illinois destinations for immigrants, according to an analysis conducted by Roosevelt University in Chicago. That trend has significant political ramifications as well, Hoyt says.

He maintains that immigrants helped Democrats reclaim the Senate and hold their majority in the House in 2002. Hoyt points to the heated Senate contest between Republican Kathleen Parker and Democrat Susan Garrett in the north suburbs, which his group saw “up close and personal.” More than 24 percent of the residents in that district were born outside the country, and that segment of voters helped deliver the district to Garrett, Hoyt says.

“You don’t have to be 65 percent of the district to tip it, right? You’ve got a clever Democrat drawing the map,” he says, “and you’ve got a constituency that votes 65 or 75 percent Demo-cratic, and they get turned out, then all of a sudden some district that was Republican goes Democratic.”

According to the Roosevelt University study, 55 of the 118 Illinois House districts contain more than 10,000 immigrants, and Republicans represent 23 of those districts. Latinos — especially Mexicans — make up the largest share of those immigrants, and both parties have made overtures to attract those voters.

Lopez, who lobbied for years on behalf of the immigrants’ group on the in-state tuition bill, says one of the reasons the measure passed overwhelmingly is because Republicans have become more sensitive to the needs of immigrants.

And Aguilar, the Cicero Republican, says the GOP can add more Latino officials of its own by stressing Latinos’ commitment to hard work, entrepreneurship, minimal government and conservative social values.

So far, Aguilar is the only Republican Latino in the legislature, but his party also backed a Latina Rockford school board member in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Rep. Chuck Jefferson in 2002. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle anticipate more Latinos will run — and win — legislative office in the coming years.

But the new wave of immigration boosting Latino representation has a political flipside as well.

In Republican Jim Oberweis’ second failed bid for the U.S. Senate, he made cracking down on illegal immigration the central theme of his campaign. Using dubious statistics, he filmed a TV ad while flying over Soldier Field in a helicopter and claimed that there were enough illegal immigrants entering the country to fill the stadium once a week. He also criticized immigrants for taking American jobs and relying on welfare. In response, the Latino Caucus staged a press conference in front of one of his stores denouncing his stance and demanding that he stop running the ads. The spots were stopped, although his campaign said the change was planned long before.

Aguilar was among those who criticized the dairy owner. “Oberweis was not expressing Republican values,” he insists. Oberweis finished a distant second in the crowded field of GOP candidates with 23 percent of the vote. What that means for Latinos is open to interpretation. Chapa LaVia, who comes from the same area as Oberweis, says she’s discouraged that he did so well. But Hoyt takes comfort in the fact that less than 7 percent of all March primary voters supported Oberweis. He insists that demagoguery against immigrants won’t work in Illinois as it has in California.

The victors of the Illinois primary contests were Democrat Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, and Republican Jack Ryan, who once worked eight months in a Texas camp for Central American refugees, Hoyt notes.

Part of the reason an anti-immigrant message doesn’t play as well here, he says, is the diversity of immigrants in Illinois — roughly a fourth come from Asia, a fourth from Europe and half come from Latin America — but another factor is the state’s sensibility. 

“We’re a Midwestern state,” Hoyt says. “People respect hard-working, lunch-bucket people. We’ve never been the home of the John Birch Society either. We’ve never been the heart of the pot-smoking hippie movement either. People come here to work.”

Yet one of the most polarizing debates in California — the question of whether to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants — has proved to be divisive in Illinois, as well. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself, railed against Gov. Gray Davis for approving such a measure during last fall’s California recall campaign, as Latino senators in Illinois tried to muster support for a similar proposal here.

They did enlist the support of law enforcement officials, the insurance industry, Blagojevich and Secretary of State Jesse White, but this spring the measure failed in the House. An earlier attempt last fall fell one vote short in the Senate. The Latino Caucus made passage of this proposal its top priority this session. Still, Republicans and Democrats, including Rep. Chapa LaVia, voted in late March against the proposal. 

Rep. Acevedo, the measure’s primary sponsor, blamed the defeat on election-year pressures. But he also hinted that caucus members might oppose legislation pushed by the proposal’s chief detractors, especially those from Chicago. “This is something we won’t forget,” he said shortly after the vote last month.

Members of the caucus say they hope to also play a role in reducing the high school dropout rate among Illinois Latinos, which is one of the highest in the country. And they plan to take on crime, education funding, property tax reform and job creation.

Mendoza says the formation of the Latino Caucus gives the group a better chance at influencing those negotiations. The caucus represents a substantial number of votes — four in the Senate and nine in the House. “If you don’t have a seat at the negotiating table, then all you’re going to get are the crumbs that are left over.” 

Recognition doesn’t come easy. Last summer, the Latino Caucus tussled with Blagojevich after the governor vetoed $7.5 million for job training, AIDS prevention, homeless aid and immigrant services from the budget lawmakers sent him. Caucus leaders claimed the governor reneged on an agreement to OK the items. They grew more wary when Blagojevich allowed several of their bills to become law without his signature. Tensions have eased somewhat since then, especially after Blagojevich proposed reinstating some of the programs in his budget proposal for next year.

Sen. Iris Martinez, a Chicago Democrat, insists the caucus is using its leverage like any other group of legislators. “We are looking to make sure we get the fair share of the pie [like] every other community out there,” she says. “That’s all we’re asking.” 

The group’s clout depends not only on its numbers, but the increased prominence of its members, says Lopez, the lobbyist, noting that both caucus co-chairs are members of the Democratic leadership teams in their respective chambers. “In their own right, their seniority has allowed them to move up the influence ladder.” 

Del Valle also became the chairman of the Senate Education Committee last year, a position that took on extra significance when Blagojevich made an overhaul of the state’s education bureaucracy his top priority in this spring’s session. The senator has used the attention to advocate programs to narrow the “achievement gap” for Latino students and to push for an overhaul of school funding.

Other caucus members head up the House Executive Committee and panels on human services and pensions. One of the benefits of the caucus’ growth is that Latinos now have input on a wider range of issues, says del Valle. He points to Sen. Antonio Munoz, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Public Pension Investments. In that capacity, Munoz has raised questions about minority involvement in those investments, an issue del Valle acknowledges he hadn’t focused on before.

It’s a sign, del Valle says, that the caucus’ political sophistication is growing. As more Latino members join the legislature, their transitions will be easier and they will become effective more quickly. He says that, in turn, strengthens the Latino Caucus. 

Del Valle predicts, “Were going to cover more ground.” 


Daniel C. Vock is Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

Illinois Issues, May 2004