CHICAGO ― A series of Latino elected officials, nonprofit leaders and educators lined up to speak on Friday evening at a packed “Vamos con Vallas” rally in support of Paul Vallas, the more conservative of the two remaining candidates for mayor of Chicago.
The remarks of Iris Martinez, the first-ever Latina clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, and the aunt of a young woman who was murdered in Chicago, embodied the mood at an event where support for law enforcement and charter schools were second only to frustration with the city’s nascent activist left.
“This notion about racism ― please everybody!” Martinez said, apparently referring to suggestions by Vallas’s rival Brandon Johnson that Vallas has trafficked in racist tropes. “Let’s talk about the real issues that are plaguing Chicago today ― and that is crime.”
“I don’t see how we can actually address crime if we are defunding the police. I stand with the men and women in blue,” she added, prompting cheers from a crowd that contained many Latino law enforcement officers.
Surveys have consistently shown Vallas, who is white, leading Johnson, who is Black, with Latino voters. But unlike Black voters with whom Johnson has a decisive lead, and white voters with whom Vallas is dominant, Latino voters are still relatively split, and seen as up for grabs by either candidate.
As a result, both Johnson, a progressive county commissioner, and Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, are fiercely jockeying for every last Latino vote ahead of next Tuesday’s runoff election. The winner of that contest will lead the country’s third-largest city and a critical hub of Latino culture and political power.
“The competitiveness of this election is bringing even more visibility to this population,” said Jaime Dominguez, a specialist in Latino politics at Northwestern University. “That vote could make the difference, even though they are a small share of the registered voters in the city of Chicago.”
“People in the Belmont Cragin community are a little bit more in line with what Vallas’ approach to crime is ... That’s why I think you’re seeing a big push for their votes from both camps, but especially the Brandon camp.”
Of course, Chicago’s Latino community is as politically diverse as the Chicago electorate overall, boasting its fair share of conservative business leaders and cops, apolitical moderates, mainstream liberals, and young leftists.
In Vallas’ outreach to Latino voters, he has emphasized not only his plan to replenish the police force and crack down on crime, but also his promotion of Latino administrators in the Chicago Public Schools system and his roots lending a hand in his family’s restaurant ― a small-business upbringing familiar to many Latino immigrants.
In a new Spanish-language television and digital ad, Alderperson Silvana Tabares, who was at the Friday event, laments the taxes and fines that she says are distressing Latino families.
Vallas is “going to make sure that our community is not left behind in the mayor’s office,” Tabares declares in the video.
Johnson and his allies are pitching Latino voters on an alternative public safety plan that relies less on new hiring and more on giving underprivileged young people opportunities to avoid the lure of illicit activity. He also frames his plan to raise taxes on businesses and the wealthy, while sparing the city a property tax hike, as a particular boon to working-class Latino homeowners who have been hit hard by the city’s reliance on property taxes.
In an effort to unite Latino and Black voters, Johnson emphasizes the common economic hardships faced by both groups.
“For every $1 of wealth accumulated by white families in Chicago, Latino and Black families accumulate eight cents, and one cent, respectively,” Johnson said in a speech to the City Club of Chicago on Monday. “That disparity costs the city $8 billion dollars – $8 billion dollars – in economic activity.”
Once dominated by people of Puerto Rican descent, Chicago’s Latino population has exploded in size in the past few decades largely due to an influx of Mexican immigrants. Latinos now make up about 29% of all Chicagoans ― a figure that is nearly even with Black Chicagoans’ share of the city’s population.
Given the number of Chicago Latinos who are either not yet U.S. citizens or are too young to vote, the community does not yet have political power that is exactly proportional to its size.
Still, Latino representation on Chicago’s City Council, and in the Illinois state legislature and state delegation to Congress have increased steadily.
Out of the City Council’s 50 “wards,” or districts, there are currently 14 majority-Latino “wards,” or districts, on the Chicago City Council. After the runoff election, 13 of the members in those majority-Latino seats are set to be Latino – up from just a handful in the 1990s.
Representation in government “in and of itself is very important for the political agency of this community,” said Dominguez, who added that there has been a parallel rise in Latino advocacy groups and nonprofit infrastructure. Those two factors, he said, have “put the establishment, particularly the Democratic Party in the city of Chicago, on notice that Latinos can no longer be dismissed.”
Dominguez helped conduct a poll that Northwestern released on Tuesday showing Johnson and Vallas tied citywide at 44%, but Vallas leading with Latinos 46% to 35%.
The poll also provided evidence for an unusual factor driving Vallas’ appeal: About one-third of Latinos surveyed think that Vallas might be Latino. Vallas is the grandson of Greek immigrants, but his last name looks like it could be Spanish and pronounced “VAH-yass.”
U.S. Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.), who was campaigning for Johnson and two progressive City Council candidates in northwest Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood on Saturday, has even developed a special corrective for those who believe Vallas is Latino.
First, Ramirez clarifies that Vallas is not Latino. Then, she has taken to quoting a Spanish rhyme about Vallas: “Con Vallas, siempre fallas” ― “with Vallas, always failures.”
The ideological fault-line dividing right-leaning and left-leaning Latino voters runs right through the new 36th City Council ward, which includes parts of Belmont Cragin. Vallas has a 2-point lead over Johnson in the ward, according to an internal poll commissioned by Alderman Gil Villegas earlier this month.
Villegas, who lost to Ramirez in a Democratic congressional primary, has not endorsed in the mayoral race. He is defending his seat in the 36th against a challenge from Lori Torres Whitt, a left-wing contender backed by Ramirez and the Chicago Teachers Union.
“Brandon Johnson is someone that understands that Latinos and the Black community have to be working together, that when we talk about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ we’re also talking about, ‘No human being is illegal.’”
“People in the Belmont Cragin community are a little bit more in line with what Vallas’ approach to crime is: Making sure that there are more cops on the beats, utilizing technology to help combat crime, etc.,” Villegas told HuffPost. “That’s why I think you’re seeing a big push for their votes from both camps, but especially the Brandon camp.”
As a representative of said “Brandon camp,” Ramirez sees it as her mission to tell Latino voters about Johnson’s behind-the-scenes support for Latino migrants bused to Chicago from Texas, as well as his plans to bolster funding for under-resourced public schools and build more affordable housing. And she wants Latino voters to see that their fates are intertwined with those of Black Chicagoans. (Large majorities of both groups already feel this way, according to the Northwestern poll.)
“Brandon Johnson is someone that understands that Latinos and the Black community have to be working together, that when we talk about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ we’re also talking about, ‘No human being is illegal,’” she said.
Ramirez is due to speak alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other progressive leaders at an arena rally for Johnson on Thursday evening. Sanders, who is known for his nationwide popularity with Latino voters, won the vast majority of Chicago’s Latino-plurality wards in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
Ramirez’s ascent reflects the development of a largely younger, left-wing contingent of Latino Chicago politicians that was virtually nonexistent a decade ago. With the backing of U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), a two-time Chicago mayoral candidate and trailblazing Latino progressive, Ramirez won a state House seat in 2018 ― the same year that Johnson secured his seat on the Cook County commission.
A number of the Latino elected officials backing Vallas came to power during an era when Chicago Latinos acted as a subset of the Daley family’s old Democratic Party machine. In the early 1990s, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley even created an official Latino group to mobilize voters ― and distribute patronage jobs ― called the Hispanic Democratic Organization.
In addition to moderate and conservative Latino elected officials’ ideological differences with progressives, Ramirez believes that some of the members of the Latino old guard are understandably threatened by the newcomers challenging their power.
For example, Ramirez unseated Iris Martinez, the Cook County circuit court clerk now backing Vallas, from Illinois’ Democratic State Central Committee in June. And Ramirez is supporting the candidacy of university administrator Ruth Cruz for City Council against the more moderate Democrat, Jessica Gutierrez, a daughter of former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.).
Chuy García, who fell short in the first round of the mayoral race in February, occupies something of an ideological middle ground between the most conservative Latino Democrats, and members of the community’s left flank, many of whom supported Johnson’s bid over his.
An old foe of the Daley machine, García ran on a public-safety plan that was more centrist than Johnson’s, including a proposal to hire hundreds of new police officers. (Due to retirements and attrition, the Chicago Police Department has more than 1,000 fewer cops than it had in 2019.)
But García has also now endorsed Johnson’s mayoral bid.
The endorsement “signals to Latinos that may be undecided that there’s some credibility” behind Johnson’s bid, Villegas said.
It is unclear, though, whether García’s stamp of approval is enough to win Latino voters over to Johnson’s side. The Northwestern poll found that 38% of the people who voted for García in the first round are planning to vote for Vallas, versus 34% for Johnson.
Rosa Armendariz, a small business owner in Belmont Cragin, cast her ballot for García in the first round of voting.
“Chicago wasn’t ready for a Hispanic,” she lamented to HuffPost on Sunday after the end of Spanish-language Mass at St. John Bosco Catholic Church.
Armendariz was not happy with her two remaining choices. She was leaning toward Vallas, whose work she was familiar with from his days as CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
When it comes to public safety, Armendariz wants stricter gun laws and more programs to help young men stay out of trouble, but also thinks that people who commit crimes are being treated too leniently.
“The laws are not enforced,” she said. “Criminals are released soon after they are arrested.”