Citylife: Why Chicago won't have a Latino mayor

September 20, 2010

Both Congressman Luis Gutierrez and City Clerk Miguel del Valle are now actively running for mayor, and regardless of who else throws their hat in the ring, if Chicago's going to have a Latino mayor this time around, it'll be one of them.

Indeed, other Latino candidates may yet emerge but none will have what these two possess: name recognition, money, election experience and plenty of chits.

Even though del Valle won citywide for his current office, I'm willing to bet that Gutierrez probably has the edge on name recognition. But that cuts two ways: Gutierrez is in the news far more frequently, but not always in the most flattering of ways. He sponsored a payday loan reform bill while accepting contributions from the payday loan industry. He has had a number of questionable real estate matters come under scrutiny and there have been frequent allegations of patronage and nepotism.

Del Valle, well-liked among Latinos and certain progressives, is more of a blank slate to the average citizen. But that also means he's got his work cut out for him to get them to know and recognize him.

Right now, Gutierrez has considerably more money (about $500,000), but del Valle (about $1,000 -- yup, that's right, one thousand dollars) has never made a big push to fundraise -- he never had to. Del Valle was elected to his current post on a ticket with Richard M. Daley, a/k/a the money-machine. And before that, del Valle served 20 years as a state senator, rarely big money races. Gutierrez has regularly crushed whoever has had the temerity to challenge him for his congressional seat: he has never won with less than 72 percent of the vote, and it's frequently been more than 80 percent.

But Gutierrez has also always been more openly ambitious than del Valle -- he considered a mayoral run in 2006 -- and more open to other possibilities, thus always at the ready, building a war chest for the next fight. He's also been smart to build support by regularly contributing to other Democratic races.

Each of these men is also identified with particular issues: Gutierrez with immigration and del Valle with education. In many ways, neither of these are winning issues for a citywide run. As impassioned as Gutierrez is (Gods knows, when Luis takes on a cause, he pretty much dies for it), immigration is a federal issue. And whatever positive arguments can be made for him as mayor, if you're pro-immigration reform, there's probably a much stronger argument to be made for keeping the issue's number crusader in Congress. He's not just fiercely committed: He knows this stuff inside out. (And if you're against immigration reform, he may not be your guy no matter what.)

But del Valle has no edge by being tied to education. Chicago Public Schools - the third largest school system in the country - are a disaster still and again. Reform has been so top-down, the budget so ill-spent, policy so disconnected from the neighborhoods, that the graduation rate for incoming freshmen is still just over half (and worse for African-Americans and Latinos). The drop out rate has not changed, and in some cases increased since the 1995 School Reform law. While he hasn't been a school official, the lack of movement on a signature issue doesn't look at all good. Certainly Del Valle's stint at city clerk has been managerially impressive -- the office is open, friendly and actually works now -- but it's the kind of detail-oriented success that's difficult to translate into the big-picture vision required of a mayor (especially apr├Ęs Daley).

In the general election, even if one or both of the big dogs -- Rahm Emanuel or Tom Dart -- get in the race, the vote could fracture enough to allow either del Valle or Gutierrez to emerge as a run-off candidate.

And there, I think, is where it gets toughest for both of them. Allowing the slim possibility that Chicago's ever-complex Hispanic vote gets out and unites behind the eventual Latino candidate, that's still a very slim comfort: Latinos may be as much as 1/3 of the city's population, but they make up only 15 percent of the vote.

And as precious as that Latino vote may be, there are many other blocks of voters with pretty much that same percentage on the rolls: Jews, gays, Poles, to name but a few.

Which means that if either of these Latino candidates is going to win on his own citywide, he's going to have be something other than just Latino.