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Illinois’ 4th Congressional District: Fight For The ‘Latino Earmuffs’

As firebrand immigration reform advocate Luis Gutierrez steps away, voters say immigration is still a top issue.

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Campaign signs for the Democratic candidates in the 4th Congressional District of Illinois primary can be found all over Little Village, Pilsen and Humboldt Park neighborhoods of Chicago.

Paula Friedrich/WBEZ

For more than a quarter century, Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez has represented one of the most heavily Latino districts in the nation.

His surprise announcement in November that he won’t seek re-election is raising questions about how his successor will govern Illinois’ 4th Congressional District, which boasts a Latino population of nearly 71 percent, making it the only Latino-majority district in the Midwest.

Voters in the district — known as the “Latino earmuffs” due to its gerrymandered shape — are wondering how their next representative will manage its diversity of nationalities and identities while picking up Gutierrez’ mantle of immigration reform.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., left, standing with Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., right, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., second from right, speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, following a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. (Susan Walsh/AP)

On the same day he announced his decision, Gutierrez endorsed Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in the March 20 Democratic primary. After a crowded who’s-who of Chicago Latino pols announced their runs — then dropped out — there are two other candidates left in the race: Sol Flores, the head of a housing and social services non-profit, and affordable housing developer and Chicago police Sgt. Richard Gonzalez.

The Democrats running for Congress in this heavily blue district agree that immigration must remain a top priority, and many are hoping to appeal to voters through their own personal experiences with immigration and other hot button issues.

Voices from the 4th District

The northern section of the district includes the Puerto Rican enclave of Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. To the south, there are the Mexican strongholds of Pilsen and Little Village.

Since his election in 1992, Gutierrez built a reputation as being outspoken for immigration reform and for assisting so-called Dreamers — that is, immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children. He also didn’t forget about his home island of Puerto Rico.

But while Gutierrez intends to step away, the issues he championed remain.

Sol Flores speaks at a candidates forum in Humboldt Park this week. Flores is a candidate in the Democratic Primary for the 4th Congressional District in Illinois. (Michael Puente/WBEZ)

In fact, some Latino voters in the district — who are overwhelmingly of Mexican descent — demand that immigration remain a top priority.

“Immigration is a huge thing for me,” said Pilsen resident Oscar Torres, a city employee who said his parents came to the U.S. in the 1940s. “The Latino community is an important community and offers so much to the city of Chicago. I think we need to find a way to make sure all of our immigrants can stay here and be a part of the community.”

But it’s not only immigration, said Brighton Park area resident Jose Hernandez.

“Gun control is an issue. We need to make sure that, on the federal level, there’s a better response to gun control and also the types of guns that people can own,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said he immigrated to the U.S. nearly 40 years ago from the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. He said Gutierrez’s successor will need to be able to balance the needs of the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities.

“We care about Puerto Rico being rebuilt and fixed and there needs to be federal funds in support of that effort,” Hernandez said.

But then there’s residents like Elena Melendez, an immigrant from Honduras who hopes the next congressman will pay attention to issues affecting Central American immigrants.

“A lot of people think only Mexican and Puerto Rican live here but no. We are a big community of seven countries from Belize to Panama,” the Humboldt Park resident said.

Where the candidates stand

The candidates left in the Democratic primary say immigration reform is still a top issue.

Flores caught some attention when she released an unflinching campaign ad about her survival of childhood sexual assault. She said it’s time the district be represented by a woman.

“I would be a very strong fighter and a champion for immigration,” the 44-year-old Flores says. “I am absolutely in support of a Dream Act and making sure our dreamers can stay here and come out the shadows.”

What the three candidates have in common with each other — and somewhat differently than Gutierrez — is their opposition to providing federal funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a cornerstone in President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda.

Chicago Police sergeant and affordable housing developer Richard Gonzalez speaks at a candidates forum this week in Humboldt Park. Gonzalez, 55, is running in the Democratic primary for 4th District Congressman. (Michael Puente/WBEZ)

Candidate Gonzalez, a 55-year-old sergeant with the Chicago Police Department, says he supports Dreamers and opposes a border wall, but he wants to shift focus away from immigration to crime and education issues.

“The only issue in the 4th Congressional District that’s always talked about is immigration. I think it’s a very important issue but that’s all it’s ever been is talk,” Gonzalez said. “The civil rights movement didn’t take 25 years to get resolved.”

While others have lauded Gutierrez for his work on behalf of immigrants, Gonzalez doesn’t see it that way.

“Immigration could have gotten resolved if our current congressman would have really wanted it resolved as opposed to showboating and traveling all over the world and getting his name known,” Gonzalez says of Gutierrez. “You’re elected to be in Washington, working for your constituents or in your district figuring out what your constituents want. Our current congressman didn’t do that and I doubt very much Mr. Garcia who has been in politics for 30 years is going to do that.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, visits Chicago's Little Village neighborhood where he attended a gathering hosted by Cook County Commissioner Chuy Garcia, left, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015, in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Garcia says he plans to continue Gutierrez work if he’s elected to Congress.

“We must expand on the bold leadership on immigration reform Congressman Gutierrez initiated 25 years ago,” Garcia said at the same press conference last fall where Gutierrez announced he wasn’t running for reelection. “We must build on his dynamic legacy and his firebrand oratory that has kept the issues front and center. Whether it was understanding the plight of Dreamers and immigrants stranded at our borders or fighting against a multimillion dollar boondoggle of a wall.”

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