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Probe Energizes Latino Aldermanic Challengers

HOST: Chicago's city elections are just a month away. This year, the number of Latinos running for aldermen is up.


The increase is due in part to a weakening of the Hispanic Democratic Organization, or HDO, once an important part of Mayor Richard Daley's political machine. The organization is front and center in a federal investigation of City Hall corruption.


The scandal has created opportunities for a new crop of Latino politicians.


Chicago Public Radio's Chip Mitchell reports.


MITCHELL: In southwest Chicago, a storefront on Western Avenue is stacked with green campaign leaflets. A candidate and two aides are plotting routes for knocking on doors in the 12th Ward.


CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS: “ we know each precinct these are, how many people I need to hit as versus how many people the volunteers hit.”


MITCHELL: Twenty-eight-year-old Carina Sánchez is one of five challengers to first-term Alderman George Cárdenas. She's never run for office before.


Cárdenas was a political newcomer when he was elected. He had help from the Hispanic Democratic Organization. For more than a decade, HDO sent campaign donations and troops to candidates backed by Mayor Daley.


But HDO has lost influence amid a federal probe of a scheme to reward campaign volunteers with city jobs. Daley's former patronage chief was convicted. Last month, an HDO leader was indicted.


Sánchez says Cárdenas's link to HDO is one reason he's vulnerable.


Another is his support of the mayor's veto of higher wages for workers at big retail stores.


SÁNCHEZ: “It was a clear demonstration of the fact that he does not vote with the residents. He votes however Daley wants him.”


CÁRDENAS: “That's politics. What else is she going to say?”


MITCHELL: That's Alderman Cárdenas.


CÁRDENAS: “My counter is that she's going to receive big money from unions. She's going to be in the unions' pockets.”


MITCHELL: Cárdenas also denies a claim by Sánchez that he and Mayor Daley had something to do with her dismissal this month from her state job.


But there's no denying that the corruption investigation has emboldened Latinos looking for a shot at elected office.


The Chicago chapter of the AFL-CIO's Labor Council for Latin American Advancement this month held its first membership meeting in years. About 170 people turned out.


The speakers focused on politics. They included Rey López-Calderón of the Alianza Leadership Institute.


LÓPEZ CALDERÓN: “We have seen the elected Latino beholden to corrupt machines, become the most corrupt of all, excelling at illegal patronage and displacing their own people in favor of developers and big business.” (applause)


MITCHELL: Latinos outside the labor movement also see opportunity.


MUNGUÍA: “It's probably 12 degrees out here. It's cold. [Knocks.] Mr. Bardow? How are you doing? My name is Manny Munguía. I'm a volunteer for Carina Sánchez. We're out canvassing tonight...”


MITCHELL: This weekend, the Southwest Democrats were drumming up support for Sánchez and candidates in two neighboring wards.


The group formed last year. It's led by young Mexican-American professionals like Munguía, a 29-year-old real-estate advisor.


MUNGUÍA: “Our organization believes in supporting progressive, independent challengers. When we see politicians giving away jobs to thugs -- what kind of message are we sending when we say it's OK for city workers to obtain these jobs when they don't have a fifth- and sixth-grade education?”


MITCHELL: The 12th Ward race isn't the only one with Latino challengers vowing more independence. In the nearby 25th Ward, Alderman Danny Solís faces six challengers. They include 35-year-old Cuauhtémoc Morfín, a Cook County juvenile probation officer endorsed by the Green Party.


DEBATE: (Applause and moderator's question.)


MITCHELL: Solís didn't attend this candidate debate in the ward this month. Morfín did.


MORFÍN: “I will not tolerate any corruption and no special interest to anybody, whether it be a developer, a company or anybody that is offering campaign money or any campaign contribution.” (applause)


MITCHELL: Morfín says the increase in Latino candidates owes not only to the City Hall investigation but to inspiration from last year's huge immigrant marches in Chicago.


Now independent Latinos have their best prospects for winning City Council seats in decades. That's according to former Alderman Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


SIMPSON: “They would be able to join with some new whites and blacks who would also be coming into the city council. My prediction is if as many as 10 seats were to change out of the 50, you would suddenly have a viable opposition bloc. And it would transform the city council, which has been a rubber stamp, into a true legislative body.”


MITCHELL: But Alderman Ariel Reboyras, an HDO founder, objects to what he calls smears against the group.


REBOYRAS: “They are everything that every other organizations do. It's empowering people, registering, increasing the Latino voters. How? By visiting them, talking to them, why is it important to register.”


MITCHELL: And José López of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center says working with Daley can help a ward thrive.


LÓPEZ: “The mayor of Chicago can be engaged in some creative endeavors. And if we were able to build 50 wards that really encourage their ethnic and cultural pride and heritage -- not a globalized city that's homogenized and Disneyesque, but a city that has the quality of magical urbanism, particularly Latinos, when you see the outdoor art and the murals, the music, art institutes and youth spaces -- we could travel the world without ever leaving Chicago.”


MITCHELL: Dick Simpson, the political scientist, says Latinos no longer want to be junior partners in plans for the city's future.


Right now, eight wards are represented by Latinos, who constitute more than a quarter of Chicago's population. Their numbers are growing ...


SIMPSON: And they need their own issues addressed: Not enough police officers speak Spanish. It's nice to see new houses, but many Latinos can't afford them. So gentrification drives them out of their neighborhood. Are they unable to allow their relatives in Mexico even to visit them because they are afraid they'll be caught as undocumented?”


MITCHELL: Many of the Latinos running for alderman name those very issues as their motivation for joining the race. The city election is February 27.


I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.


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