Post-Census, Chicago’s Latino Caucus Presses Its Case For More Representation

Ald. Gilbert Villegas
Alderman Gilbert Villegas, Chicago's 36th Ward, attends City Council Meeting, at City Hall on June 12, 2019. Emboldened by new census numbers of a growing Latino population in Chicago, Villegas is leading an effort to get more equity for Latino representation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Ald. Gilbert Villegas
Alderman Gilbert Villegas, Chicago's 36th Ward, attends City Council Meeting, at City Hall on June 12, 2019. Emboldened by new census numbers of a growing Latino population in Chicago, Villegas is leading an effort to get more equity for Latino representation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Post-Census, Chicago’s Latino Caucus Presses Its Case For More Representation

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The leader of Chicago City Council’s Latino caucus vows he’ll ask one simple question at every opportunity he gets in the coming months: How are Latinos benefiting from this [fill-in-the-blank] initiative?

This promise from Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, comes as his caucus gears up for a major battle to increase the number of majority-Latino wards in Chicago’s once-in-a-decade remap process. The group also aims to bring home additional funding for the Latino community during the mayoral-led budget season, set to kick off with the mayor’s budget address later this month.

The caucus’ push for more representation and more spending power has been energized by new census data that show Latinos now make up Chicago’s second-largest racial group, comprising 29.9% of the population.

“This is not a battle that we’ve just recently brought up,” Villegas said. “It’s just been escalated now because of the redistricting that’s taking place.”

Counting up the numbers

The caucus is so far making good on that promise to bring up representation at every opportunity — raising the issue in three public meetings in just the past week.

“What’s the number for Hispanic firms on this?” Villegas asked at last week’s Aviation Committee while discussing a new vending machine contract at O’Hare International Airport.

The contract won praise from several aldermen for its substance — bringing high-end vending machines to the airport — but it passed narrowly, 8 to 5, with Latino caucus members voting against.

Although the contract meets legal requirements for overall minority representation among subcontractors, just 2 out of the 13 minority firms involved are Hispanic-owned (9 are African American-owned, 1 is Asian-owned and 1 is owned by a white woman).

“Well, this, to me … I am not supporting this. This is abysmal, these numbers, for me,” Villegas told Amber Ritter, chief commercial officer at the Chicago Department of Aviation. But Ritter told the committee, and later confirmed with WBEZ, that Latinos by far make up the largest share of minority-led firms who already have O’Hare’s concession contracts. The contract will go before the full city council on Tuesday.

Later, Villegas told WBEZ the moment was a boiling point for him.

“It’s not so much about the contracts, as it’s also about … the lack of Latino commissioners within this [mayoral] administration,” he said later, referring to lagging Latino representation in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s chosen leadership, which has been documented by WTTW and other media.

“This is just a pattern that has been going on for quite some time. And I’m tired of it … and I’ve talked to my colleagues within the Latino Caucus, and they feel the same way.”

Less than a week later, Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, was first to raise his hand at a Housing Committee meeting where aldermen were being asked to reappoint three commissioners to the board for the Chicago Housing Authority, which distributes public housing resources to low-income Chicagoans.

“Can anyone answer me — how many Latinos are on the CHA Board?” Lopez asked the reappointees, Matthew Brewer, James Matanky and Debra Parker.

Brewer and Parker said there is currently one Latino commissioner on the 10-member board, which has several vacancies. Brewer, seeking another six-year appointment, said there’s more work to be done to increase Latino representation not only among board commissioners, but among CHA voucher-holders who benefit from the city’s public housing.

Although Lopez voted to confirm the commissioners, he threatened to use his voting power in the future to force the issue of equal representation. Parker, the reappointee, said she would raise the lack of Latino board members with her colleagues.

“Good to know,” Lopez said. “Because I’d hate to start saying ‘no’ to appointees.”

At yet another committee meeting Thursday, Latino caucus member Ald. Michael Rodriguez, 22nd Ward, doubled down on his caucus’ strategy as he and his colleagues were asked to confirm appointments to the Chicago Public Library Board. Rodriguez started his questioning by asking how many Latinos serve on the board currently, to which appointees answered one of nine.

“Yeah, I’m going to make this a recurring theme, because I think it needs to be one,” Rodriguez responded. “We’re a city that is now 30% Latino … I think quite frankly, we can do better as a representative body … again, no disparagement of any individuals on the board or those in front of us today, they’ll be receiving my support. However, we’ve got to do more. I mean one of nine, what’s the explanation for that?”

Power translated into money, redistricting

What’s playing out in these meetings are just a few examples of how the Latino caucus hopes to shift the power dynamic in the city — and that may play out biggest in the city’s budget process and upcoming remapping efforts.

Lightfoot is expected to propose a new budget later this month and plans to spend a significant chunk of a massive, $1.9 billion federal stimulus windfall on shrinking the city’s debt.

But that proposal is already getting resistance from progressive aldermen and the Latino caucus, which says it’ll push for the majority of that money to be spent instead on COVID-19 relief for residents, including for those who are undocumented.

On Friday, progressive caucus member Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, offered his own budget proposals that he said would put tens of millions of dollars toward gender-based violence prevention services, programs for the homeless and programs to prevent street violence. Vasquez in a release said he hoped the proposals would change how budgets are done in Chicago, which in the past relied heavily on the proposals from the mayor instead of aldermen.

When budget season rolls around, Villegas said the Latino caucus will push for funding of Latino-led, nonprofit organizations, such as Latinos Progresando, which works on immigration legal services and cultural programming.

“There has to be numbers and spend[ing] there in our community that represents our population … I’m just asking for our fair share of appropriation in dollars,” Villegas said of the budget process.

The caucus’ effort to gain more city council seats could prove even more challenging.

Chicago’s Black Caucus is aiming to hold on to the same number of majority-Black wards, despite slight population shrinkage. It remains to be seen whether white aldermen will be willing or forced to sacrifice seats to Latino wards.

Black Caucus member Ald. David Moore attended the Aviation Committee where Villegas raised issues about representation. Moore said he’d like to work with the city to increase participation among Latino and other minority firms. When asked about Villegas’ comments, he nodded to the upcoming battle.

“He’s supposed to fight for his community,” Moore said. “That’s what he was elected to do. And we’re gonna fight for our community, other people gonna fight for their communities — that’s what we were elected to do.”

Mariah Woelfel covers city government at WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.