Latinos are vastly underrepresented in high-level jobs in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s administration, a WBEZ investigation has found.
Since Preckwinkle became board president more than eight years ago, Latinos have surpassed African-Americans as the second-largest racial group in the county, now making up more than 25 percent of the total population.
But WBEZ found there are only four Hispanics among 33 department heads in the Preckwinkle administration.
And just two top aides are Hispanic out of 13 political appointees in the office of the president.
The dramatic and chronic lack of Latinos in top positions in county government during the Preckwinkle administration has helped push some prominent community leaders, including Democratic Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, to side with Lori Lightfoot over Preckwinkle in the April 2 runoff election for Chicago mayor.
Before being elected to Congress last year, Garcia was Preckwinkle’s county board floor leader, and he says he always voted with her agenda. But Garcia has endorsed Lightfoot — in part, he says, because of her “dismal” record of putting Latinos in top county jobs.
“I came to see it as a big blind spot on the part of President Preckwinkle,” Garcia told WBEZ. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
In a statement issued Wednesday in response to the findings of WBEZ’s investigation, a spokeswoman for the county administration said: “When President Preckwinkle took office, it was her priority to diversify the makeup of her cabinet. There has been much progress, but the work continues.”
Looking at the hiring numbers “doesn’t tell the full story,” the spokeswoman said, because it fails to take into account Preckwinkle’s policies that have helped Latinos in the county.
The spokeswoman cited Preckwinkle’s efforts to fight “the overreach of the federal government” in its pursuit of undocumented immigrants and the benefits to Hispanics of the administration’s efforts to provide health care “regardless of income, insurance or immigration status.”
“Thousands of Latinx residents that were unnecessarily held in the jail simply because they couldn’t afford to pay their bond are now released and able to continue going to school and work and can continue to take care of their family pending the adjudication of their case,” according to the statement..
A chronic issue under Preckwinkle
WBEZ’s investigation looked at the leadership of every county government department led by appointees whose positions are exempt from rules that forbid hiring and firing based on political considerations.
The analysis also took into account other Preckwinkle-filled roles, including the head of the Cook County forest preserves, its housing authority and the leaders of other agencies that answer to the board president, such as the county’s vast system of hospitals and its ethics board.
There are 14 whites, 12 blacks, three Asians, and four Latinos in such positions, with two spots vacant. The only county department heads who are Hispanic are Edward Olivieri, Preckwinkle’s director of contract compliance; Carlos Claudio, the top executive in the county’s Office of the Medical Examiner; Xochitl Flores, director of the newly created Office of Research, Operations, and Innovation; and Viviana Martinez, the interim head of the Adoption and Family Supportive Services Department.
In the board president’s office, there are 13 aides in exempt positions: five whites, five African-Americans, two Latinas, and one Asian. The lone Hispanics are legislative coordinator Christina Rivero and press secretary Becky Schlickerman.
The WBEZ analysis echoed the findings of a report in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2012, in the middle of Preckwinkle’s first four-year term in office. That found Preckwinkle had just two Latinos in her 34-member administration.
And Hispanics are underrepresented at every level of the huge county government payroll, according to a report issued by the Preckwinkle administration’s Human Resources Department in December.
The U.S. Census Bureau, in its most recent estimates in 2017, gave Cook County’s population as 42.3 percent white, 25.5 percent Hispanic, 24 percent black, and 7.7 percent Asian.
But the county Human Resources Department’s data show Latinos are far less numerous in every category of county jobs than in the overall population.
"Very dismal" rate of Latino hiring
Latinos represent roughly a third of the population of Chicago, and the two Latino mayoral candidates who won the most votes in majority-Hispanic wards in the first-round election on Feb. 26 failed to qualify for the runoff.
That’s left Preckwinkle and Lightfoot angling for Latino support. And in Chicago, arguably no Latino politician is more influential than Garcia, who announced his endorsement of Lightfoot on Sunday.
While serving on the County Board, Garcia says, he frequently provided names of qualified Latino job applicants to Preckwinkle, but his advice usually went unheeded by the president.
The issue of Latino hiring in the Preckwinkle administration was a “significant” factor in his decision to endorse Lightfoot, Garcia told WBEZ, saying the county hiring figures compiled by WBEZ are “very dismal and very disappointing.”
“I, from the first four years of the administration, on several occasions spoke with the president, with her past chiefs of staff, about the need to improve, to increase Latino and Latina hiring at Cook County, given the community has been underrepresented for many decades,” Garcia said.
“We had serious conversations about the need to be more affirmative, more aggressive in attracting and recruiting people,” he said, adding that he even referred Preckwinkle to nonprofits where Latinos often submit their resumes to be considered for government appointments. “It was a very frustrating topic for the past eight years because Latinos and Latinas continued to be severely underrepresented at Cook County.”
Garcia said Preckwinkle told him she would try to do better.
“Commitments were made that a bigger effort would be made and it never really materialized,” he said.
Latinos who managed to land jobs with Preckwinkle often did not last long in her administration, said Garcia, who lost the 2015 mayoral runoff to Rahm Emanuel while Preckwinkle remained neutral.
Manuel Perez – a Garcia protégé who once worked in Preckwinkle’s office – is Lightfoot’s campaign manager for the runoff.
The lack of Preckwinkle aides who are Latino was “certainly one of the main factors” that led a group of community leaders to spurn her and endorse Lightfoot instead, said Juan Ochoa, a member of the newly formed Latino Leadership Council. The council announced it was backing Lightfoot on March 6.
The WBEZ analysis was “clear evidence of what we have always believed,” says Ochoa, the former chief executive of the city-state agency that owns the McCormick Place convention center and Navy Pier.
“Who wants to help somebody get elected to mayor that has a poor track record of appointing Latinos to key positions?” Ochoa said this week. “I suspect Latinos are going to look at her dismal track record in that department and vote their conscience.”
Ochoa also said it does not help Preckwinkle that one of her relatively rare Latino hires was a Puerto Rican political appointee who allegedly insulted Mexicans. They are by far the most numerous group in Chicago and Cook County’s Latino population.
Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Preckwinkle administration promoted former Chicago Ald. Vilma Colom despite a hearing officer’s recommendation that Colom be fired for making offensive comments, including, “These (expletive) Mexicans” and, “There’s too many of them over here, they need to go back across the Rio Grande.”
“I’m certain that if she had Latinos who she respects, particularly maybe those of Mexican descent, I don’t think they would have advised her to do that,” Ochoa said of the administration’s handling of Colom’s human resources case. “That’s more consistent with Donald Trump than Toni Preckwinkle.”
But Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, said he has been among Preckwinkle’s most vocal Latino supporters in the mayor’s race because he believes she would be a much stronger mayor than Lightfoot on issues affecting the community.
He noted that Lightfoot has never held an elected office and he criticized her for getting support from City Council members who have made offensive comments about undocumented immigrants.
“She’s never been in an executive position, especially not a government the size of Cook County or Chicago,” Ramirez-Rosa said of Lightfoot. “So we cannot compare and contrast Toni and Lori on this. But on policies around immigration reform, Toni has the clear record supporting Latinos. On things we can compare Toni and Lori on, Toni is by far the best candidate for the Latino community.”
Vows of diverse hires at City Hall
Whoever wins the runoff will become the city’s first black woman mayor. And Preckwinkle and Lightfoot both are promising they would make appointments to boards and commissions that mirror the diversity of Chicago.
“By appointing individuals from different communities and demographics, I hope to assemble an administration that is representative of the city and can address the needs of all of the neighborhoods,” Preckwinkle said in responding to a questionnaire from WBEZ
Lightfoot, who would be the city’s first openly gay mayor, said being an “LGBTQ+ woman of color” informs her understanding of the importance of having an “inclusive, equitable city.”
“That will be evident in my appointments to boards and commissions, and to leadership roles in city agencies,” Lightfoot said.
There long has been a stark lack of diversity in City Hall and in Illinois government.
In Chicago, the chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, 36th Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas, recently gave Emanuel an “F” on hiring Hispanic policymakers, saying, “The mayor has been deaf on this issue.”
In October, WBEZ reported that whites comprised the vast majority of then-Gov. Bruce Rauner’s appointees to state boards. Rauner, a Republican, lost his re-election bid in November to Democrat JB Pritzker, who has vowed to hire the most diverse administration in state government history.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @dmihalopoulos.