On a recent Saturday in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood on the West Side, State Rep. and congressional candidate Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, posed a question to a room of her supporters.
“What kind of Democrat are we going to send to Congress?” Ramirez asked. “The status quo, machine politician that uses bullying and waving dollars to try to get votes, or what you and I are building?”
The question is not dissimilar from the one her main opponent, Chicago Alderman Gilbert Villegas, is asking on the campaign trail, too.
“We have been talking to voters to make sure that they understand they have an opportunity to elect a Democrat that’s pragmatic and progressive,” Villegas said. “This district is going to elect a Democrat. The question is, what type of Democrat do they want to elect?”
With name recognition and funding, Ramirez and Villegas have emerged as the frontrunners in a heated, four-candidate Democratic primary to represent Illinois’ newly-created 3rd Congressional district. Both Ramirez and Villegas currently hold elected office and have raised $414,817 and $781,978 for their Congressional campaigns, respectively.
The district was created in the 2021 redistricting process to reflect a growing Latino population in Chicagoland and to be a stronghold for the Democratic party. It stretches from Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood on the Northwest Side, to western suburbs like Glen Ellyn, Bensenville and Bartlett of DuPage County.
Both candidates identify as progressive, are Latino and have roots on the Northwest Side of Chicago.
But with no incumbent, they are working hard to differentiate themselves in the eyes of voters. And the race to represent this diverse district has become a familiar proxy battle for the future of the Democratic party, and for the future of Latino politics in Chicago.
“There’s a scramble right now for the leadership to determine whether or not you’re going to have a more leftist kind of progressive wing, that’s going to be the face of the party, or one that’s more moderate,” said Jaime Dominguez, a Northwestern Professor who studies Latino politics and is following the race.
When knocking on doors, Ramirez touts her progressive positions on affordable housing, tells voters about her work in the Illinois Legislature to expand Medicaid coverage to seniors in Illinois regardless of immigration status, and to create an elected school board in the city of Chicago.
She has been endorsed by a slew of progressive politicians, including Illinois U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Ramirez paints herself as a grassroots candidate and says she wants to elevate the voices of her community to the Congressional level.
“You are going to send, yes, the first Latina from the Midwest to Congress. That’ll be the name, that’ll be who physically goes and who flies out and represents you. But we’re sending all of us. We’re sending all of us. And with a small, but mighty, with a very organic stage, office, I want you to realize how different this campaign is,” Ramirez said to supporters in Belmont Cragin, standing on a chair fashioned as a platform.
Villegas, a former union truck driver and U.S. Marine veteran, touts what he sees as his progressive credentials as well. On the campaign trail, he tells voters about his work that led to the city of Chicago creating a universal basic income pilot program, which will send $500 to 5,000 low-income families in the city for 12 months.
On a recent Monday at a union building downtown, Villegas told members of SEIU Local 1 the story of his father dying suddenly when he was 8 years old, leaving his single mom to care for him and his brother. He’ll channel that experience, and the experience of growing up in subsidized housing afterward, he said, to fight for working families in Washington.
“I know what it’s like to struggle, so this campaign is personal to me,” Villegas said, “Because I can think about my mom being concerned about childcare… so that’s why I’ve always stood for working families because I am you. I’m not going to forget where I came from.”
In an interview, Villegas calls himself a “pragmatic progressive,” saying he’ll work across the aisle in Washington.
It’s a label that may appeal to voters in the far reaches of the district — the dwellers of DuPage County, who up until the so-called “blue wave” of 2018, reliably helped send Republican candidates to Congress.
“There’s evidence that these voters will support conservative positions,” Dominguez, from Northwestern, said. “These are voters who felt neglected by the Democratic Party. It’s gonna be interesting to see how these two candidates have positioned themselves to try to win over these voters, but it’s gonna be a challenge for both.”
Both campaigns believe that about 70% of the voters in this election will come from within Chicago city limits. But still, they go to lengths to stress that they are laying the groundwork in, and can effectively represent, all parts of the district equally.
One theme that has become a major flashpoint in the race, which could impact suburban and city residents perhaps in different ways, is public safety.
“Unlike my opponent, I’m not going to defund the police,” Villegas said in an interview. “We’re going to fund the police for public safety as our number one job should be.”
Villegas said he will also push for progressive policies around public safety such as co-responder models, gun control and increased resources, such as mental health care, to address root causes of violence. But denouncing or shying away from the slogan “defund the police” could play well with both DuPage County voters and with parts of the district within city limits home to first responders, Dominguez said.
“I think you’re going to have to temper some of those [progressive] positions to be successful here,” Dominguez said.
In response to a question about whether Ramirez supports the “defund the police” concept or slogan, campaign spokesperson Mayra Lopez-Zuniga said, “that is not the right question to ask.”
“[S]he voted to invest resources into creating corresponder programs along with providing more than $100 million in funding training and pension benefits for police officers and first responders,” Lopez-Zuniga said.
Still, it is an issue that led former Illinois U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a one-time heavyweight in Chicago Latino politics who is known for decades of work on immigration reform, to throw his support behind Villegas.
“I woke up this morning, as you did, to find another 12-year-old in Little Village shot dead last night — 12 years old,” Gutierrez said. “We see this every day. And you know Gil Villegas is going to keep police accountable and is for police accountability. But he isn’t for defunding the police.”
Gutiérrez was once known as an independent challenger to Democratic machine politics in Chicago, but a series of steps — including his support of Rahm Emanuel over Chuy Garcia in Chicago’s 2015 mayoral race — have alienated some progressive Latino activists.
That’s according to Chicago Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, who was elected to the City Council in 2015 and is a Democratic Socialist. Ramirez-Rosa said the endorsements in the race underpin the idea that it is not only a referendum on the future of the Democratic Party, but also of the future of Latino politics in Chicago.
“There’s always been this clash between the machine-aligned corporate, Democrat, Latino political operatives and elected officials, and the grassroots independent, progressive Latino elected officials, and operatives and activists and organizers,” said Ramirez-Rosa, who is supporting Ramirez over Villegas.
In response, Villegas pointed to the fact that Ramirez has the financial backing of the progressive political group United Working Families, which has worked to send progressive candidates — including Ramirez-Rosa — to city, state and federal offices.
“I’ve been an independent Democrat, have always gone up against the Democratic Party for our values,” Villegas said. “When you talk about the machine, she’s part of the United Working Family machine.”
Frontrunners aside, there are two other candidates to choose from in the Democratic primary. Democratic hopeful Iymen Chehade is a professor at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Juan Enrique Aguirre is a nurse and Chicago cannabis businessman. Those candidates have raised $90,012 and $11,172, respectively.
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.