Campaigns Vie for Suburban Latinos

Mario Lopez, 18, lives in Elgin with his wife, Savina, and their baby daughter. He plans to vote Democratic in November. (Photo by Richard Stromberg)

Mario Lopez, 18, lives in Elgin with his wife, Savina, and their baby daughter. He plans to vote Democratic in November. (Photo by Richard Stromberg)

If this is the year Democrats break an almost three-decade-long losing streak and win the Illinois governor’s mansion, the changing political and racial landscape in the five counties that surround Chicago and Cook County might be the key.

“Everything speaks to electing a Democrat governor this time,” said former U.S. Rep. Glenn W. Poshard, the 1998 Democratic candidate.

A shift of minorities has forced Democrats to pay attention to the collar counties in this election–”a strategy that “wasn’t as obvious four years ago,” Poshard said.

Previous election results, combined with data from the 2000 census, suggest the strategy makes sense. In the last seven gubernatorial races, dating back to 1976, Democrats have made gains in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, according to an analysis of election returns by The Chicago Reporter. Despite losing to Gov. George H. Ryan by less than 4 percent statewide, Poshard won more collar county votes than any Democrat since Daniel Walker in 1972.

In addition, collar county voters cast nearly as many Democratic ballots in the March primary–”179,660–”as in the 1998 and 1994 primaries combined–”189,657.

Some attribute at least part of the Democratic gains to a surge in the region’s Latino population–”which increased by nearly 134 percent in the collar counties over the last decade, according to census data. While others think Democrats have benefited from urban sprawl that brought Cook County residents to outlying areas, both parties agree that Latinos cannot be ignored this Election Day, Nov. 5.

While the community’s population has grown faster than its bloc of registered voters, “a number of patterns have changed” as a result of its suburban presence, said independent political consultant Don Rose, who earlier this year worked with Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, a GOP primary candidate for governor.

“The bottom line is, you have a group of voters who are being courted by both parties,” said Maria Valdez, senior litigator for the Chicago office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which does legal and advocacy work nationwide.

But “the Latinos are what the Democratic Party is looking at to have a foothold into these collar county areas and maybe change the political dynamics,” she said.

Take 25-year-old Luis Alicea, who last year moved to southwest suburban Joliet, in Will County, from Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. Alicea, a counselor at Joliet Junior College, said he usually votes Democratic because the party supports “an opportunity for everybody.”

“It’s good to have two parties,” he continued, to ensure two different points of view. But Democratic health care and education policies “focus on the middle class and poor.”

The Democratic Party has always been “the people’s party,” added John Bartman, 24, chairman of the McHenry County Democrats. “It was Robert Kennedy who walked with Martin Luther King. It was not Richard Nixon.”

For decades, Latino immigrants have felt that voting Democratic was “like being Catholic. It’s a tradition,” said Leonard Sanchez, vice chairman of the Republican Party in DuPage County’s Milton Township. But as immigrants continue to arrive from Mexico, he said, Republicans may have the opportunity to turn them into GOP voters, particularly in the suburbs.

“The grass is not bad here [with the GOP]–”it’s green,” he said. But “we’ve got a big job ahead of us.”

Officials from both parties emphasize that their messages are for everyone and cross race and class lines. But they’re watching the suburban counties.

Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, the Republican nominee for governor, realizes the importance of the collar counties and has “people reaching out to all the various groups,” said Terri Hickey, a Ryan spokeswoman. She said she couldn’t provide details on his strategy to win Latino votes.

Most statewide polls have shown Ryan trailing Democratic U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, but Hickey maintained Ryan was ahead in the collar counties and “we want to maintain the lead we have there.”

Blagojevich is aware of the area’s Latino population and trying to capitalize on it, said Billy Weinberg, the Blagojevich campaign’s press secretary. The campaign is currently circulating a letter of support from U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat of Puerto Rican heritage.

“From a strategic standpoint, [the area has] not simply become a place where Congressman Blagojevich can count on support, but it is a place where Jim Ryan can’t do what most successful Republicans have done in the past, which is to take the collar counties for granted,” Weinberg said.

Making Inroads

If this is the year Democrats break an almost three-decade-long losing streak and win the Illinois governor’s mansion, the changing political and racial landscape in the five counties that surround Chicago and Cook County might be the key.

“Everything speaks to electing a Democrat governor this time,” said former U.S. Rep. Glenn W. Poshard, the 1998 Democratic candidate.

A shift of minorities has forced Democrats to pay attention to the collar counties in this election–”a strategy that “wasn’t as obvious four years ago,” Poshard said.

Previous election results, combined with data from the 2000 census, suggest the strategy makes sense. In the last seven gubernatorial races, dating back to 1976, Democrats have made gains in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, according to an analysis of election returns by The Chicago Reporter. Despite losing to Gov. George H. Ryan by less than 4 percent statewide, Poshard won more collar county votes than any Democrat since Daniel Walker in 1972.

In addition, collar county voters cast nearly as many Democratic ballots in the March primary–”179,660–”as in the 1998 and 1994 primaries combined–”189,657.

Some attribute at least part of the Democratic gains to a surge in the region’s Latino population–”which increased by nearly 134 percent in the collar counties over the last decade, according to census data. While others think Democrats have benefited from urban sprawl that brought Cook County residents to outlying areas, both parties agree that Latinos cannot be ignored this Election Day, Nov. 5.

While the community’s population has grown faster than its bloc of registered voters, “a number of patterns have changed” as a result of its suburban presence, said independent political consultant Don Rose, who earlier this year worked with Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, a GOP primary candidate for governor.

“The bottom line is, you have a group of voters who are being courted by both parties,” said Maria Valdez, senior litigator for the Chicago office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which does legal and advocacy work nationwide.

But “the Latinos are what the Democratic Party is looking at to have a foothold into these collar county areas and maybe change the political dynamics,” she said.

Take 25-year-old Luis Alicea, who last year moved to southwest suburban Joliet, in Will County, from Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. Alicea, a counselor at Joliet Junior College, said he usually votes Democratic because the party supports “an opportunity for everybody.”

“It’s good to have two parties,” he continued, to ensure two different points of view. But Democratic health care and education policies “focus on the middle class and poor.”

The Democratic Party has always been “the people’s party,” added John Bartman, 24, chairman of the McHenry County Democrats. “It was Robert Kennedy who walked with Martin Luther King. It was not Richard Nixon.”

For decades, Latino immigrants have felt that voting Democratic was “like being Catholic. It’s a tradition,” said Leonard Sanchez, vice chairman of the Republican Party in DuPage County’s Milton Township. But as immigrants continue to arrive from Mexico, he said, Republicans may have the opportunity to turn them into GOP voters, particularly in the suburbs.

“The grass is not bad here [with the GOP]–”it’s green,” he said. But “we’ve got a big job ahead of us.”

Officials from both parties emphasize that their messages are for everyone and cross race and class lines. But they’re watching the suburban counties.

Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, the Republican nominee for governor, realizes the importance of the collar counties and has “people reaching out to all the various groups,” said Terri Hickey, a Ryan spokeswoman. She said she couldn’t provide details on his strategy to win Latino votes.

Most statewide polls have shown Ryan trailing Democratic U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, but Hickey maintained Ryan was ahead in the collar counties and “we want to maintain the lead we have there.”

Blagojevich is aware of the area’s Latino population and trying to capitalize on it, said Billy Weinberg, the Blagojevich campaign’s press secretary. The campaign is currently circulating a letter of support from U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat of Puerto Rican heritage.

“From a strategic standpoint, [the area has] not simply become a place where Congressman Blagojevich can count on support, but it is a place where Jim Ryan can’t do what most successful Republicans have done in the past, which is to take the collar counties for granted,” Weinberg said.

Rising Rates

It’s been 26 years since Walker, the state’s last Democratic governor, left office. After Poshard lost to George Ryan in 1998 by fewer than 120,000 votes out of 3.3 million cast, the Democrats started eying 2002 as the year they would regain control.

Poshard made inroads partly because his campaign “made it a point to get out [to the suburbs] early,” he said. He won about 32 percent of the collar county vote.

Poshard thinks he could have done even better if it weren’t for his stance against abortion, which turned off potential Democratic support. “Once that became an issue, everything else was wiped off the table,” he said.

And “this is an issue that will help Blagojevich in the collar counties,” Poshard said. Blagojevich supports abortion rights.

However, that stance did not help 1994 Democratic nominee Dawn Clark Netsch, who won 23 percent of the collar county vote. Looking back, she believes she lost largely because of bad timing. At that time, Democrats were losing elections nationwide. “I would love to be running this year,” she said.

Netsch said she wouldn’t change anything about her strategy, even though she lost decisively to incumbent Gov. Jim Edgar. She focused much of her time in DuPage, Lake and Will counties.

“Republicans always far outnumber Democrats in DuPage County, but there’s still a lot of Democratic votes there,” Netsch said. “The thing that I’ve always had fun with in my years in politics was telling people in other parts of the state that the second-largest Democratic vote in Illinois, outside of Cook County, was DuPage County. And they never believed it because they think of DuPage as being just 100 percent Republican.”

In the 1994 and 1998 governor’s races, DuPage County produced the most Democratic votes in the state after Cook County, the Reporter found. Lake and Will counties ranked in the top five in both elections.

“In a way that might never have seemed possible in many years past, how those collar counties go can tip the scales in one way or another,” Netsch said. “And if they go Democratic, that is a major plus.”

New Recruits

Starting with the Franklin D. Roosevelt era, Netsch said, “the Democratic party has been much more in tune with people of modest to virtually no means at all. It has been much more supportive of civil rights laws, and other issues that are important, particularly to minorities.”

But Barbara Murphy, chairwoman of the DuPage County Republicans, disagreed, and said she doesn’t understand why Latinos usually vote Democratic.

“They should be Republican voters,” said Murphy, adding that Latinos’ “strong family values” and “work ethic” are in line with Republican philosophy.

“Republicans believe firmly in self-worth and that the government does not intrude as much into the lives of our individuals,” she said. “We need to make [Latino voters] understand that that’s how we believe.”

Some white residents of the collar counties doubt the growing numbers will translate into election results.

“Most Hispanics don’t vote,” said Marguerite Tabbert, who has lived in Elgin since the late 1950s and has witnessed its ethnic change. Elgin is now 34 percent Hispanic. “They’re not learning the English language so how can they vote?” Tabbert added that she votes Republican partly because she believes the party supports “big companies” that provide employment.

But Latinos account for the highest increase in registered voters nationally and regionally, said MALDEF’s Valdez. Between 1990 and 1998, registration in Illinois rose 27 percent among Latinos while dropping 2 percent among others, according to a 1998 report by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, based in San Antonio, Texas.

And, by providing forms in Spanish, election boards are making it easier for non-English speaking residents to register.

Mark Guethle, chairman for the Kane County Democrats, said he’s seen evidence of the trend. During the 1990s, Aurora’s Latino population grew 104 percent, and Elgin’s grew 122 percent.

“Kane County is second only to Cook for having an Hispanic ballot,” he said.

Marcos Lopez, a Latino warehouse worker, has lived in Elgin most of his life. He recently turned 18 and has already registered to vote. Although he doesn’t follow politics very closely, his family has always voted Democratic, and he plans to do the same in November.

Assimilate Quickly

DuPage County, which borders Cook County to the west, has long been a Republican breeding ground, producing two of the highest ranking officials in the Illinois General Assembly, Senate President James “Pate” Philip and House Republican Leader Lee A. Daniels. Joe Birkett, the current DuPage County state’s attorney who is facing state Sen. Lisa Madigan in the attorney general’s race, is also a product of the DuPage County GOP.

Republicans hope to maintain dominance by sending Jim Ryan, a former DuPage County state’s attorney, into the governor’s mansion.

But aspiring Latino politicians are also cropping up. In Milton Township, while campaigning for Ryan, Sanchez believes he’s gaining experience to run his own statewide campaign in the future. He offers himself as an example of how easily Latinos can be recruited to the GOP.

“All Hispanics are Republicans,” said Sanchez, 44, who does marketing for Motorola. “They just don’t know it yet.”

A Mexican American, Sanchez grew up in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and suburban West Chicago, which is in DuPage County. His blue collar family was very loyal to labor unions and the Democratic Party, he said.

Sanchez discovered the Republican Party as a freshman at Taylor University, a conservative college with campuses in Fort Wayne and Grant County, Ind.

He said being away at college allowed him to think issues through for himself “and not just take someone’s word for granted.” He came to believe in “more responsible government and a lot less taxation, more pro-small business.”

So after college, he moved back to DuPage County and became active with the local Republican Party. He was elected to his current position in March.

Sanchez admits his political affiliation is rare for Latinos, but he’s working hard to persuade more to join him on the right. When he isn’t at work, he’s out knocking on doors and meeting new neighbors, encouraging other Latinos to register to vote and spreading the message of the GOP.

But he also argued that the Republican Party is becoming more diverse in its thinking. For example, he said, Republicans care about social justice issues, but don’t advocate programs that make immigrants “co-dependent” on the government.

“Once you invite Hispanics to join the [Republican] Party, and get them involved, they will stay,” he said.

Assimilate Quickly

Still, building a campaign solely around Latinos will not win an election, and in the long run it won’t help Latinos, either, Sanchez said. The key is to “quickly assimilate Hispanics to be part of the community” and then tailor a campaign that’s “able to cater to all.”

Sanchez realizes getting Latinos on board with the GOP is going to be “an uphill battle.” So he has recruited help from national Republican organizations to facilitate training seminars for committeemen.

Jack Partelow, chairman of the Will County Republican Central Committee, maintains that campaigns with universal appeal have the best chances of winning.

“Ours is a ground war, in a way,” he said. “We try not to segment. We’re not a marketing firm–”we’re a political organization. You can’t pull the minority population out and say that they have different needs. I don’t think they do.”

He added: “I think that we need to –¦ get our message out. If minority populations or majority populations, either one, don’t know what you stand for, why are they going to vote for you?”

Democratic leaders in the suburbs said the Republican message does not appeal to working-class and minority voters.

“Pocketbook issues, having a job, having insurance and providing for a family–”that’s what people think about when it comes to elections,” Guethle said.

Bartman, chairman of the McHenry County Democrats, agrees. “If they look at the last 26 years of having a Republican in the governor’s mansion, the state isn’t really any better off,” he said.

The Republican Party also has to reckon with non-Latinos moving out to the suburbs from Cook County–”and taking their Democratic allegiances with them.

“People no longer move out to the suburbs and turn Republican, as was once the case,” said Rose, the political consultant.

“I think we’re always concerned,” added Murphy, the DuPage County GOP chair. “We’d be remiss if we weren’t concerned. Of course this just prompts our committeemen to work even harder.”

Murphy predicts the Democrats who move to the collar counties will be attracted to Republican causes, such as lower property taxes, and eventually cross over.

But that’s going to take time.

“Republicans will always win out here in DuPage, but the margin of victory is what’s going to make the difference,” Murphy said. “Obviously, I hope Jim Ryan’s figures will improve.”

Contributing: Steve Sierra, Maria Erdmann and Priya Khatkhate.

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