Rep. Gutierrez's departure is a seismic shift in Chicago's Latino politics

Rep. Gutierrez's departure is a seismic shift in Chicago's Latino politics
© Camille Fine

The recent announcement by Rep Luis Gutierrez(D-Ill.) not to seek reelection sent shock waves across political circles nationwide but especially here in Chicago. The surprise decision may initiate a restructuring of Chicago city politics for the 2018 election and beyond. For Latino politics, this represents an important realignment for party leadership, representation, policy advocacy and governance.

Gutierrez has held the seat since 1993, and won handily in all of his re-election campaigns. In 2016, Republicans did not even contest the seat so the Democratic nominee is highly likely to win the seat next November.

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The scramble to replace Gutierrez is in full swing and the field could get crowded. While the congressman has endorsed Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, other alderman such as Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th ward), George Cardenas (12th ward), Gilbert Villegas (36th ward) and Joe “Proco” Moreno (1st ward) have expressed interest in vying for the prestigious seat.

 

It was no surprise for Gutierrez to throw his support for Garcia given their shared experience as political trailblazers during the 1980s as representatives of the 26th and 22nd ward, respectively. Both were instrumental in helping to forge and sustain the Black-Latino electoral and governing alliance that propelled Mayor Harold Washington to office in 1983 and 1987.

In Chicago, this period has been long considered the birth and ascension of Latino politics. Despite their political partnership, their long bond was surely tested when Gutierrez did not endorse Garcia in his unsuccessful run for mayor in 2015 opting to instead support current Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The irony is that if Garcia is successful, the direct beneficiary will be Emanuel as this move would essentially eliminate the only legitimate challenger to Emanuel’s third term as mayor in 2019.

In many ways, the 2018 primary will present a unique opportunity for bridge-building between Chicago’s Mexican and Puerto Rican voters because the potential to appeal to and unite both ethnic heritages in this race will be on full display. 

How? 

In part, in the biographies of the candidates themselves. Commissioner Garcia is a Mexican immigrant married to a woman of Puerto Rican descent; Alderman Ramirez-Rosa’s father was born in Puerto Rico while his mother is from Mexico. Regardless of the campaign strategies employed, this race needs to be about building on and expanding Latino political power and less about a us-versus-them phenomenon.

However, there are other existing challenges to this unity. For example, the geography of the 4th congressional district and other legislative territories partially reinforces the national-origin cleavage within the Latino community.

Due mainly to considerations related to the Voting Rights Act, the 4th district has an irregular “C” shape that connects two non-contiguous but largely Latino parts of the city, as well as a substantial suburban area that includes parts of Cicero, Melrose Park, and several other villages.

Gutierrez has his strongest connections with the northwest side and Humboldt Park, which is the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community.

Ramirez-Rosa and Moreno each represent wards in that part of the city. Cardenas and Garcia are on the southwest side, centered on the largely Mexican-American Little Village neighborhood and overlapping substantially with the southern branch of the 4th congressional district.

There are different political organizations in these areas of the cities, with the kinds of parochial rivalries and interests that are present in all parts of the city. An alliance between the leading political figures from both major regions of Latino Chicago could strengthen an already ascendant bloc and provide opportunities for improved Latino challenges for other elected offices — such as the mayoralty in 2019.

In the end, the person to fill this seat will have big shoes to fill. In Congress, Gutierrez has been a powerful and outspoken critic of the current administration’s policies, especially on immigration. It will be important that his successor do so with the same passion, energy and commitment. And, in the eyes of Gutierrez, who better than Garcia to take on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump warns Iran's Rouhani: Threaten us 'and you will suffer' Pompeo: Iran's leaders resemble the mafia NYT's Haberman: Trump 'often tells the truth' MORE — Garcia after all is an immigrant, better off for the very progressive immigration policies Gutierrez has been ardently advocating for since 1993. 

Jaime Dominguez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Instruction in the Department of Political Science and Latina/o Studies Program at Northwestern University. His research and teaching interests include immigration, race and ethnic politics and is an expert on Latino and Chicago politics. He is co-director of the Chicago Democracy Project and was a recipient of the Public Voices Fellowship.