What’s at stake in the Cicero election

Por en Noticias 02/20/13 4:24pm
An angry Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D.-Ill., calls for an investigation into charges of voter harassment of Latino voters by town president Larry Dominick and supporters, Mon. Feb. 18, 2013 in Cicero. Juan Ochoa (cq), right, with his supporters, is running against Dominick. Chicago Ald. Ricardo Munoz, at left. (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune)

Electoral hijinks in Cicero are drawing plenty of attention, but few people are talking about the election’s larger significance.

It’s the contest for Cicero President that includes incumbent Larry Dominick and his major opponent, former McPier Executive Juan Ochoa.

Both candidates bring plenty of baggage and backing.

Since taking office in 2005 on a pledge of bringing reform to the community, Dominick has been repeatedly accused of practicing the very same cronyism he campaigned against. He’s also been the subject of multiple sexual harassment lawsuits, named to the list of worst bosses in America and has had the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interview dozens of current and former employees while investigating the town’s personnel practices.

Ochoa has his own challenges.

Staunchly supported by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, arguably the nation’s leading politician on immigration reform, he’s faced the charge by residents that he’s the equivalent of a Chicago-area version of a carpetbagger. His association with incarcerated former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who appointed him to head McPier, is a bone of contention, too.

The election has already had all kinds of mudslinging, with charges being hurled of using gang members as campaign workers, trying to get the other thrown off the ballot and, most recently, voter intimidation.

Cicero’s history only adds to the backdrop.

Stretching back to Al Capone, the most legendary of Chicago gangsters, it also includes some of the area’s heaviest doses of racial animosity. In 1951, the attempts by black veteran Harvey Clark to move his family into the community precipitated a three-day riot that required then-Gov. Adlai Stevenson to call out the National Guard to put it down. In the 1990s, the community had the Betty Loren-Maltese era that saw her convicted in 2002 of an insurance scam which robbed the town of $12 million.

But this election’s meaning goes deeper, though, than the latest chapter in town with a past that includes organized crime, political corruption and racial resistance.

Rather a reasonable argument can be made that Cicero embodies a critical trend throughout the country-the efforts by Latinos to convert their numerical growth into local political clout.

Cicero is one of 15 Illinois communities that in 2010 had a Latino mayor, according to an Hoy analysis of Census data.

But just one, West Chicago, has a Latino mayor.

That man, Ruben Pineda, got his position when his predecessor, Michael Kwasman, died of a heart attack.

In other words, there are no elected Latino mayors in Illinois communities with a Latino majority.

This matters for two reasons.

The first is that it runs counter to so much of the conversation that has taken place nationally since the November elections about Latino political heft. President Obama’s drubbing of Mitt Romney among Latinos by a 71 percent to 27 percent margin has prompted a round of soul searching among Republicans, a seismic shift on comprehensive immigration reform that senior party figures like John McCain say openly was sparked by the defeat, and the meteoric rise of Marco Rubio, the freshman Cuban-American Senator from Florida who delivered the party’s official response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address earlier this month.

The second reason is because it points to an opportunity.

If Ochoa can muster the resources necessary to topple Dominick, his strategy for doing so could serve as a template for other Latino aspirants seek to attain the same goal.

In an interview with our Leticia Espinosa and Octavio Lopez, Ochoa explained that his campaign is emulating some of the tactics Obama drew on in his successful quest for re-election.

Specifically, he is attempting to take advantage of the opportunity provided by early voting. Democrat strategists throughout the country emphasized early voting in the buildup to the November elections, and gained an advantage in several key states.

Ochoa also may benefit from the help of the hometown associations from states in Mexico like Michoaocan, Guerrero and Guanajuato. These organizations have traditionally focused their efforts on sending money back home to help families and with items like constructing churches.

Now, though, they are getting more involved in the election.

The associations may help Ochoa overcome the more than 4-to-1 fundraising advantage held by Dominick’s Cicero Voter Alliance.

Next Tuesday we’ll learn whether that financial and political support will be enough to topple Dominick, or whether the Latino power that was much heralded after the November elections has not yet materialized in a community where nearly nine out of every 10 residents is Latino.