Latinos are not a monolith. It’s a refrain uttered by anyone aware of the various ethnicities and cultures lumped under the “Latino” umbrella. And it will be keenly evident in the race for U.S. representative from the newly-Latino 3rd District.
When the General Assembly redrew the congressional map after the 2020 census, it fashioned a second Latino-influence district to reflect the area’s growing population of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Central and South Americans, and Cubans. Latinos have surpassed African Americans as Chicago’s second-largest ethnic group. The 3rd District encompasses Northwest Side neighborhoods and west suburbs with predominantly Latino populations, including Belmont Cragin and Logan Square in the city and Hanover Park, Addison, and West Chicago outside it.
Vying for the seat in the June 28 Democratic primary are state representative Delia Ramirez, who has U.S. representative Jesús “Chuy” García’s endorsement, and Alderman Gilbert Villegas. Latinos in elected office are a rarity nationally. (A 2018 study by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials found Latinos make up only 1 percent of such positions.) That is less the case in Chicago, but seeing two Latino leaders go head to head is a rare opportunity to witness the depth of the Latino diaspora.
“This is the first big step you’re seeing in the redistricting,” says Jorge Neri, an expert on Latino politics and former campaign manager to 2019 mayoral hopeful Bill Daley. “Two top Latinos running for this open seat is very unique and progress we should applaud.”
Among the ever-growing Latino population there are dissenting views on politics, and voters who look beyond issues of immigration. That’s reflected in the candidates. Ramirez, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, is a progressive whose endorsement from García reflects her connection to the Southwest Side, an area known for its Mexican community, where progressive ideals and the fight for immigrant rights are at the forefront. Villegas, who is Puerto Rican, is alderman of a historically Puerto Rican ward on the Northwest Side that has morphed into a Mexican community as well. Some political observers say immigration is less a voting factor to Puerto Ricans than to other Latinos, since they’re U.S. citizens.
There are commonalities, too. Voters in the 3rd District are largely first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants. “This is a Democratic, working-class district,” Neri says. “[Latinos] want good jobs, quality education for their kids, a safe environment to raise their family, retire, and have a good life. They want the American dream, and they’ll vote for the person with the best plan to represent them and get things done.”
Not surprisingly, then, the candidates share economic development as a top priority. For Ramirez that means investing in the local community, pandemic recovery, and job creation. Villegas plans to focus on local investments as well but also to advocate for affordable college and easing inflation. Their other chief goals reflect different priorities: For Ramirez it’s affordable health care and quality secondary education; for Villegas it’s gun violence and public safety.
While most political observers label Villegas a moderate, the former Marine, who worked as a Teamster for 10 years, calls himself a “pragmatic progressive.” “I don’t allow perfection to be the enemy,” says Villegas, who honed his political chops as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader from 2019 to 2021 and is chairman of the council’s Latino Caucus. “I like to get things done. I’m not an all-or-nothing type. If there’s things that will take votes off, then I’m willing to lose those things as long as it doesn’t lose the intent in order to get things passed. This way I can continue to build a foundation.”
Ramirez, who has a background leading community-based social service organizations, wants people to know there are limits to her progressiveness. “I’m not the ‘Defund the police’ candidate,” she says. “I actually helped secure $200 million for violence prevention and pension benefits for police and firefighters.”
One operative within the Villegas campaign points out that Ramirez voted to keep Michael Madigan in power as Illinois House speaker — a move that will likely dog her on the campaign trail after his arraignment on 22 federal charges of racketeering, bribery, and extortion. That’s not the only factor that could work against her. “Villegas is the more viable candidate due to his military background and moderate policies,” says a top political insider with ties to Representative García who asked not to be named. “He’s more likely to appeal to both suburban and Latino voters.”
Villegas has more name recognition because the 36th Ward, where he’s alderman and committeeperson, covers a significant portion of the district. And he was ahead of Ramirez in fundraising, $386,473 to $113,218, as of the end of last year, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in U.S. politics. “In order to be an effective congressman, you have to have local and national relationships,” says Neri. “One of the hardest things to do is raise money, and it’s an early indicator of a candidate’s connections in and outside of their community. Right now, Villegas is raising three to one, which means Ramirez either doesn’t have the relationships or is unable to convince people to back her.”
Still, a mid-March poll found a wide-open race, with Ramirez at 19 percent, Villegas at 11 percent, and 66 percent undecided. In the Democratic-heavy district — more than 70 percent of the primary votes are expected to come from the city — whoever nabs the nomination is almost assured of winning the general election.
“This is a history-making opportunity,” says García, whose 4th District currently includes both Northwest and Southwest Side communities. “If Delia wins, she’ll become the first Latina to be elected in the Midwest to this position, and it will increase our representation here in Illinois by 100 percent.” García gave up 55 percent of his heavily Latino turf in the remapping, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “Obviously, it was for a good cause to create this Latino-influence district. It’s exciting.”
And overdue. Latinos are not a monolith. That’s why one district was not enough to represent them.