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Latinos Could Be Chicago’s New Nexus of Political Power

The city’s declining black population could mean a day of reckoning on the City Council, in the state legislature, and even in Congress.

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia speaks to supporters at a voting rally before the 2015 mayoral election.   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Last month, I saw a t-shirt with the legend “Make Chicago Great Again,” under a picture of Mayor Harold Washington.

Ever since Washington died in office in 1987, South Siders have dreamed of electing another black mayor. The list of politicians who’ve failed in that effort is long and distinguished: Roland Burris, Bobby Rush, Dorothy Brown, Carol Moseley-Braun. It’s less and less likely to happen again. The city’s black population is dwindling, and is beginning to yield political power to Latinos, who put up their own candidate for mayor in 2015, and are planning to do it again in the future.

Chicago is famously segregated, but one result of that segregation is that each of the major ethnic groups – whites, blacks, and Latinos – makes up roughly a third of the city. As recently as 2008, blacks were the most numerous ethnic group in the city; but last year, the black percentage of the population fell to third, at 29.3, behind whites, who are at 32.6 percent, and Latinos, at 29.7 percent. 

“[T]he city’s black population fell by 180,000 between 2000 and 2010,” wrote Alden Loury in a blog post for the Metropolitan Planning Council. “That hasn’t happened in an American city at any point in our nation’s history — ever. Only in Chicago, and only now. In 1980, the City of Chicago’s black population reached its peak at nearly 1.2 million. By 2030, according to estimates from the Urban Institute, the city’s black population will have dwindled to 665,000.”

Meanwhile, the Latino population is not only increasing in number, but gaining in political influence, as its members become citizens and reach voting age. Had Chicago’s Latino population continued growing at the same rate as it did in the 2000s, Latinos would be the city’s largest ethnic group. However, immigration from Mexico has slowed, and Latinos gentrified out of neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Logan Square have moved to the suburbs. Still, Latinos are younger and have a higher birth rate than whites or blacks. According to “The Cost of Segregation,” a study by the Urban Institute: 

“Recent changes in the preferences of whites and African Americans about where to live in the metropolitan area — with whites’ preferences for the city of Chicago growing and African Americans’ preferences declining, relative to other regional locations — will, we project, result in 14 percent growth for whites but a 17 percent decline for African Americans in Chicago. Latinos, whose recent growth has been mainly in the suburbs, will grow by about 4 percent in Chicago, while other non-Latinos (who are mainly Asians) will grow in Chicago by more than 50 percent between 2013 and 2030. By 2030, whites will account for 35 percent of the population, African Americans for 23 percent, Latinos for 29 percent, and other non-Latinos for 12 percent.”

These changes, says Loury, are going to result in a “day of reckoning,” as blacks will no longer have the numbers to maintain their current representation on the City Council, in the state legislature, and even in Congress. During the last ward remap, aldermen had to fudge the numbers to avoid reducing the number of black-majority wards, creating low-population wards on the South and West sides. Nonetheless, the 15th Ward’s representation changed from black to Hispanic. Ald. Toni Foulkes chose to run in the neighboring 16th Ward, allowing Raymond Lopez to take her seat. Despite their numbers, Latinos hold only 11 City Council seats, compared to 18 for African-Americans. They’re expecting more in the future.

Latinos are also moving in on white ethnic turf. Retiring 23rd Ward alderman Michael Zalewski is being replaced by Silvana Tabares. Chuy Garcia and his followers are challenging the powerful Burke dynasty, which has reigned on the Southwest Side for 65 years. Aaron Ortiz, a Garcia protégé, defeated state Rep. Dan Burke in the March Democratic primary, and there’s talk of running a Latino candidate against Ald. Ed Burke next February.

“What’s important is an accurate count in the census,” said Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who forced Rahm Emanuel into a runoff election for mayor in 2015 and will go to Washington to represent the 4th Congressional District next year. “I don’t see a census and redistricting as a zero-sum game.”

Black politicians may disagree. This is, after all, happening in the so-called “Black Metropolis.” Chicago has traditionally been the nation’s capital of black political empowerment. Illinois’s 1st Congressional District has been represented by a black congressman since 1928, longer than any other. Illinois overall has elected 18 African-Americans to Congress, far more than any other state.

And then, of course, there’s the first black president. One reason Barack Obama moved to Harold Washington’s Chicago in the mid-1980s is that he saw it as a place where an ambitious young black man could get ahead in politics. Had he stayed in New York, “you would never have heard of him,” former Chicago Defender executive editor Lou Ransom once told me. “He may have been a very good lawyer and maybe got elected to some office, but if he hadn’t come to Chicago, he would not have had the kind of support to push him where he is now.”

Meanwhile, Latinos encouraged by Garcia’s showing in 2015 are plotting their own takeover of the mayor’s office. Ald. Ricardo Munoz, a Garcia protégé who is retiring from the City Council next year, has suggested he may run for mayor in 2023.

“I see it coming probably within the next eight years,” Garcia says.

Harold Washington was elected mayor by a “black-brown” coalition of African-American and Latino voters. But the black-brown coalition has been replaced by black-brown competition. As Loury noted, in 2015, “black folks said, ‘We’re not going to vote for the Latino candidate because they were gaining at black expense. Indeed, they gave their votes in their runoff to the mayor.”

If that happens in future elections, Loury said, “I think that will be an unfortunate kind of takeaway.” Instead of allowing another South Side minority to occupy the mayor’s office, it would allow Rahm Emanuel, or his successors, to stay in power by dividing the minority communities jostling for power on the South Side.

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