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State Sentate: Uphill battle to unseat Munoz in 1st District

Updated: February 20, 2012 1:51PM

Adolfo Mondragon has taken on state Sen. Antonio “Tony” Munoz once before and drew less than a third of the vote.

But that defeat hasn’t done a thing to silence Mondragon in this winter’s rematch in the Democratic 1st Senate District primary, a campaign where he audaciously has suggested Munoz, a city cop on leave, is afraid of him.

“I think he makes a beeline elsewhere when he sees me,” the Yale-educated lawyer and community activist told the Chicago Sun-Times.

To that notion, Munoz simply shrugs.

“Why would I be intimidated? I don’t even know the young man,” the senator said.

The senator’s indifference speaks to the clout Munoz has attained during a 13-year legislative career that now has him on Senate President John Cullerton’s leadership team. It also is a measure of how unfazed he is over the third primary challenge Munoz has drawn since his 1998 unseating of a fixture in the progressive Latino movement, former state Sen. Jesus Garcia, now a Cook County commissioner.

The race to represent the Southwest Side district, which takes in parts of Pilsen, Little Village and Bridgeport and extends outward to Midway Airport, is a campaign about a potential up-and-comer taking on an entrenched incumbent with little chance of losing.

Besides having Cullerton’s ear, Munoz co-chairs the Latino Caucus, heads the Senate panel that must sign off on Gov. Pat Quinn’s appointments and lords over a campaign fund with a six-figure balance that puts to shame the $2,000 in Mondragon’s political piggy bank.

Munoz, who lives in McKinley Park, said two of his focuses in the Legislature have been improving access to education and curtailing crime. He was the chief Senate sponsor of a 2003 law that extended in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrants who had attended Illinois high schools and has pushed to reinstate the state’s expired ban on assault weapons.

More recently, Munoz sponsored a law that made it possible for veterans with Afghan or Iraqi campaign medals to apply for positions with the State Police without having certain educational requirements.

“The end result is I’ve always helped my district,” he told the Sun-Times.

Munoz voted for the 67-percent income tax increase, but said right now he’d like to see it expire at the end of 2014. He voted for a gambling expansion plan and said it could help offset the debt “depending on how it’s structured.”

Earlier in his legislative career, Munoz escaped fallout from the federal Hired Truck corruption investigation that put Angelo Torres, head of the city’s now-disbanded truck-rental program, behind bars for two years.

Munoz helped Torres land a city job as an entry-level worker booting cars in 1996; and two years later, Torres was a key campaign worker for Munoz when he unseated Garcia, the Sun-Times has reported.

Torres, who pled guilty to accepting more than $60,000 in bribes from trucking companies in the city truck-rental program he managed, hit up some of those firms for at least $10,000 in political contributions for Munoz and the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a now-defunct political operation that helped elect Munoz.

Mondragon described Munoz as Torres’ “political patron” and derided the senator as a “patronage king” for his ties to HDO, which until its disbanding was led by lobbyist Victor Reyes, a former top aide to ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Munoz declined to respond to Mondragon’s references.

On the issues, Mondragon said he is open to extending the temporary income tax increase beyond 2014 but rejects the idea of gambling expansion and cites oversight concerns as a primary reason for his opposition. Additionally, he said he supports legalizing gay marriage.

In his short-on-cash campaign, Mondragon said he has embraced the old-school, door-to-door approach to reach voters and is developing one or two mailers to send to constituents when or if the money rolls in.

But the way Mondragon sees it, he doesn’t necessarily have to win this year’s race for it to be considered at least a partial success — and possibly enable him to take another crack at Munoz in the next election cycle.

“If I got a third of the vote, I’d be viable for another run,” said Mondragon, who lost to Munoz in 2010 by a 68-32 percent margin. “I have no illusions on how difficult this is.”

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