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State grant transformed UNO

Updated: September 13, 2013 9:05PM

Founded as a Hispanic community activist group, the United Neighborhood Organization operated only a single charter school until 2005.

UNO has since grown to include 13 schools in the city of Chicago and become a significant political player in the process, a transformation fueld by a $98 million school-construction grant the Illinois Legislature awarded it in 2009.

When Rahm Emanuel ran for mayor in 2011, Juan Rangel, UNO’s chief executive officer, co-chaired his campaign. Still, rival Hispanic groups viewed UNO as a political lightweight.

That changed with the March 2012 Democratic primary, when UNO executives, employees and contractors helped Rangel protégé Silvana Tabares defeat Rudy Lozano Jr. in a state legislative district covering the Southwest Side and south suburbs.

Tabares, editor of a bilingual newspaper, was a graduate of a program UNO runs to improve leadership skills and encourage the ambitions of young Hispanic professionals.

Seven UNO employees helped gather signatures for Tabares’ nominating petitions to get on the ballot, accounting for 57 percent of the signatures that the candidate didn’t collect herself, records show.

UNO executives and others with ties to its charter-school network provided about $80,000 of the roughly $266,000 in campaign contributions that Tabares got last year.

Nearly $51,000 came from UNO contractors working on its school projects under the 2009 state grant. The biggest of those donors — giving $21,000 — was d’Escoto Inc. The construction-management firm is owned by a brother of Miguel d’Escoto, who is second-in-command at UNO.

Reflection Window Co., an UNO contractor owned by another d’Escoto brother, gave Tabares $6,500.

The Chicago Latino Public Affairs Committee, headed by attorney Homero Tristan, contributed more than $18,000. Tristan’s law firm has done work for UNO that was paid for with money from the state grant.

Rangel, Miguel d’Escoto and other UNO officials personally contributed a total of $1,900 toward Tabares’ victory.

And more than $61,000 came from charter-school supporters, including the advocacy group Stand for Children, which gave $51,321.83. Rangel says he introduced Tabares to representatives of Stand for Children, as well as the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which pitched in more than $22,000.

Tabares, who took office last month, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

As not-for-profit organizations, UNO and its charter school network can’t become directly involved in politics without endangering their tax-exempt status. But Rangel and others with ties to UNO are free to give money and other support to political campaigns as private citizens.

Rangel says the UNO employees who campaigned for Tabares did so on their own time, on evenings and weekends.

As for the donations to Tabares from UNO contractors, he says, “My personal involvement with Silvana was public. People are going to give — not that I hadn’t asked some people.”

Dan Mihalopoulos

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