Here’s why Illinois Hispanics say one seat in Congress may do for now
By Abdon M. Pallasch Political Reporter email@example.com June 5, 2011 4:02PM
Luis Gutierrez, in January. | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: September 22, 2011 12:31AM
Republicans’ court challenge to the congressional map Illinois Democrats drew to eviscerate GOP districts will center on the fact that they drew only one Hispanic district.
The earmuff-shaped 4th District connects Puerto Rican neighborhoods on the Northwest Side with Mexican-American neighborhoods on the Southwest Side via a thin line running down the middle of the Tri-State tollway through the west suburbs.
It has been represented since its inception 20 years ago by Luis Gutierrez, who has come to be a thorn in the side of his old friend President Barack Obama by traveling the country to speak out in favor of immigration reform — urging stronger actions than Obama is prepared to take.
In an interview at his Portage Park two-flat, Gutierrez explained that Hispanic advocacy groups got together and decided that one proven district was better than gambling on two this time around. Illinois’ Hispanic population is soaring and has surpassed the population of African Americans, who still have three congressional districts under the new map.
The problem for map-drawing purposes is that African Americans are concentrated enough that they can constitute 51 percent majorities in three districts whereas Hispanics are dispersed around the state.
Districts trying to connect Hispanic populations on Chicago’s Northwest Side with those in suburbs extending out to Elgin — or from the Southwest Side out to Aurora and Joliet — might look as silly as the earmuffs.
Hispanics, especially those more recently connected to Mexico and Central and South America, don’t turn out to vote in the same numbers as African Americans and whites. Part of that is a distrust of government brought from native countries.
Districts drawn to elect Hispanic judges on the Northwest and Southwest sides often elect white candidates even though Hispanic voters outnumber white voters.
For all those reasons, Hispanic advocacy groups decided to stick with the bird-in-the-hand earmuff district this time around, Gutierrez said.
But this will all be academic in 10 years as the Hispanic population grows.
“The earmuffs will be gone in 10 years — this is the last time,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez moved into the mostly white Portage Park neighborhood a few years ago and the map-drawers were kind enough to include Gutierrez’s home in his district.
It makes sense, he said because there are 150 Hispanics in his precinct, whereas in his gentrifying old neighborhood of Bucktown, only a handful of Hispanic voters remain.
Gutierrez is the only Hispanic congressman in the U.S. representing a district that is mostly another ethnicity. New York’s Hispanic congressmen are all Puerto Ricans. Florida’s are all Cubans. And California’s and Texas’ are all Mexican-Americans, he said.
Gutierrez is a Puerto Rican representing a mostly Mexican-American district, but he has become the country’s most outspoken congressman on immigration reform to a point that no Mexican-American candidate has been able to challenge him.
UNO, Latino Policy Agenda and other Hispanic advocacy groups testified in favor of keeping just one Hispanic congressional district.
The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund — the national group that challenges maps it says under-represent Hispanics and which has challenged Illinois’ legislative maps as short-changing Hispanics — has so far not decided whether one congressional district is enough in Illinois.
“We will look at it — we haven’t finished really,” said Elisa Alfonso, MALDEF Midwest Redistricting Coordinator.