Let's Get Luis! | Feature | Chicago Reader

Let's Get Luis! 

An unlikely assortment of liberals and convervatives have found common cause in trying to knock Luis Guitierrez from his congresional seat.

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By Ben Joravsky

At a glance it looks like a mismatch. On one side you have Congressman Luis Gutierrez and the state's most powerful Democratic and Republican politicians. On the other you have one of the oddest bunches of political bedfellows Chicago's ever seen--four or five Puerto Rican Democrats who despise Gutierrez with a passion that's difficult to describe and two white Republicans who claim no enmity at all toward the congressman.

For the moment, however, the odd bunch seems to have the upper hand. In 1995 some of them filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of Gutierrez's Fourth Congressional District. Several rulings have already gone in their favor, and if they win it would shake up not only state politics but national election law. It would force congressional boundaries around the state to be redrawn, most likely pitting incumbents against one another as they fight to survive. "If we win they'll either have to cut Louie out with the new map or cut out someone else," explains one of Gutierrez's opponents, barely containing his glee. "It's like we turned on the lights in the middle of the night, and now all those little cockroaches are running for the cracks in the wall. One way or another someone's gonna get trampled."

The fight over the Fourth goes back to 1991, when state legislators prepared to draw new congressional districts in accordance with the 1990 census. At the time, Mayor Daley and Governor Edgar had made it clear they wanted a Latino-majority district in the new lineup for a very simple reason: Latinos were the fastest growing ethnic group in the state, and both parties wanted to woo them by giving them what Jews, blacks, and Poles had had for years--a district of their own.

The main problem was how to draw the new district's boundaries without infringing on an incumbent's territory--a mapmaking nightmare compounded by the fact that Illinois was already losing two congressional seats because its population had dropped in relation to the rest of the country. To make matters worse, the city's two major Latino enclaves--Humboldt Park and Pilsen--were separated by the Loop and the west side. To link them, cartographers would need what mapmakers like to call a "connector."

"Everyone was confused about the new Latino district," says Victor Crown, a political consultant when he's not publishing Illinois Politics. "I proposed a map that would roughly shoot along Damen, carving out most of the Loop from the Seventh Congressional District, then represented by Cardiss Collins. Cardiss hated that map. She has a predominantly black west-side district. But she herself lives in the South Loop, and she didn't want to lose her Loop base for fund-raising. So that ended that."

Unwilling to upset any incumbents, the state legislators left the map as it was, but in June 1991 Congressman Dennis Hastert, a suburban Republican, filed suit, claiming the map was unconstitutional. Hastert's case was joined by several parties, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which argued that Latino voters were constitutionally entitled to a majority-Latino congressional district.

The case was sent to a three-person panel of federal judges, and the wrangling began. Almost every major politician sent lawyers into back rooms to wheel and deal. Eventually the judges settled on a map that, among other things, cut Frank Annunzio, a veteran northwest-side Democrat, out of political existence, moved Dan Rostenkowski farther east into Lincoln Park, and shoved William Lipinski and Marty Russo into one southwest district (necessitating a 1992 primary fight, which Lipinski won).

For the Hispanics, the judges created the Fourth Congressional District, a weird-looking configuration that resembles earmuffs. It consists mostly of Humboldt Park and Pilsen, joined by a slender connector that shoots along Cook County roads and through cemeteries and forest preserves--wherever people don't live--to DuPage County and back.

The new congressional map, approved in October 1991, set the stage for an eagerly awaited contest in the 1992 Democratic primary--between 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell and Gutierrez, then alderman of the 26th Ward, a couple of ambitious Daley allies who were ready to wage expensive, vicious campaigns. But then Mell dropped out of the race, urged out, rumor has it, by Daley, who was horrified by the prospect of a white man being elected in a Latino district. Without any serious competition, Gutierrez swept to victory and marched off to Washington, where he quickly gained attention for his outspokenness (within a few weeks, for instance, he was publicly chastising House speaker Tom Foley).

Gutierrez handily won reelection in 1994 and might have remained in Congress for years without serious challenge had it not been for James Ten Broeck Jr., a 30-year-old lawyer with a fledgling personal-injury practice. Raised in Rogers Park and schooled at Saint Ignatius, Ten Broeck seemed on track to become the sort of earnest young liberal who winds up volunteering in campaigns for David Orr, Helen Shiller, and other north-side progressives. But he rebelled against any such expectation. "At Saint Ignatius they were always telling us that Reagan was evil, the devil incarnate," he says. "Obviously they were trying to get us to be liberal. I decided I wanted to go to the University of Dallas, a small liberal arts Catholic school, and one of my teachers said, 'Oh my God, it's so conservative--why would you want to go there?' I said, 'I wouldn't want to have a closed mind, would I?' That was the end of that conversation."

After graduating, Ten Broeck went to law school at Loyola, began publishing a political magazine called the Midwest Journal, and found himself hanging out with fringe conservative activists such as William Kelly. "You might have heard of Kelly--he was the guy who made a name for himself crashing President Clinton's press conferences," says Ten Broeck. "Bill was a good press-conference crasher. He'd mention Gennifer Flowers, and then he started yelling and screaming about the middle-class tax break. We met in 1994 [at a conservative rally] out in Wheaton. Kelly said, 'We're both on the same ideological plane--we should get those bastards and raise some hell.'"

So at Kelly's suggestion, Ten Broeck decided to challenge the configuration of the Fourth Congressional District. He had nothing personal against Gutierrez--he didn't even know him. He just saw no reason for a district to be so peculiarly shaped. What made Latinos so special that they deserved their own district? he wondered. Why couldn't mapmakers just draw neat, contiguous districts filled with whomever happened to live there? Wouldn't society be healthier and less antagonistic if blacks and Hispanics--and gays, women, and the disabled, for that matter--weren't treated as special groups? Carving out special districts for blacks or Hispanics seemed to push Illinois dangerously close to resembling one of those barbaric Balkan states.

"To me, special districts foster this primitive notion of group identity and entitlement," says Ten Broeck. "Are they saying that a black man cannot represent a Latino or a white can't represent a black? That goes against all the color-blind precepts Martin Luther King ever preached. I think we should draw districts based on where you live, and let the voters decide who gets elected--may the best man or woman win."

Ten Broeck allied himself with Jim King, a Bucktown resident who lived in the Fourth Congressional District and wanted to act as plaintiff. On February 8, 1995, the case--commonly known as King v. State Board of Elections of Illinois--was filed.

As the case lingered in the courts for several months, Ten Broeck's funds ran low. He didn't have a large income, and he needed money to pay for experts, print legal documents, and make large, detailed map exhibits. The Republican Party was of little help. "I got a call from a top assistant to the state leader," says Ten Broeck. "She said, 'We're not thrilled with what you're doing. When you have ten Republican congressmen who win with these districts you don't want to change the map.'"

Indeed those ten Republican congressmen had quickly intervened on behalf of the defendants, a precautionary move to guarantee that the map couldn't be changed without their input. Without intending to, Ten Broeck and King had revealed the hypocrisy of Republican politicians who bang the drum against racial set-asides when they want to win votes by exploiting white fears, only to go along with racial gerrymandering if it can help them get elected. Some experts believe Republicans won the House in 1994 because GOP strategists diluted the southern Democratic vote by cordoning blacks into almost-all-black districts.

"It's obvious to me that the practice of racial gerrymandering benefits the Republicans as well as minority politicians," says King. "It's not just Jesse Jackson Jr. who likes these districts. It's the David Dukes who like to say, 'Let's get all the minorities out of our districts.' I think minorities lose when you have all-white districts, because Republicans have no reason to listen to their concerns."

In Illinois the way the Fourth Congressional District was drawn hurt Democrats the most. It moved Republican voters into Democratic districts and helped conservatives such as Michael Flanagan and Jerry Weller defeat Democratic incumbents. It cost Marty Russo his seat, and still makes William Lipinski, one of the House's most conservative Democrats, vulnerable to a right-wing challenge.

"This is an old game for Republicans," says Victor Crown. "They'll form a silent coalition with the most radical black and Hispanic activists, and together they'll create all-black or Hispanic districts that really screw the Democratic machine hacks. Sure it's hypocritical, especially coming from conservatives who say they hate racial set-asides. But what do you expect? They're politicians, not saints. They don't care about upholding pristine conservative principles. They want to get elected so they can dish the pork to their friends. They hate true believers like Ten Broeck. Guys like him upset their inside deals."

For a while it seemed Ten Broeck, desperate for cash and up against some powerful opponents--including the Justice Department--might run out of steam. Then he got a call from Gloria Chevere and Manny Torres, a couple of politicos from the northwest side, who said they were interested in helping him with his case.

Ten Broeck had never heard of Chevere or Torres, and he couldn't understand why they would want to help a conservative cause that might unseat a prominent Puerto Rican politician. So Chevere and Torres gave Ten Broeck their version of local Latino political history. Gutierrez, they explained, wasn't always a loyal foot soldier in Mayor Daley's Machine. Only 16 years ago he was an out-of-work social worker who made his living driving a cab and was politically aligned with radicals, liberals, and political independents. It was Harold Washington who launched Gutierrez's career by giving him a relatively high-paying job in the Department of Streets and Sanitation--a job that enabled him to make enough money to buy some new suits, clean up his image, and build a network of precinct workers who went door-to-door on his behalf. With the support of Washington and other black leaders--one breathless columnist even compared Gutierrez to Martin Luther King Jr.--Gutierrez got the African-American votes he needed to squeak past Torres in the 1986 special aldermanic election in the 26th Ward. (Torres is still seething over his loss. "They tried to make me look like I was dumb," he says.)

And how did Gutierrez show his gratitude to those black voters? After Washington died he made a deal with Richie Daley: he endorsed Daley for mayor over two black opponents, and Daley allowed Gutierrez to head the City Council's important housing committee. And what did Gutierrez do to his old Latino allies? He persuaded a nobody (Nelida Smyser-DeLeon) to run against state senator Miguel del Valle, an old ally and friend, and helped finance her campaign (del Valle barely won). Then Gutierrez helped sabotage the political career of his old ally Chevere--his picture once hung on her wall--by working against her when she ran for alderman of the 31st Ward. "He wanted to knock out potential rivals, that's why he went after del Valle and Gloria," says Torres. "He's a rat who'd sell his soul to get elected."

"It sort of blew me away when I met them and realized how they felt about Gutierrez," says Ten Broeck. "I was so green I didn't know anything about the ins and outs of Chicago politics."

But he was learning fast, as he was introduced to other Latino politicos who opposed Gutierrez, including Dennis Perez, a Humboldt Park real estate agent who says Gutierrez betrayed the cause of local independents by selling out to Daley, and Rafael Marrero, a renegade member of the Puerto Rican independence movement. A couple of years ago these politicos started El Pito ("The Whistle"), the hell-raising zine that mocks and taunts Gutierrez, and they've been urging someone, anyone, to run against him since he was elected in 1992.

They'd almost given up hope of dislodging Gutierrez, become resigned to the painful sight of him campaigning with Daley and hobnobbing with President Clinton, when Ten Broeck appeared with his lawsuit. As they saw it, Gutierrez couldn't possibly win if his boundaries were changed and he had to run in a new district where whites and blacks outnumbered Latinos, especially given that Daley would have to stay neutral for fear of alienating another incumbent, says Lipinski. "It's plantation politics," says Torres. "Mr. Independent needs old massa Daley to get elected."

Joining Ten Broeck's case would have been risky for them, as it probably would have destroyed any hope of their ever winning higher office. They knew that some Latinos would see them as turncoats, wrecking the common good for petty personal reasons. (Imagine the political ramifications for a Jewish politician who attempted to break up Sidney Yates's Ninth Congressional District, which snakes along the north lakefront and into Skokie--a shape almost as absurd as that of the Fourth.) But they didn't care. "I did my service as a politician," says Torres. "My career is over. Louie's my hobby. Everybody has a hobby. I know Gloria feels the same way--with her it might be even more of an obsession."

And so an unlikely coalition was born, with Chevere, Torres, and Perez becoming close advisers to Ten Broeck. They helped him raise money so he could pay his bills, and they helped him find local experts to testify. "We helped keep that young man going, God bless him," says Perez.

It didn't matter that they had different ideologies and motives. "They're motivated by personal politics," says Ten Broeck. "I'm motivated by constitutional principles." They agreed to disagree and concentrate on their common cause. "For me this is not about Luis Gutierrez at all, though I disagree with a lot of his political views," says King. "That's something reporters can't understand. At the trial they came up to me and asked, 'Who's behind this? Is it Dick Mell? Dick Mell must be behind this.' I didn't know what they were talking about. Believe it or not, I didn't know who Dick Mell was."

The big showdown came in December 1995, when the case came to trial. Assisted by Doug Markham, a trial lawyer from Houston who specializes in gerrymandering cases, Ten Broeck called Torres to testify that for all practical purposes there's no such thing as a common Latino experience that links Puerto Ricans from Humboldt Park with Mexican-Americans in Pilsen. "I testified that I have more in common with my next-door neighbor than I do with some guy who lives across the city in Pilsen," says Torres. "The other side kept saying, 'Well, it's only five miles away.' I said, 'You're missing the point. In this city if you go a couple of blocks you're entering a different world.' The problems Puerto Ricans and Mexicans face are different. What's the biggest issue Mexicans face? Immigration. Puerto Ricans don't even think about that, because we're born U.S. citizens."

Ten Broeck also introduced evidence to show the absurdity of the shape of the district, which cuts across 8 townships, 18 municipalities, and 20 aldermanic wards. He concluded, "When a court recognizes the rights of Latinos, blacks, or Anglos to have their own district it presumes that people vote only according to race and engenders the belief among the people that race-based actions and decisions are acceptable."

For Ten Broeck the high point came when he confronted Gutierrez on the stand. "I asked him, 'Do you consider yourself a Latino congressman?' and he said yes. So I said something like, If your district was less Latino, would you still consider yourself a Latino congressman? I was getting at the heart of things, that in these types of districts you have a 'minority' congressman who doesn't think about the common good but a specific good. I'll never forget the look on the congressman's face. It was, 'Please ask me another question.' He knew I had him. Because he couldn't say, 'No, I wouldn't be as Latino.' And he couldn't argue that ethnicity doesn't matter, because his linchpin is race. I had him--I had him good."

The opposing lawyers--including Justice Department lawyers and Maria Valdez, MALDEF's staff attorney--weren't nearly as impressed. As they saw it, Ten Broeck was clumsily and ignorantly attempting to rewrite history by making victims into villains and vice versa. It's easy to say, as he does, "Just make your appeal in a rational way, and whites will vote for you." But they'd watched lifelong white Democrats vote Republican rather than see Harold Washington, a black Democrat, elected mayor. And they'd seen the Machine's political mapmakers divide black or Hispanic communities into many different wards to keep those voters under a white boss's control. They argued that there was nothing morally or constitutionally wrong with a district configured to give blacks or Hispanics a healthy majority, that such districts were useful tools sanctioned by the Voting Rights Act. If not for court-drawn "minority-majority" districts, blacks and Hispanics couldn't get elected. Anyone who argued differently knew nothing about Chicago's political history.

"We were able to establish that there was sufficient justification for the district, even though it had an odd shape and was predominantly based on Hispanic voters, because of violations of the Voting Rights Act," says Valdez. "Election returns going back to 1985 demonstrated that the Hispanic vote had been diluted because of white bloc voting. In other words, whenever you had Hispanic candidates the white bloc went against them. Under the law, that would provide us a remedy--and the remedy is the creation of a minority-majority district. As for Ten Broeck's argument that there is no Latino community, the court heard our evidence of common Spanish culture and language. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans face similar problems of low employment and low educational attainment and have common socioeconomic characteristics that lead to common political agendas."

In March 1996 the three-judge federal panel ruled against King and Ten Broeck, arguing that there was a special need for the district even if it "resembled a Rorschach blot turned on its side." Ten Broeck appealed to the Supreme Court, and last November he got what he wanted: a ruling ordering the lower court to reconsider the March decision. "The Supreme Court has been gradually moving toward our position in a series of rulings," he says. "The justices basically ordered the local court to reconsider its decision in light of these recent rulings. I don't want to overstate things, but this has the potential to be a precedent-setting case with consequences for similar cases all over the country."

Chevere, Torres, Perez, and Marrero were jubilant, but for a different reason. They couldn't care less about election law, but the lawsuit gave them a hammer to hit Gutierrez with. And they show no sign of letting up. A few months ago they attended a bowling fund-raiser for a local not-for-profit just to goad Alderman Billy Ocasio, Gutierrez's closest City Council ally, who was also there. "We were wearing our El Pito T-shirts with the picture of the whistle and our logo, Blow Me," says Perez. "They were telling us to take them off. We said, 'No way. We paid 35 bucks for these things.' Ocasio couldn't take it. He walked out, the wimp."

The El Pito faction has kept up the attack, making fun of Gutierrez's teeth, hair, clothes, and size. They've called him a worm, a wimp, and a weasel and accused him of virtually every impropriety known to man. "He's Darth Vader, and we're Obi-Wan Kenobi," says Torres. "Except he's not as tall as the real Darth Vader, so he has to walk around on stilts like a clown in the circus."

As they see it, the Supreme Court ruling spells the beginning of the end of Gutierrez's career. They predict the local judges will send the map back to the state legislators, who will probably send it right back to the judges for fear of alienating any entrenched politicians. And then everyone will be right where they were seven years ago--with dozens of lawyers representing different powerful political interests gathering in back chambers to strike a deal. "Only this time it will be different," says Torres. "This time our lawyers will be in those back rooms. The Fourth Congressional will get carved up like a turkey. Some of it will go to Lipinski, and some of it will go to [Congressman] Rod Blagojevich [Richard Mell's son-in-law]. Louie will have to run against Blagojevich. Ha, let's see him win that race. Let's see him beat Mell. The little crumb will be back driving his cab."

In late February I interviewed Gutierrez. We sat in his kitchen while he bustled about, preparing dinner. For a few minutes he listened while I described how his opponents say the lawsuit will knock him out of office. When I finished he looked up. "And you expect me to be worried about that?"

"Well, I--"

He laughed, sat down in a chair, and sighed. "These people, they're so funny. Gloria, Manny, and the real estate guy--what's his name?"

"Perez."

"Yes, Perez. They're so funny. What, Gloria and Manny don't believe in Latino districts? They didn't say that when they were running for office. It's funny they would throw away everything they believe in just to get at me. I hope I'm worth it. No seriously, sometimes I think they live vicariously through me. Really, what would they do with their lives if I didn't exist? Subconsciously they may want me to stay in power. Oh sure, my downfall would be their psychological demise. They're so inept. I could do worse for enemies. They sit at the bar, and they drink their beer, and they plot new ways to get me. They always tip their hands. I know what they're up to as soon as a reporter comes along with a question. I'll say, 'Wait a minute. Let me guess. You were just talking to Gloria, right?'

"They say, 'Oh, Gutierrez betrayed Harold Washington.' Or 'Gutierrez sold out to Daley.' Or 'Gutierrez ran someone against del Valle.' But I know I remained true to who I am. I don't forget Harold Washington. I grew older, times changed--it was all a natural maturation. Do I support Mayor Daley. Yes, but I can say no to him if we disagree. I said no to his brother [Bill] when he was lobbying for the White House and wanted me to support NAFTA. I said no the mayor's people when I supported del Valle over Ambrosio Medrano [in the 1994 race for Democratic state central committeeman]. Yes, Miguel and I fought. Yes, in 1989 I supported another candidate. But that was a very specific time in our growth. That was out of immaturity on both our parts. That would not happen today. Today I'd pick up the phone, and we'd work it out, and we'd work together. But understand, we were the first generation of Latino politicians. We had no mentors, no role models. There was no tradition of electoral politics to work from. We were all doing this for the first time."

He paused. "Now, what else did they tell you?"

"They said there's really no such thing as a common Latino. You know, it's just Mexicans and Puerto Ricans."

He threw his hands in the air. "Ah, it's so dumb. They don't get it. It's not about what food you eat or melodies you like or even where you live. It's about the discrimination we all face. Let me tell you as one who knows, when discrimination knocks at our door it doesn't matter whether we come from Guatemala or Mexico or Ecuador or Puerto Rico--at that moment we are all Latinos."

His voice cracked, and a tear appeared in his eye. I could tell this was a speech he might one day deliver in Pilsen. I could see him in a hall filled with voters, tying his fate to that of every Latino.

"This is not about Luis Gutierrez," he continued, his eyes flashing and his voice rising. "This is about the self-determination of the Latino community. The congressional district is bigger than the person who gets elected from it. It's an embodiment of our political will. This is about the larger Latino community. You think Daley or Edgar or Lipinski or Blagojevich or whoever wants to go down in history as the politician who took away the first Latino congressional district? Come on! Edgar doesn't want that. Daley doesn't want that. If we have to alter the boundaries a little we'll alter the boundaries. But it won't be anything drastic. I'm sure something will be worked out."

He paused, then smiled, as if suddenly remembering who would be reading this. "It would cause too much havoc to take away that district just to satisfy the desires of a few knuckleheads who sit around having one too many beers." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Kathy Richland, Gloria Chevere, Manny Torres, Dennis Perez, James Ten Broeck, Luis Gutierrez.

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