Pedro DeJesus, a relatively unknown 37-year-old lawyer, is making his first run for office in the March 16 Democratic primary--he wants to be the state representative of the 39th District on the city's near northwest side. Most observers say he won't win. Yet over the past few weeks the local regular Democrats have been using, as one insider puts it, "honey and vinegar--whatever it takes--to coax or coerce him out of the race."
Why would the machine want DeJesus out? Because the incumbent in the race is Toni Berrios, who happens to be the daughter of Joe Berrios, who happens to be the 31st Ward Democratic committeeman, a commissioner on the county tax-review board, and a proud and protective father. "It's my daughter," says Joe Berrios. "Of course I'm helping her. Who wouldn't want to help their daughter? I'd hope you'd help your daughter too."
As DeJesus tells the story, he's the sort of bootstrap success the regulars usually like to endorse. The son of working-class immigrants from the Dominican Republic, he grew up in Logan Square, graduated from the old Weber High School, and worked for a few years as a hospital radiology technician, eventually saving up enough money to attend Roosevelt University. In 1990 he graduated from Roosevelt with a degree in political science, and while working as a runner at the Board of Trade he went to Northwestern University's law school. For the past few years he's worked for McGuireWoods, a corporate law firm with offices in the Loop. "I always wanted to do public service," he says. "I thought that state representative would be a good place to take advantage of my skills and expertise."
But Joe Berrios, who oversees a personal war chest worth over $1 million, wasn't going to make it easy. Two decades ago he took control of an organization originally built by the legendary alderman Tom Keane, and since then he's been part of a band of regulars battling nominally independent forces led by Congressman Luis Gutierrez for control of the Latino districts in Humboldt Park, West Town, and Logan Square.
In the past few years Berrios has been eager to make peace with his erstwhile adversaries, if only to advance the career of Toni, who graduated from Northeastern Illinois University just in time to run for state rep in 2002. "The district was newly created after the 2001 redistricting, and a lot of people wanted to run," says DeJesus. "But they didn't run. Toni ran unopposed because--well, let's put it this way, Joe can be very persuasive."
Berrios's maneuvering on behalf of his daughter made for some strange alliances, such as the one he made with Willie Delgado, a state representative from the Third District who was one of Gutierrez's proteges and who originally ran as an independent. "The last time Willie ran he had to go against one of Joe's allies, Jose Anthony Alvarez," says DeJesus. "Alvarez almost beat Delgado. Alvarez was all set to run against Delgado again."
Joe Berrios picks up the story. "Willie and I got together, and he told me he would be endorsing Toni," he says. "See, everybody has been trying to bring everybody together in the neighborhood. We can do more together than by fighting. After that I felt I had a commitment to help Willie, 'cause he was helping Toni. So when Alvarez came to me for help I said, 'Not this time.' He said, 'You're not going to help--what's the point? I'm out of it.' In the last election I believe I gave him $70,000. So you can understand why he changed his mind about running."
Then last summer DeJesus announced that he would challenge Toni Berrios. "I made a big splash at the Puerto Rican parade in the summer," he says. "We were very well organized--we had about 50 people with DeJesus T-shirts and a banner."
DeJesus says he was hoping to take advantage of the old Berrios-Gutierrez rivalry and pick up endorsements from Gutierrez, Delgado, First Ward alderman Manny Flores, state senator Miguel del Valle, and 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon. But apparently Joe Berrios has been working the phones, because all of these officials are backing Toni Berrios, except del Valle and Colon, who can still call themselves independents and aren't endorsing anybody. "I thought it would be a thing where the independents--or the people who rode into office as independents--would support another independent, but I'm finding that Chicago politics doesn't work that way anymore," says DeJesus. "I'd talk to someone and they'd say, 'Sorry, I told Joe I'm with Toni.' I'm starting to wonder--what's the difference between the independents and the machine guys if they keep backing each other?" He has a point. The labels no longer mean much, since most of these independents are, like the regulars, loyal followers of Daley--though it's not clear how independent DeJesus would be once in office.
DeJesus says many of the politicians whose support he expected have been trying to get him to make a deal: "They were very up-front about it. They told me that Joe would slate me for judge or a seat on the Water Reclamation District if I dropped out." He says other politicians told him he could be slated to run for alderman of the 31st Ward once the incumbent, Ray Suarez, retired. "A guy in Berrios's organization told me I should 'think about making peace, because all the ward bosses are working against you. You have a bright future, but it wouldn't do any good if you make all these enemies. And you know, maybe Suarez is going to step down.' Like they're just going to hand the seat over to me."
In late December some operative tried a different tack. "I got a call from my mother saying that someone called and told her that he's working with Joe and he wants me out of the race," says DeJesus. "Number one, how did he get her number? Number two, why would he do that? My mom's a retired senior citizen--an immigrant. She doesn't know about this. She felt very intimidated. I called the guy back and I let him have it. 'Who do you think you are, making an unsolicited phone call to my mother's house? If you have a political issue you call me.' Later I got a call from Commissioner Berrios saying, 'Oh, this should never have happened.'"
But DeJesus wouldn't budge, so Berrios decided to play rough. On December 22 a resident of the 39th District, Felix Cardona Jr., filed a challenge with the Illinois Electoral Board, asking to have DeJesus removed from the ballot. Berrios's lawyer, Thomas Jaconetty, represents Cardona, and Berrios clearly supports the challenge. "I think we have a good case," he says. "I think we're going to win."
According to the challenge, DeJesus should be knocked off the ballot because the receipt he got from the secretary of state after filing his statement of economic interest doesn't specify the office for which he's running. The receipt "merely indicates a filing on December 8, 2003 for the following office: 'Candidate,'" it states. "The receipt makes no designation of any position, district, unit of government, or particular elective office sought."
That's absurd, says DeJesus. "I don't have anything to do with the receipt. I got it from the secretary of state's office when I filed my statement of economic interest. It's just a receipt that shows I turned in my statement. Oh, my god--if I get knocked off for this, every candidate could be knocked off."
At the end of December an electoral board hearing officer ruled in DeJesus's favor. Cardona then appealed to the full board, which ruled in DeJesus's favor in early January. Now Cardona's appealing to the Cook County circuit court.
"It's clear that they're just wasting our time and wasting our resources with a frivolous case," says DeJesus. "This is classic machine tactics."
Unlike most first-time candidates, DeJesus still wasn't cowed, and that led to a whisper campaign. "Let me tell you something--Pedro's not the fucking knight on the fucking white horse he wants you to think he is," says one prominent elected official who's backing Toni Berrios. "I think HDO's putting him up."
HDO, the Hispanic Democratic Organization, is an intimidating army of patronage workers loyal to Mayor Daley who bring out the vote in Hispanic wards. There's only one problem with this theory--Joe Berrios vehemently says it's not so, perhaps because if HDO didn't support his daughter it would look like she doesn't have widespread support. "HDO doesn't support DeJesus--HDO supports Toni," he says. "Everybody supports Toni except del Valle and Colon--and they're neutral."
So if everybody supports Toni, why is Joe trying so hard to get DeJesus out of the race? The answer, he says, isn't complicated--he's no different from Mayor Richard J. Daley, former Cook County assessor Thomas Hynes, House speaker Michael Madigan, or any other powerful pol who uses his clout on behalf of his children. "It's my kid--what am I supposed to do? Ignore her?" he says. "I love her. She's a great kid--and she's a great candidate."
Berrios doesn't mind admitting that he tried to lure DeJesus out of the race with the offer to slate him for another office. In politics, he explains, friends help their friends, and DeJesus would have been his friend if he'd pulled out of Toni Berrios's race. "Listen, I don't have anything against DeJesus," he says. "I told him straight up, 'You're a young guy. I'll help you down the road. But understand, I can't help you when you're running against my daughter.'"
For her part, Toni Berrios says she's earned her father's endorsement. "I've been a very good state representative," she says. "I love politics. I love helping people." And she doesn't think her father's pushing too hard to get her reelected. "He's my father--he's there to help his daughter. I don't know why [DeJesus] is complaining so much. I don't know why he's even running against me."
The two candidates were supposed to meet face-to-face at a January 15 forum sponsored by the Logan Triangle Association, but Berrios canceled at the last minute. "I had a meeting come up that I could not miss," she says.
Her absence gave DeJesus an opportunity to wow the crowd of 50, many of whom offered to work on his campaign. "They have all these people call me to get me out of the race, but they won't have Toni show up for a community forum--what are they afraid of?" he said afterward. "They should have just sent Joe Berrios. He runs things for her anyway."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.