Early last week 12th Ward alderman Ray Frias was riding high. A poll conducted by his campaign showed his name recognition in the ward was 57 points higher than that of his toughest challenger, political neophyte George Cardenas. He posed for campaign photos with John Daley, the powerful brother of the mayor. He said what any watcher of Chicago politics would assume: that he had the support of a pack of Mexican-American elected officials--all regular Democrats like himself--including state senators Tony Munoz and Martin Sandoval, state representative Eddie Acevedo, and 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis. He didn't even seem too upset that his own brother, Fernando Frias, was running Cardenas's campaign. "Hey, you can choose your friends," he said, "but you can't choose your family."
Then on Wednesday some of those friends--Munoz and Acevedo--along with Sandoval and Cook County commissioner and candidate for Cicero town president Joseph Mario Moreno, announced that they too were supporting Cardenas. Rumors to that effect had been flying for weeks, but until then Frias had refused to believe them. Early in the week he said, "I seriously doubt those rumors are true." By Friday he sounded like a broken man. "We can't believe it," he said. "I've known Tony [Munoz] since he's eight years old. I'm shocked."
Having your family, friends, and political allies turn their backs on you is bad enough. It's even worse when they happen to control hundreds of city workers and other volunteers who can campaign and turn out the vote for your opponent.
Munoz, Sandoval, and Acevedo are all high-powered members of the machine-style Hispanic Democratic Organization, which is run by Victor Reyes; he was Mayor Daley's director of intergovernmental affairs until 2000, when he left city government to become one of Chicago's most powerful lobbyists. Writing about the 12th Ward fight last week in "Capitol Fax," Rich Miller called HDO "a fearsome organization" and concluded, "Frias...is definitely in trouble."
George Cardenas is a political unknown, but HDO has shown before that it has the money and manpower to get a no-name elected. In 1998 it helped Munoz, then a Chicago police officer and political nobody, trounce popular state senator Jesus Garcia. But 38-year-old Cardenas is not only new to politics as a candidate, he's new to voting. Chicago Board of Elections records show that he's never voted in the city. Records also show that he changed his voter registration to an address in the 12th Ward just days before he filed as a candidate for alderman there--he'd been registered to vote on the northwest side.
Cardenas claims he's getting support from Frias's former allies because the alderman has ignored the needs of the ward. "You walk down this community and the streets are dirty, there is no economic development," he says. "This community, it just looks so drab that it's sad." But that hardly seems reason enough for HDO to go against a faithful machine politician. Frias says he hasn't opposed the mayor on any vote "in recent memory." Yet outside City Council chambers he hasn't toed the line, and now he's paying for his disloyalty, for endorsing people who challenged HDO and regular Democratic candidates.
In 2001 Frias staffer Gloria Camarena announced that she would run against Moreno for county commissioner. "Frias had her announce when I was having my annual golf outing," says Moreno, who's had an on-again, off-again relationship with HDO. "That day, when he knew I was on the golf course, he made a big deal out of it, and that's when she announced. The mayor's allies and the mayor intervened, and she never filed."
Then last fall Frias supported Republican candidate and former 12th Ward precinct captain Robert Garcia against HDO candidate Martin Sandoval. He also supported Republican Frank Aguilar of Cicero for a house seat. Aguilar won, becoming the first Hispanic Republican in the legislature. Initially he was denied membership in the Hispanic caucus, but state representative Susana Mendoza, Frias's protege, sided with Aguilar, and he was eventually admitted. "It ain't hard to see what side of the aisle she's really on in Springfield," says one HDO insider. Some observers speculate that Mendoza, who won her seat with lots of help from HDO but sticks close to Frias, might be the organization's next target.
Frias insists he can counter any troops HDO puts on the street. "I'm not gonna claim to have as many captains as they have workers, but I've got a lot of friends in politics," he says. "I've been an elected official for ten years. I'll match them man for man." He says Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was a freshman legislator with him in the early 90s, called when he heard about the fight in the ward. "He told me that not only was he endorsing me, but he was willing to do whatever I needed." Yet during his gubernatorial campaign Blagojevich received support from HDO in the form of cash and campaign workers, and he told an HDO rally before the election, "HDO is to this campaign as H2O is to the body."
Curiously, Cardenas and Frias are both still scrambling for Daley's coattails, though about the only thing that could make this race any weirder would be Daley throwing his support to Frias. HDO has essentially functioned as the Latino arm of Daley's political organization, and if the two supported different candidates in this race it would signal that HDO is, at least occasionally, willing to walk off the reservation.
Both candidates have Daley's name on their window signs, and both claim the support of the mayor. "Daley is supporting Cardenas," says Cardenas. "HDO is supporting Cardenas." Frias says John Daley called him late last week to reassure him that he had his support. He adds, "It's my understanding that Mayor Daley is supporting all the incumbents. The mayor and I are friends, and we get along great. There is absolutely not a shred of animosity or ill will there. He told me he was supporting me in December, and until I hear otherwise that's what I'll believe." He's now running newspaper ads with pictures of him and the mayor standing side by side.
A spokesman for Daley's campaign said last week that the mayor was holding off endorsing anyone in the 12th Ward. Asked about the signs, the spokesman said, "We appreciate it when candidates seek our approval to use the mayor's name on their signs." And if they don't? "The mayor never asks candidates to cease and desist."
All this political maneuvering leaves 12th Ward voters with a choice between two machine candidates. Frias is an alderman activists love to hate. They're quick to point out that he was indicted in 1997 in the Silver Shovel probe, for taking a $500 bribe from a government mole. He was caught on tape, but he argued that he'd been entrapped and was acquitted. He's always maintained that the $500 was a consultant's fee and that he paid taxes on the money.
Frias is also known in the ward for being inaccessible. "I've asked Ray to come to the CAPS meetings. He's not available," says Jose Rodriguez, who's also running for alderman but is essentially a sincere neighborhood resident completely out of his league. "I've asked Ray and never got anything, so we kind of do it on our own. We walk the neighborhoods. We light up our streets pretty good on our own."
One community group, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, started mailing the alderman complaints and meeting invitations when he wouldn't return phone calls or show up for community meetings. But Frias won't open mail from the group; BPNC has some 40 letters that were sent certified mail and returned, all stamped Refused. He says he won't deal with the group because its organizers "are from the north side--they don't live here." He says he attended one meeting four years ago where "they treated me worse than the dog. They said some pretty nasty things to me. And you know what? I grew up in a tough part of town, and I'm gonna treat you the way you treat me."
Even Frias's storefront ward office seems designed to keep the public at bay. He put up permanent partitions just inside the entrance so that no more than about three people can enter at once, and he installed a service window. Going into his office is like going into a gyros stand in a high-crime neighborhood, minus the bulletproof glass. He insists he didn't wall off his office to keep people out. "It's basically for security purposes," he says. "A lot of times the girls are in here by themselves, and I'm just concerned for their safety."
Frias's office has been vandalized. In 2000 two large windows were broken when someone attached an explosive device to them and detonated it. (Oddly enough, no one called the police, though nearby residents said they heard the explosion.) Frias says gangs were responsible, not his political opposition. As he noted early last week, "I really don't have any political opponents."
Given how many supporters had deserted him by the end of the week, Frias may wish he hadn't alienated so many local activists. Last time around, two progressives challenged him, but he still took 63 percent of the vote in the four-way race--thanks in large part to HDO.
For some, Frias has become a sort of unintentional independent. "HDO is taking over everybody, and HDO has to be stopped," says Frank Avila, an activist attorney whose father was targeted by the group when he ran for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. "They're trying to take over the entire Hispanic community. I know that a lot of people in the progressive community have not liked Ray, but there's an old Arab proverb, 'My enemy's enemy is my friend.' If the progressives thought Ray Frias was bad, wait till they get an HDO alderman. They'll think Ray Frias was Che Guevara."
Frias isn't too sure about taking on this new role. "An independent? Independent of what?" he asks. "Independent of HDO? Absolutely. Independent of the mayor? No way!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.