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Killing Them With Kindness

The Hispanic Democratic Organization has come up with a brilliant way to blunt the independent voices opposing their machine-backed bullying.

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Since 1993 the Hispanic Democratic Organization has been the school-yard bully of Chicago politics, gleefully beating up independents on behalf of Mayor Daley's political machine. But in the last few weeks HDO's leaders seem to have settled on a new tactic for silencing local independents--honoring them.

As hard as it is for many political observers to believe, HDO strategists have managed to persuade most of Chicago's leading Hispanic independents, including 22nd Ward alderman Ricardo Munoz and state senator Miguel del Valle, to lend their names to the fund-raising extravaganza HDO is putting together at Navy Pier on September 12. HDO plans to call the independents to the stage and give them plaques as part of a "Tribute to Chicago's Hispanic Elected Officials."

It's a clever strategy. HDO gets to use the names and reputations of the independents while dispiriting the independents' supporters. So what will the independents get out of it? "The plaques," Frank B. Avila, a Pilsen-based lawyer and political consultant who's battled HDO for years, says sarcastically. "I still don't believe this. A lot of these guys are my friends, but I don't think this was a smart move, politically or morally."

It's hardly unusual for politicians to make awkward alliances of convenience. But even by Chicago standards, this one is surprising. It's not just that HDO has opposed many of the same independents it's now honoring. It has also opposed virtually every good-government reform the independents have fought for. To some observers Chicago independents linking their names to an HDO fund-raiser is like Bill Clinton letting his name be used to raise money for Congressman Henry Hyde's Du Page County Republican organization. Avila says, "They're getting pimped."

HDO was created ten years ago by Victor Reyes, then a Daley political aide and now a lawyer-lobbyist and chairman of HDO (he didn't return calls for comment). Working with Al Sanchez, commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation, Reyes pieced together a patronage army large enough to dominate Chicago's growing Hispanic communities. According to a recent Chicago Tribune expose, HDO has a force of about 1,000 city workers, most of them laborers, who loyally pound the pavement, knowing their jobs depend on their ability to bring out the vote.

As HDO sees it, Chicago is like an army run by a general, Mayor Daley, and any politician who disagrees with him has to be driven from office. Over the last ten years only one Hispanic alderman, Ricardo Munoz, has ever strayed from the Daley line, even to question expenditures on projects as controversial as Soldier Field or Millennium Park.

HDO isn't above bare-knuckle intimidation. On election day its supporters stand on street corners, where they snicker and sneer at the opposition. They've also been known to tear down signs, deface posters, and tell voters a vote for the HDO candidate is the price they have to pay for something as basic as a garbage can.

For its efforts HDO has won Daley's appreciation. But its opponents have been disgusted. "HDO's a disgrace to Hispanics," says Avila. "It's one thing to work with Mayor Daley--everyone wants to do that. It's another thing to be slavishly loyal and kiss the mayoral ring."

In general HDO supports Hispanics over whites or blacks in elections. Yet it didn't support Miriam Santos in her last campaign for treasurer or in her race for attorney general, and it backed John Pope over Nick Valadez in the Tenth Ward's 1999 aldermanic election. And it didn't support Avila's father, M. Frank Avila, in his successful race for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. "Among politically aware Hispanics, the term HDO is followed by a string of dirty words," Gregory Tejeda wrote in an article for United Press International. "For a Hispanic to gain HDO support, he must be subservient to Mayor Richard M. Daley and the white Irish establishment that runs Chicago's government."

At last year's fund-raiser, held at the House of Blues, HDO raised about $500,000. "With the support of the mayor and the Hispanic community, HDO plans to launch campaigns for several candidates throughout the Chicago area," the organization proclaimed in a press release hyping the event.

This year's fund-raiser should bring in even more money. Daley, Governor Rod Blagojevich, Cook County Board president John Stroger, Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan, and state senate president Emil Jones are all expected to be there.

The invitations call the fund-raiser a "10 year anniversary--from Community Involvement to Political Empowerment." On the list of honored politicians are such independents as Munoz, del Valle, state representative Cynthia Soto, First Ward alderman Manuel Flores, and 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon.

Why are so many Hispanic independents helping their rivals raise even more cash? Flores, who successfully battled HDO in last April's campaign, says he's doing a favor for a City Council colleague. "Alderman Ariel Reboyras asked me if I would consider adding my name to the invitation," he says. "I like Ariel. We're developing a good working relationship."

In last spring's campaign Flores and his allies denounced HDO's rough-and-tumble tactics--though those tactics may actually have helped Flores, since many of the ward's yuppies were clearly offended by the idea of HDO supporters offering garbage cans in exchange for votes. Now that he's in office, he's singing a slightly different tune. "Let's clear something up," he says. "Look back at the campaign and the articles that were out there and you'll see I never singled out HDO as bad guys. Now, it's true some of my allies, some of my friends, have not had a very good relationship in the past with HDO. But my number one goal is to provide the best quality services for the residents of the First Ward. To that end I'm not going to get mixed up in the politics and this adversarial relationship. My supporters are well aware of the relationships we're making with everybody. Politics is a game of inclusion, not exclusion."

Besides, Flores points out, he's not the only recently elected independent on the HDO list. "Did you talk to Rey [Colon]?" he says. "He signed it too."

Colon's a bit sheepish about lending his name to HDO's cause. "You're making me feel sort of guilty," he says. "I guess it looks like I'm part of the lineup. I won't give you any BS about this--the mayor's been good to me so far. Everybody [in City Hall] has been bending over backwards, so I don't know. I guess I figured, oh what the hell, give 'em my name."

Del Valle says he agreed to the use of his name only after Reyes made it clear HDO was honoring the entire Latino caucus in the statehouse and not just him. "The list includes all the legislators in the caucus," he says. "I draw the line on a distinction between my name and the caucus. If this had been a tribute just to me as a person, that would be another thing. But I'm comfortable with my name being there as part of the caucus."

Perhaps the biggest surprise on the list is Munoz. After all, HDO operatives drove his mentor, state senator Jesus Garcia, out of office in an ugly 1998 campaign. Munoz says he isn't betraying Garcia by allowing his name to go on the HDO program, he's just being practical. "Victor Reyes called and said, 'Would you mind if you lent us your name and we'll give you a plaque?'" he says. "I said sure. Why not? My contention is that it's a game of inclusion--we're supposed to include, not exclude. I'm not fund raising for them. I'm not endorsing them. They're actually endorsing me."

Munoz ran unopposed in his last election, after an HDO-backed candidate, in a surprise move, dropped out of the race. "Listen, Chicago's a tight town--you have to play ball with everybody," he says. "I'm still fighting Mayor Daley to put more cops on the street. But the bottom line is that these guys are in my neighborhood. The nicer I can be to them, the less vicious they will be to me in my campaigns."

The independents' supporters have had a mixed reaction to the decision to help with HDO's fund-raiser. One of Flores's former campaign aides, who asked to be anonymous, praises the first-term alderman for being "pretty slick," then adds, "Manny's playing the angles, and I'll tell you what--you need to play all the angles. I mean, Manny's a young rookie alderman. He's not really from Chicago. He's from Du Page County. He's a nice guy, but he doesn't know what he's doing. So he's making friends. These guys, maybe they'll help him some. You should do whatever you have to do to get ahead, except sleep with the devil."

Other old allies think the independents went too far. "You have to ask yourself, is this just a name on a piece of paper or a declaration of intent?" says Peter Zelchenko, a First Ward activist. "Manny and everyone else who signed it can say, 'Oh, it's just a piece of paper.' But the more I think about it, it seems like a major statement to lend your name to HDO like that. I think this is very wrong."

Zelchenko wrote It Happened Four Years Ago, a book about the heated First Ward aldermanic campaign of 1999, when HDO candidate Jesse Granato battled Cynthia Soto. In the book he describes many of the tough tactics he claims HDO used to help Granato edge out Soto. "I remember something Miguel del Valle said after that election," he says. "He said, 'We die politically, we die spiritually, we die morally, or else we live.' His point was, we don't compromise our principles. It's a powerful statement that's followed me through my life. The more I think about it, the more I can't understand why they gave HDO their names. When it's all said, your name is all you have. They gain nothing and stand to lose everything."

Only two Hispanic elected officials in the city aren't on HDO's list of honorees. The most obvious omission is Congressman Luis Gutierrez. "The only reason my name's not on that list is that, according to federal campaign law, I can't be associated with any fund-raiser that takes soft money," he says. "But I'm going to the fund-raiser. I'll see a lot of my good friends."

The other Hispanic official not on the list is Frank Avila's father. "Victor Reyes called me and said they wanted my name," says M. Frank Avila. "I said we should talk. He said they were in a hurry because they were going to print and he would like an answer now. I said, 'Sorry, but it's just too fast.' I'm not really into the political things. I'm a civil engineer. My main thing is the integrity of treating wastewater. I leave the politics to Frankie."

The younger Avila says he won't make peace with HDO until the organization changes its ways. "It's slavery," he says. "Maybe some of them have gold chains, but it's still slavery."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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