News & Politics » Feature

Party of Juan

Once Juan Soliz was the city's most promising Hispanic politician. Now he's an outcast--an opportunist who made one promise too many.

by and


Election night, April 1987
Juan Soliz's party

The believer -- a husky Mexican kid -- sips a beer and sucks a cigarette, his third of the night.

"I don't smoke," he says. "This is cause I'm nervous."

He stops talking and turns his attention to a large board, where a man in a dark suit is writing the latest precinct results in Juan Soliz's run for reelection as alderman of the 25th Ward. The crowd of some 50 men and women lets out a cheer. Soliz has moved into a dead heat with his challenger, Ambrosio Medrano.

"Do you think Soliz can win?" the true believer asks a reporter. "It's my first campaign, and I don't know these things."

The reporter explains that it depends on which precincts are out, and whether they're white, black, or Mexican.

"But why?" the believer asks. "Juan Soliz is the best, most qualified candidate. Ambrosio is just a creature of Vito Marzullo's old political machine. If Soliz loses, it won't be fair."

The reporter stares at the believer. Forget fairness. Soliz is in trouble. He's broken too many allegiances, and now he's squeezed between an old machine and a new movement. It didn't have to be that way -- that's the saddest part. Once upon a time, no Hispanic politician in Chicago had as bright a future as Juan Soliz.

No one seems to recall exactly when Juan Soliz came on the scene. There's just a general feeling, a hazy recollection that, all of a sudden, we looked up and there he was.

It was winter 1978 -- just before the big snow. He was about 30 years old and sort of scraggly looking, like a kid. He had a big, boyish smile and buck teeth. He favored shiny polyester suits, and his ties were a little wide. But he had a certain flair, a touch of hopeful charm and innocence.

"I remember thinking," says one longtime politico, "this kid is so fresh and green, so new and naive."

He had no family and no friends here, when, recently divorced and with two children he came to Chicago by way of Seattle. There he'd been a law student and then a practicing attorney with a passionate interest in the problems of the poor. He didn't talk much about his life before that. Mostly what he said, again and again, was that his parents were campesinos -- migrant workers from Texas.

It played well with Chicago's Mexican activists. And with his olive brown skin, his luminous brown eyes, his jet black hair always falling across his forehead, Soliz looked like a migrant's son.

He went to work for the Legal Assistance Foundation, as its director of legal services for immigrants. It was perfect, a genuine Hispanic activist-lawyer, making a name for himself protecting the rights of immigrants who were being unlawfully deported. He settled in the predominantly Mexican community of Pilsen on the near southwest side, moving into a basement flat in an old brick bungalow on a street of vaulted sidewalks, little greenery, and too many people. The heart of the 25th Ward.

The community needed him. Pilsen was over 100 years old -- one of the oldest neighborhoods in Chicago -- and it showed the wear and tear of time. For years it had been a port of entry for Lithuanians, Poles, Bohemians, Czechs, Germans, and Italians. In those days, jobs flourished in the factories along the south branch of the Chicago River. But many of the factories had become gutted shells, and many white ethnics had left for the suburbs.

The old-time politicians who ran the area -- Italians most of them -- reacted to their new, mostly Mexican neighbors with disgust, as though they'd forgotten how their own ancestors, fresh off the boat, had looked and sounded.

It was time, most activists agreed, for a new generation of Mexican-American politicians.

Winter 1982
The Chicago Sun-Times building

Juan Soliz -- the recently announced candidate for state representative of the 20th District -- shows up at the newsroom for his first exclusive interview with a big downtown daily.

Just a second, says the receptionist. She speaks into a phone and within minutes a reporter -- a writer for "Los Vecinos," the paper's new Spanish-language supplement -- emerges and leads him to a conference room.

"We have little time," Soliz says, speaking in Spanish. "We have to organize the campaign in three months. I need 600 signatures to get on the ballot. But we've got to be sure, so we'll get 1,500 to 2,000. We'll have to gather them during the worst months -- January, February, and March.

"We have other obstacles. The new legislative map has divided the Mexican communities.

"We also face a lot of apathy. Because no one trusts our politicians. They come only a few days before election, time, and then you never see them again. They look after their own interests and not the community. Our community is frustrated. We have to convince them that we have honest politicians whose goals are those of the community.

"The Machine has never done anything for us. The Machine is a monster. It will be a challenge to defeat them.

"We have little money. It's a grassroots campaign -- $10 here, $20 there. I represent the workers; I look after the problems of the poor. I'm not working now, and my campaign manager is a volunteer. We are doing this out of sheer will."

The reporter nods. "Well," he says. "I wish you luck."

They pause, silent, not sure of what to say next.

"Would you like a tour of the building?"

Soliz brightens. Yes, that would be nice.

And so they wind their way through the plant, past the offices of Irv Kupcinet, Mike Royko, and Sydney J. Harris, and into an elevator that takes them to the main floor, where they stroll through a narrow corridor lined with photographs.

On the right is a long pane of glass. Soliz stops and peers at the huge, two-story presses. He falls silent and watches as the day's edition, studded with names like Byrne, Daley, and Vrdolyak, rushes by in a steady, streaming blur.

Election day, April 1987
Washington headquarters, 25th Ward

"We made Juan Soliz."

Juan "Mama" Velazquez sits in a small, bare room -- two flights above a dentist's office -- his feet propped on an old metal desk.

That was in the early 1980s, he explains. He, Rudy Lozano, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Ramiro Borja, and Soliz were part of a coalition of young Mexican activists bent on overthrowing the old regime. Mainstream politics was new to them. Most were radicals. Some had once belonged to the Brown Berets, their Mexican equivalent of the Black Panthers.

Velazquez himself had to cut his shoulder-length hair to look "right" for the campaign. Even today -- after several years in City Hall -- he doesn't look like a politician. He snorts and swears and sports a graying beard and small, gold-rimmed glasses. His hair and suit look rumpled.

"Soliz was clean-cut, a lawyer. He had good presentation, and good appearance. We couldn't put up a radical, and Soliz fit the picture. He had the right image.

"He was astute enough to see this was a people's movement. He kind of planned things out. People who didn't ordinarily get involved in politics, they got involved because of Juan Soliz."

Velazquez pauses to let the rumblings of traffic at Ashland and 18th Street recede.

"I was never necessarily impressed with him. I had bad vibes about him from the start. You know, I got certain feelings about certain people at times. Usually, I'm right. Something about him wasn't real. He was always talking about campesinos. That was his rap.

"But it just didn't hit, at least not with me. On the street, you learn to tell when people are on the up-and-up.

"The other guys, though -- you know, Rudy and Chuy -- they were impressed with Soliz's politics and his movement talk. Rudy made a statement at one meeting that he [Soliz] was going to run for state rep. I took the posture, 'What the fuck, who is this guy?'

"I made a lot of enemies in those days. From the very beginning, I said, 'This guy, he's going to turn on us.' People disliked me 'cause I said that. But you know, later on, when it happened, they came back and said, 'We're sorry.'

"Oh yeah, we made Juan Soliz. And then he turned on us."

"January 18, 1982
"From: Citizens to elect Juan M. Soliz
"To: Media
"For immediate release

"The citizens committee for Juan Soliz announced today the successful completion of its campaign to secure a place for' Soliz on the ballot for the March 16th primary. The petition drive, initiated January 2nd, resulted in the collection of over 1,000 signatures. These signatures are expected to be sufficient to ensure that Soliz's name will appear on the ballot."

They were. But the Marzullo machine had other ways to eliminate challengers. Less than one month later, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners removed Soliz from the ballot for allegedly having filed an improper statement of candidacy.

Soliz's appeal came before Joseph Schneider, a judge of the Cook County Circuit Court. Marzullo himself was present when Schneider made his decision; at a crucial moment, he rose, stared at the judge, then turned and slowly left the courtroom.

Ruling in the case, Judge Schneider said, "It is better to deny the town its right to vote than to question the credibility of a government office because of the havoc it would create."

And then he upheld the election board's decision and threw Juan Soliz off the ballot.

"'Machine' Chews Up Soliz, but He Comes Out Swinging," read the headline in the March 15, 1982, edition of the Chicago Tribune.

"The upshot: Soliz is off the primary ballot," the article said. "He is now going to have to run as an independent in November. That means, he's going to have to gather 3,000 signatures between now and August just to qualify. He will have to raise money as an independent [always hard] and from Hispanic businessmen who are terrified of reprisals from the machine."

But Soliz persevered. He rounded up enough signatures to run on the "Juan M. Soliz Independent Party" against the incumbent, Marco Domico, in the general election.

The Sun-Times Spanish-language supplement called it a rematch of David and Goliath.

Election night, November 1982

By 8:30 PM, the results are already in, and Juan Soliz has lost -- by a margin of two to one, TV reporters say.

But when the candidate enters the hall -- crowded and steamy -- a cheer erupts, and supporters, hundreds of them, rush to hug him, to shake his hand. A mariachi band plays an upbeat tune. An old man cries. Supporters embrace. A chant begins -- Soliz, Soliz, Soliz -- until the cavernous old room is reverberating.

As Soliz mounts the stage with his two children, the band plays "Cielito Lindo," a popular Mexican tune. The crowd joins in on the chorus. "Canta y no llores," they sing -- "Sing, don't cry."

The candidate shows no sign of emotion. He's had only two hours of sleep, and he's spent the day walking the streets, campaigning. When the crowd quiets, he begins speaking, slowly, in Spanish.

"I assure you this is only a beginning. We have suffered a temporary setback. We have created a political conscience and maturity that is invaluable. We now have the strength and the inspiration to move ahead.

"Our struggle is just and necessary, and we will continue fighting for the future of our children. There is still tomorrow. There are many tomorrows."

Election night, April 1987
Juan Soliz's party

The man in the dark suit is back again, and the crowd hushes in anticipation.

The believer turns to the band of Mexican teenagers, who are playing a Spanish-language rendition of "At the Hop," and pleads for quiet. But it's too late: the guitar player has moved into his grand finale -- a two-note lead ' played with his teeth, Jimi Hendrix style.

"The music," says the believer, "it just makes me more nervous. My nerves. I can't stand the tension, How many points are we behind now?"

The reporter shakes his head and prepares to add the latest numbers to his tally. The man in the dark suit begins to write with much deliberation: 16 in Soliz's column, 275 in Medrano's.

"My God," exclaims the believer. "Who lives in that precinct?"

"It must be blacks," the reporter says.

"But I thought blacks support Soliz."

He's almost right. Blacks used to support Soliz, A long time ago, they helped elect him.

January 1983
Daley Center Plaza

It's a blustery winter afternoon, and a crowd of two thousand -- nearly all black -- have gathered to hear mayoral candidate Harold Washington and his supporters honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The speakers stand huddled against the cold on a makeshift stage behind the Picasso.

"Our goal is to bring Dr. King's dream to City Hall," booms the master of ceremonies, Sid Ordower.

"And our next speaker is that great champion of peace and justice. That great crusader for human rights. Our brother in the struggle for voting rights for Hispanics on the southwest side. The honorable Juan M. Soliz."

The cheer that follows is weak. Just a few days ago, the papers had reported a rumor that Soliz was playing footsie with Jane Byrne and Richie Daley, who like Washington are in the mayoral primary and are seeking Hispanic endorsements.

It is an angry Soliz who steps to the podium. He wears only an overcoat, no muffler, gloves, or hat to protect him from the cold. His voice is bold and defiant.

Do not, he bellows, believe what you read. Do not believe those stories in the newspapers.

Oh no, chants someone from the crowd.

There is only one candidate I support.

Say it.

There is only one movement I back.

Talk, preacher, talk.

I have always supported one candidate.

Oh yes, say it.

I believe in bringing Dr. King's dream to City Hall.

Oh yes, oh yes.

I have always supported the candidacy of Harold Washington for mayor of Chicago.

The crowd erupts. Soliz stands back, a wan smile on his face. He nods his head, as though bopping to the rhythm of the crowd. And slowly they, too, begin the chant -- Soliz, Soliz, Soliz -- as though this olive-skinned Mexican, his face rubbed raw and red from the cold, was one of their own.

The rumors of his deal with the Machine died down, and Soliz's future never looked brighter. Indeed the promise of southwest-side Mexican politics never seemed so hopeful. In the February 1983 election, Lozano nearly forced 22nd Ward Alderman Frank Stemberk into a runoff. Velazquez pulled 44 percent of the vote against Vito Marzullo. Harold Washington became the Democratic candidate for mayor.

These strong runs set the stage for the following February and the long-awaited rematch in which Soliz would battle Domico for his seat as state rep. The challenger hoped to split the Mexican vote, and counterbalance Domico's white support with his own rock-solid support from area blacks.

But soon after the election, relations began to sour. Washington had promised to name a Hispanic as deputy mayor. And Soliz began to openly lobby for the appointed position. His supporters went so far as to distribute pins that read: "Soliz for Vice Mayor." To avoid a rift, it's said, Lozano agreed to withdraw his name from consideration, if Soliz would do the same. Soliz reportedly refused.

When the nod went to Ben Reyes, a Puerto Rican from Humboldt Park, Soliz was openly bitter. He still occasionally spoke favorably of the new mayor. But more and more, he criticized Washington for not hiring more Hispanics. Behind the scenes, the activists were nervous. He's gonna blow it, they fretted, he's gonna lose the black vote.

I told you, Velazquez contended. It's his ambition. His ego. He didn't get that job and now he's so mad, he can't be trusted.

In public they said everything was fine, no rift in the ranks. And with Washington's backing and nearly unanimous support from the black precincts, Soliz defeated Marco Domico in the February 1984 Democratic primary and became the party's candidate for state representative.

The margin was close, only 59 votes. But the jubilation on election night was heartfelt. It was not just Domico Soliz had beaten -- it was Marzullo himself, the oldest symbol of Machine insensitivity, a man who once likened Mexicans to "dogs, rats, and mouses."

Domico challenged the election in court, but lost, leaving Soliz triumphant and up to his neck in legal and campaign debts.

Soliz turned to Washington for help. But the mayor had little money to offer. Worse yet, Washington refused to give Soliz a city job. The feuding was becoming public; don't trust Soliz, Washington's Hispanic allies warned him.

In the end, Garcia got a $50,000 post with the Water Department, Velazquez a $50,000 slot in Streets and Sanitation. Soliz got nothing. And now he was facing a possible challenge from Ben Martinez -- a Marzullo precinct captain -- who threatened to run in November on a third-party slate.

August 1984
Soliz headquarters

The Democratic candidate for state representative stands behind the front desk to greet his visitors -- two reporters.

The desk is stacked with leftist labor newspapers, featuring articles that proclaim Soliz's victory as a triumph for workers everywhere. It's a blistering summer day, so Soliz wears no jacket and the sleeves of his white shirt are rolled up.

"Success has been good for you," one reporter says, nodding at the bulging stomach that protrudes over his belt.

Soliz smiles and pats his belly.

"You're almost as fat as Reyes," the reporter jokes.

They laugh at the notion of how much weight Ben Reyes has gained since his appointment as deputy mayor.

Come into my office, Soliz says, ushering them into a room set aside by a makeshift wall. It is dingy and cramped; a large fan stirs a hot breeze from the corner. The reporters sit on folding metal chairs; Soliz sits behind a beat-up desk cluttered with papers.

We would like to know, the reporters ask, which side of Council Wars you think your community supports?

"Washington had the Hispanics in his pocket after the election," Soliz says. "But he lost his momentum by taking too long on making some appointments, and he doesn't seem to know the importance of some of our parades."

The reporters are startled by the first public signs of dissension. They press for Soliz's feelings about the mayor, but he is evasive. Finally, dropping the subject, they ask about Martinez.

"I take nothing for granted. Even though Martinez may run on a third-party ticket, he has the organization and the money. I've got to fight this like it's an uphill battle."

But Soliz was already deep in debt, and in no position to wage another campaign. And so it was that a new ally for Soliz emerged -- Alderman Edward R. Vrdolyak. Vrdolyak persuaded Domico to drop his third-party bid for state rep -- virtually guaranteeing Soliz would win. He bought tickets to Soliz's fundraisers and helped arrange a luncheon meeting with influential lobbyists. Vrdolyak reminded voters that he too had once been a maverick who challenged the Machine. He said he liked Soliz's style. He called it tough and gritty. He said Juan Soliz had a bright future.

Soliz won. Gradually he got out of debt. He became supportive of the regular organization and more critical of Mayor Washing ton. He took to lavishly praising Vrdolyak as a "good family man and smart, caring politician." He even printed a photo of himself with Vrdolyak in his campaign literature.

"I'm not anti-Washington because Vrdolyak supports me," state representative Soliz told a reporter in 1985. "I am an independent. We can't be in anyone's pocket. We have to deal with Washington and Vrdolyak, and we should not be taken for granted."

Election night, April 1987
Juan Soliz's party

A squat Mexican man in a straw sombrero is playing "La Bamba" on a small Wurlitzer organ beside the precinct chart. His singer, an older woman in a low-cut black gown, performs an alluring dance. But few people pay attention. Their eyes are on the man in the dark suit.

This time he posts the count from a white precinct. And again Soliz has lost, now unofficially trailing Medrano by 306 votes with only four precincts still missing.

The believer -- downing another Old Style -- is despondent.

"I worked so hard," he says. "I got up early this morning to take care of my precinct. Tell me this isn't happening."

Soliz's campaign manager, a tall white man with a red beard, sits on the edge of the empty stage, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other.

"How can it be?" asks the believer.

"It was a white precinct," says the reporter.

"But if blacks are against us, shouldn't the whites be for us?"

It doesn't work out that way. Not anymore.

The split between Soliz and his independent allies worsened in 1986, after a federal judge ordered the boundaries of several southwest-side wards redrawn.

The communities, the judge ruled, had been illegally gerrymandered by the City Council to dilute the voting power of the area's Hispanics. New elections were ordered; the fate of the City Council hung in the balance.

Suddenly, Washington, who had backed the ward remap lawsuit, was on the verge of electing aldermanic loyalists who would enable him to wrest control of the council from Vrdolyak, who had vehemently fought the case.

For Soliz, it was a chance to enter the limelight of city politics. He would trade his safe seat in the state house for a high-profile one on the council floor.

Behind the scenes, a deal was cut. Vito Marzullo would retire and Soliz would run in his place. Should Soliz win, Ben Martinez would take over his state rep seat. As icing on the cake, Vrdolyak slated Domico to run for the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

Everybody was happy; everybody got something. Except the independents.

January 1986
State Representative Soliz headquarters

"The state representative will see you now," says the receptionist.

Soliz's new office is a large, dim, wood-paneled room where the state representative, in a well-tailored black suit, sits behind a large oak desk, flanked by big state and American flags.

"How are you?" he says, rising to greet his guest.

The reporter thinks of making a wisecrack about his growing girth, and then thinks better of it.

"Have a seat," says Soliz, "I'll be right back."

He returns a few minutes later. "OK, how can I help you?"

The reporter asks about Soliz's former allies who are now among his staunchest foes. He expects a "no comment," an off-the-record response, or, at best, an evasive answer.

"They're snakes," Soliz snarls. "Running someone against me is a malicious attack to divide the community. It's the only way they can win. They can't question my legislative record."

They think they can beat you, the reporter says.

Soliz smiles. He leans back in his chair, which is covered with a Mexican serape. He disagrees.

I'll run for reelection as state representative in the Democratic primary and the special aldermanic election that same day. And I will win both races.

He is confident that state law will allow him to run for both seats. After that, he'll resign his state office and turn it over to a successor (most likely Ben Martinez) handpicked by the committeemen of the 1st, 22nd, and 25th wards.

"The people here couldn't care less about the split in City Hall," he says. "All they care about is leadership. Someone who can take care of the services."

He points to a filing cabinet outside his office. It's filled, he says, with the names of Chicago-area residents whose relatives his office helped locate during the recent earthquake in Mexico.

"My record," he adds, "speaks for itself.

"I've been given an award from the Illinois Public Action Council, citing me for outstanding legislative work in Springfield."

"I have sponsored legislation to provide interpreters in juvenile and criminal courts, and to create an employment program for youth. I co-sponsored a bill for construction of a high-tech training center in the Pilsen area. It will be part of the Build Illinois."

But, all too often, he says, his record has been overshadowed by the political battle downtown. The media, he says, are to blame. They have created an image -- a false image -- that Vrdolyak bought him out. The reporters and columnists have perpetuated the lie that he is in Vrdolyak's camp. But Juan Soliz, he says, is in no one's camp.

"They say I went against the independent movement. They said they were against patronage, and the first thing they accept is a job with the mayor. The easiest thing for me to do is to be the mayor's yes-man, and have all the contracts I wanted.

"But I'm not with Washington, and I'm not with Vrdolyak. That way, if they come to us for support, we can squeeze something out for the community."

In the special aldermanic election of 1986, the blacks backed Juan Velazquez, the Mexicans were split, and it was Domico's organization that delivered the white vote that pushed Juan Soliz over the top.

Bitter campaign workers for Velazquez complained that some of Domico's captains paraded through the Italian areas warning voters that a vote cast for Velazquez was a vote for the "nigger."

That's a lie, Soliz countered. The people supported me, I didn't need to play on race.

True, he won both races handily, turning his legislative seat over to Ben Martinez.

Soon Soliz fell into the role of an old-time ward boss. He slated his own candidates, not only in the nearby Mexican 22nd Ward, but in the Puerto Rican area up north in Humboldt Park. He began hinting that he would like to run for mayor. At the very least, he would support Jane Byrne, or anyone, over Harold Washington in the upcoming mayoral campaign. Soliz's attitude didn't help him with Washington's people, but it infuriated the regular organization.

Election day, November 1986
25th Ward Regular Democratic Headquarters

"The hell with Soliz," says Marco Domico. "Who the hell does he think he is?"

The committeeman and former state representative is an older Italian with dark, slicked-back hair. His angry eyes dart back and forth.

"What does he think? That he's too good for us? He goes out and opens his own offices. He hasn't been to one damn meeting here. The other night at some community forum, the son of a bitch stands up and says that he's gonna do somethin' when he's elected alderman. So I looked at him and when I had a chance, I said, 'I wouldn't be so sure.' And he, gave me a shocked look.

"Soliz thinks he's hot because he's got Vrdolyak behind him. But who the hell is Eddie Vrdolyak to come into my ward and tell me what to do? I've been here 50 years. What Eddie Vrdolyak does downtown is OK. But he shouldn't butt in on my ward."

"Excuse me, Mr. Domico," comes a voice from an inside chamber. "You got a phone call."

"Just a second, boys," he says, and steps into a large, dark room. Green leather chairs line the wall; above them there are photographs: Vito Marzullo with Mayor Daley and a young Robert Kennedy; Marzullo at the 1964 Democratic convention; Marzullo and Domico at a ward meeting; Marzullo with a group of politicians, including a younger, plumper Eddie Vrdolyak in the background; giant portraits of a much younger Marzullo, Stanley Kusper, and Richard J. Daley.

Domico returns. "What was I talkin' to you fellows about?"


"Oh yeah, the hell with Soliz. You know my precinct captains want me to slate somebody else for alderman. They tell me this guy is not loyal. We don't owe him anything. Soliz, who the hell does he think he is?"

By the February 1987 aldermanic election, the 25th Ward essentially was divided into three camps: independents, regulars, and Juan M. Soliz.

For their part, the independents were badly divided. Velazquez was the first choice of many, though others felt he was unelectable. Virginia Martinez -- a lawyer with good government credentials -- had the support of many moderate voters. Phil Coronado, a longtime community leader, felt it was his turn to run.

Domico and his precinct captains hand-picked Ambrosio Medrano, a loyal organization man. He was a local boy, 33 years old and part owner and operator of his family's bowling alley on Cermak Road.

If they want a Mexican to run, Domico said, I'll run a Mexican.

To Medrano, it was a dream come true. Usually precinct captains have to wait years before getting slated. Marzullo didn't step down until he was in his eighties. And he himself had to wait some 30 years for his predecessor to leave office.

And now the young face of Ambrosio Medrano -- with its huge, bushy mustache -- was plastered all over the ward.

In the election, the three "independents" split their vote. Soliz and Medrano -- the two ostensibly anti-Washington candidates -- went on to a runoff. It looked like Velazquez and Garcia -- the mayor's men -- would sit on their hands for the runoff.

They didn't. A few days after the primary, reports surfaced of closed-door meetings between Domico and Jacky Grimshaw, Mayor Washington's campaign manager.

"I think we can work with Ambrosio," Velazquez told a reporter, apparently embarrassed at what he was saying.

Soliz had done the impossible; he'd gotten Washington to work with the Machine -- against him.

Election day, April 1987
25th Ward polling place

Fred Belcher, perhaps the only hillbilly in the 25th Ward, stands across the street from a polling place and passes out literature for Ambrosio Medrano.

His good buddy Duke works the opposite side of the street.

"You know what the problem with Juan Soliz is," Belcher says. "He dances with too many partners."

He pauses for dramatic effect.

Belcher is a dead ringer for country singer Roy Clark. He wears a blue felt cap and designer sunglasses too small for his big, round face.

"For the last two years, he's gone from Washington to Vrdolyak to Domico to Byrne to Hynes. Now, like that lady told the West Side Times [the ward's most widely read local newspaper], if you're Catholic, would you change your religion next week?

"Now, I've been working for Marzullo's organization since 1963. That's when I came up from Harlan County, Kentucky. Bloody Harlan County, Kentucky. Nothin' down there but sawmills, coal mines, and lumberyards.

"I got in a car accident. Got my ear cut off. Look." And he bends down to reveal the scar behind his right ear.

"And now lookie at this," he says, lifting his polka-dotted polyester shirt to reveal a huge scar that runs from his belly button to his chest.

"That's how I got into politics. I couldn't work. I was sittin' home with nothin' to do, when this guy knocks on my door and says he's a precinct worker. So I ask him if I can come along with him on his rounds. Then he took me to meet Alderman Marzullo. And I've been working for him ever since.

"Now, everything I do is legal. You can look up my record. I got shot once. It was a freak accident. Well, it wasn't freak, but it was an accident."

He's asked if a Soliz victory will upset him.

"No, I don't get angry. Whenever I get mad, I take a walk or sit down for 15 minutes. I keep out of trouble; everything I do is legal."

Election night, April 1987
Juan Soliz's party

The man with the dark suit is trying to contain his excitement.

There has been a mistake in the tabulation, it seems. Soliz's total has been undercounted by 102 votes. And after three additional precincts are posted, he is now, in fact, trailing only by 40. One last precinct -- which will decide the election -- remains out.

A shiver of excitement shoots through the room. Even the band members are excited. They look at each other, and then put away their instruments. Nobody wants music right now. Everybody wants to know in which section of the ward that precinct is.

"Who lives there?" asks the believer. "Where is it?"

Word circulates that it's a mixed precinct, but mostly Mexican.

And if that's so, Soliz just might have a chance.

Election day, April 1987
18th Street in the 25th Ward

Manny Sallas has been at it all day, handing out literature for Juan Soliz.

He is a little, thin man in his sixties, but the face beneath his black baseball cap is boyish.

"I see Soliz every day. He's my neighbor. I live next door there, to his headquarters. He says hello every morning. I know you can't tell what a guy is like when he's in the public eye. He's got to be nice to everybody. But I've seen him do some good things."

He points to an empty construction site that is surrounded by a low wood barrier lined with Soliz posters.

"I seen him go there, where the winos are hanging out. You know, leaning against the little wall to keep warm. He gives them a couple of bucks for coffee, and finds them a place to stay. But he doesn't do it all the time. You know, you can't do it all the time. You'd go broke."

Down the street, a handful of Mexican men have gathered in "master barber" Nick Velazquez's shop to watch the Cubs home opener.

The shop is like a time capsule. Its bright green walls are filled with old photographs and paintings. There are posters and pictures of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, newspaper headlines that date back to the Mexican revolution, and a large portrait of FDR.

"I know Soliz very well; he's brought his kid here for a haircut. He's a nice fellow," says Velazquez, a short man who wears a soiled white smock over a baby blue shirt. "He's a lawyer; he's prepared to represent us. He talks both languages very good. He gets along with people. He has a smile for everybody."

Election night, April 1987
Juan Soliz's party

The man in the dark suit bursts through the front door. He's shaking a bottle and spraying the crowd with beer. Pandemonium breaks out.

"We've won," he screams, "we've won."

They are his first words of the night.

The chant -- Soliz, Soliz, Soliz -- erupts. Other celebrants begin to shake their bottles and spray beer throughout the room. The believer embraces a precinct captain. The campaign manager hugs his workers.

The last precinct has Soliz winning the election by four votes.

The last few weeks of the Medrano campaign, Soliz complained, featured some of the dirtiest electioneering he had ever seen. Windows displaying his posters had been blown out with rifle shots. Mud balls were thrown at Soliz's home, and someone urinated on his front steps.

"Many precinct captains fear for their lives," a Soliz worker maintained. "They're trying to intimidate us."

It was the toughest campaign of his career. In the past, he said, he had but one foe -- the Marzullo machine. This time he had to contend with Washington's organization as well.

Well-known Hispanic politicians -- Alderman Luis Gutierrez, state senator Miguel del Valle, city clerk candidate Gloria Chevere, not to mention Velazquez, Garcia, and others -- paraded through the ward denouncing Soliz as a traitor.

Soliz's people fought back with dirty tactics of their own, the other side charged. His thugs intimidated their workers. His strategists lined the black precincts with posters claiming the mayor's support. And his workers -- on election day -- tried to buy the votes of winos.

"I saw Marco Domico the other day and he was complaining," Juan Velazquez told a reporter. "Domico said, 'Those damn Soliz people are buying off votes.'

"I told him, 'Marco, what do you expect? You were a good teacher.' You know, what goes around, comes around."

Election night, April 1987
Juan Soliz's party

Juan Soliz, looking nervous, steps out of a gray Cadillac, followed by his mother, his brother, and a large driver with a shaved head and goatee. As he approaches the front door, he is hugged by supporters who have waited in the chilly night to see him. He bends low to embrace a tiny Mexican woman. His face is worn, drawn, and haggard, and he wears no smile.

A policeman escorts him through the crowd, and as he nears the podium the band starts up and the crowd chants his name. He stops briefly to talk with a television reporter, then he climbs the platform, where he is doused with champagne by a man riding piggyback on someone's shoulders. He waits, head down, for the roar to subside.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you very much," he begins. He speaks deliberately, quietly, almost softly. All in English.

"I think it is very appropriate at this time we must thank someone upstairs that is looking after us, who reigns and lives on earth and heaven. We give you thanks for a people's victory. We give you thanks for our health. We give you thanks for the air we breathe today and every day of our lives.

"Our good Lord, we give you thanks for this glorious victory. Thank you Lord."

He pauses, and then raises his voice.

"We know that they are men and women who cannot accept defeat. In 1982, I lost. I lost. But I went home, and I cried a little bit. I went home and I accepted the defeat. I know they will not accept defeat this time. We're gonna fight this election. And if they're gonna steal, we'll be there to defend ourselves.

"I am asking that the Board of Election Commissioners impound those ballots. Let's not let them steal this election. We won't let Vrdolyak, we won't let Washington, we won't let Domico stop us."

He is screaming now. His wife wipes his red, sweating face with a handkerchief.

Election night, April 1987
Ambrosio Medrano's party

Outside the banquet hall on Blue Island Avenue, an ambulance is carrying Ambrosio Medrano's father to a hospital.

"He'll be OK," Medrano says to a cluster of friends and reporters. "It was the emotion, the beer, the heat, the crowd."

Soliz has declared victory, a reporter tells him.

Medrano laughs. "So have I. Channel Two declares I have won by 66 votes. Soliz probably didn't count the absentee ballots."

He then pulls from his coat pocket a Soliz-for-alderman palm card, to which five one-dollar bills have been stapled.

"One of our captains got this from someone Soliz's people had paid off," he says. "We have proof there is fraud."

He enters the banquet hall -- a huge red room, dimly lit, and surrounded with balconies. The tablecloths are red, the chairs are red, the lights, speakers, even the plastic flowers on every table are red.

At a table in a corner sits Duke, Fred Belcher's good buddy.

"You missed Fred," Duke says. "All he do is drink soda pop and go home to watch the rest on TV. He might be an old guy, but hey, he kick ass. You know, you just missed a fight. My buddy pushed me and I punched him. You don't start no shit. Hey, fuck 'em."

Into the room comes Garcia, smiling broadly, followed by Velazquez.

"Hey, no comment," he says to a reporter, grinning.

They join Medrano onstage and are introduced by a disc jockey, who turns off the music. An older Italian man hugs Velazquez and kisses him on each cheek.

"Juan Soliz got what he deserved," says Mike Vasquez, a longtime precinct worker for independent campaigns. "He's ambitious and has no loyalty. He didn't give a fuck about the 25th Ward.

"Hey, man, I was raised here. Mama, he was raised here. Ambrosio, Marco, they all were raised here. But who is Juan Soliz? He comes in from out of town and is going to tell us what to do. Fuck that. One thing all of us guys -- independents and regulars -- can agree is that we don't need that shit."

The unofficial count, he's told, has Soliz ahead, by four votes.

Vasquez shrugs. It'll go to the Board of Election Commissioners, he says, and from there probably to court. Medrano will have the best lawyers working for him. The same lawyers who for years saw to it that the board had us independents kicked off the ballot. Now we will have those lawyers working for us. Vasquez loves it; he laughs.

Outside in the lobby, an operative for Garcia's organization talks with a reporter. He lowers his voice and asks not to be identified.

"I hear Soliz prayed his fuckin' ass off. He was runnin' scared. You know, the Machine is gonna do the same thing it did before. What they want to do is squeeze every bit of fuckin' money he's got. They're gonna drain him, they're gonna drain his ass. They're gonna drain him to where he can't deliver, even if he does win.

"And then, where can he run? Who can he run to?"

A few days after the election, the Board of Election Commissioners certified Soliz as the winner by a margin of three votes.

Medrano filed suit, asking the court to nullify several ballots (most of which were cast for Soliz) on the grounds that they were not properly certified by election judges.

The case is pending.

Soliz, meanwhile, took his seat in the City Council. He voted for the mayor's realignment scheme, although it stripped him of his position as chairman of the Aviation Committee.

That post went to Garcia. In turn, Soliz was named vice-chairman of the Historical Landmark Preservation Committee -- an assignment that awards him no budget or patronage workers.

Some of the mayor's allies said they'd made Soliz crawl, that he was lucky to get the committee assignment he got. But Soliz, speaking during an interview a few minutes after the council realignment, insists he remains beholden to no one.

"I see it this way: Washington won. He's the mayor of Chicago, he has the prerogative to select his team," Soliz said.

His five campaigns and three court challenges in five years have taken their toll, he admits. He is tired, and low on cash. The money he needs to battle Medrano in court will come, he hopes, from the small contributions -- rarely greater than $10 or $20 -- of his most loyal supporters.

"I barely have enough money to meet my monthly bills," he said. "It's an outright lie to say that Vrdolyak gave me any money."

He has a few regrets -- one being that he should have kept in closer touch with Washington -- but not many.

As for his political opponents, Soliz has a warning. I may be wounded, he says, but I am not dead.

"Washington will go down in history as one of the heroes of our time," he says. "He is the first black mayor of the city of Chicago. He took on the Machine and beat it. I admire that. I don't always agree with him. But I think he respects me.

"I'm like him; I'm a fighter. I didn't think he was doing enough for the Hispanic community, so I spoke out. If I hadn't spoken out, who would have? Of course, I got isolated. Of course, they tried to punish me. The others, my critics, tried to score points with the mayor by telling him how horrible I was.

"But I feel good about my career. I am a survivor. The others don't like me. Maybe it's because I came from out of town. Maybe it's because I wasn't going to take things jammed down my throat.

"If something were to happen to me tomorrow, I'd die a very happy man. I've been a part of making political history in the Hispanic community. I did what I thought was right for my community. The politicians abandoned me. But the people didn't. The people stayed with me. And as long as I have the people, I don't need the politicians."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow, Marc PoKempner, Bill Stamets.

Add a comment