It's been a lackluster primary season, with front-runners in both parties apparently headed toward victory. But a 32-year-old lawyer from Pilsen named Frank Avila has made it the occasion of the opening shots in his war on the Hispanic wing of Mayor Daley's machine. He isn't running for office, though his father is, and he promises to keep fighting after March 19: "I'm not in this for the short run."
So far he's been surprisingly successful, fighting the big boys on their own turf. Usually the machine boots candidates off the ballot, but Avila, all by himself, has managed to knock off Martin Sandoval and Danny Solis, two of Daley's more prominent Hispanic backers--he calls them "the mayor's loyal Latino lackeys."
In his brashness, he reminds old-timers of a particular type of Chicago politician--the fast-talking, pugnacious, streetwise young man in a hurry who's not afraid to take on the world, in part because he believes in the righteousness of his cause (think Richard Mell, Luis Gutierrez, or Eddie Vrdolyak many years ago). "I'll go all day--I've got unlimited energy," says Avila. "I'm Gabriel sounding the horn."
Ironically, his roots are in the very machine he's fighting. His grandparents moved to Chicago from Mexico back in the 20s, and his grandmother, Teresa Avila, wound up as a precinct captain with the First Ward regulars--a very rough bunch. "My grandmother went door-to-door for the organization," says Avila. "You've got to respect my grandmother. She never took crap from anybody. 'Stand up for yourself,' she'd tell us."
By the 60s his family had moved to the north side, along with other near-southwest-side residents displaced by the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago. "My grandmother didn't miss a beat," says Avila. "When she got to Uptown she hooked up with the 46th Ward regulars." That organization was headed by another pretty rough bunch--Jewish and Irish politicians with west-side roots. "As a kid growing up, I met all the Uptown regulars," he says. "My family helped elect Billy Marovitz as state senator. We generally worked within the regular organization."
For their loyalty, he says, they were rewarded: "My grandmother had various county jobs. My uncles had city jobs. But interestingly enough, my grandmother always stressed being independent. She'd say, 'Get an education, because if you have an education you don't have to depend on anyone. You can do it for yourself.'"
Avila's mother worked as a Head Start teacher; his father ran his own engineering firm. Together they made enough to send him to Loyola Academy, Eckerd College, and DePaul's law school.
After law school Avila moved to Pilsen, and in 1995, at the age of 24, he ran for alderman of the 25th Ward. He finished third in a three-way race.
By then Mayor Daley had consolidated his hold on Latino politics with the creation of the Hispanic Democratic Organization. Led by Al Sanchez, a Streets and Sanitation Department worker out of the Tenth Ward, and Victor Reyes, one of Daley's top political operatives, the HDO mobilized hundreds of city workers. Given the disorganization and low voter turnout in most Hispanic wards, the HDO was nearly unbeatable. It swept from office independents such as state senator Jesus Garcia and helped elect Daley loyalists such as state representative Edward Acevedo, state senator Tony Munoz, 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis, and 10th Ward alderman John Pope.
Avila says he would probably have been given a cushy job with the city if he'd been willing to play along. But he wasn't. "I despise what those guys represent--it's the worst sort of plantation politics," he says. "The bozos that Mayor Daley imposed on our community were never part of the legacy of Latino politics. They picked guys who are dumb and dependent, who will do what they will tell them. Reyes and Sanchez are very open about it, because they're so damn arrogant."
In 1997 Avila got into a fistfight with Sanchez. "Well, it wasn't really a fight--he sucker punched me," says Avila. "We were in a pub in Pilsen, and I was eating a piece of pizza. Sanchez came up to me and said, 'I hear you said something about me.' Then he hit me in the face. I didn't get a punch in, because his guys pushed me back. But I was pissed--I was really pissed. I'm still pissed. One-on-one I'd kick his ass. In fact, if Al Sanchez wants to fight me, let's get it on. Let's put on the boxing gloves and duke it out for charity. Half the money can go to a Pilsen charity, and half can go to a South Chicago one. Don't get me wrong--I'm a lover, not a fighter. But their arrogance is astounding. If he had done that to Patrick Daley [the mayor's son], he would have been run out of town. But they don't understand Latinos wanting to stand up for themselves. They want us to be second-class citizens."
In 2000 it got even more personal. Avila's father, M. Frank, ran for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, one of those bottom-of-the-ballot sinecures that organization politicians love mainly because they're relatively easy to win--most voters don't even know they exist. The district oversees the treatment of waste for most of Cook County, and Avila says, "I think my father's a natural for the job, if you put politics aside--he's a civil engineer. Listen, this race is not about abortions or TIFs. It's about treating sewer water. It's very narrow, and my dad's uniquely qualified to run for it."
But the Democratic Party didn't slate him in 2000, and it didn't slate him this year. "I understand their logic," says Avila. "They don't give a rat's ass about qualifications. I guessed we were going to have to live with that and run our own campaign. But then they went too far."
Actually, the HDO's first transgression in this campaign cycle had nothing to do with his father's race. It had to do with Danny Solis, who'd announced that he was running for Democratic state central committeeman from the Fourth Congressional District, a nonpaying party position. There was only one problem--he didn't live in the district.
"I took Danny to court," says Avila. "Come on, a rule's a rule. It says you have to live in the district, and he doesn't live in the district. So he shouldn't be allowed to run."
In December the city's board of election commissioners agreed with Avila and had Solis's name removed from the ballot. In January, Solis lost his circuit-court appeal.
That was the warm-up for the main event in Avila's assault on the HDO. The race for water reclamation commissioner was crowded, with Martin Sandoval a heavy favorite, if only because he's the incumbent and had the regular party's endorsement. Then in December, Sandoval filed to run for state senator from the southwest-side 12th District. If Sandoval dropped out, Avila's father would be the only Hispanic left in the race. But Sandoval wasn't dropping out. "That's right--he was going to run for state senate and water reclamation commissioner," says Avila. "What a waste! What a fraud! How can you run for two seats at once?"
Avila sent out press releases, and Lynn Sweet, political columnist for the Sun-Times, decided to look into the matter. In her column, headlined "Ballot hog playing dirty," Sandoval admitted that he had no intention of serving as water reclamation commissioner even if he won. "I will not serve in both," he told her. "I will only serve as state senator." And because he was running unopposed for state senator, his election to that office was guaranteed.
According to Sweet, Sandoval's double candidacy was the result of a complicated series of backroom maneuvers orchestrated in part by Victor Reyes, who, coincidentally, is an old high school chum of Sandoval's. Their ostensible purpose was to make sure that a Hispanic from the 12th District got slated to run. Why they would choose a Hispanic who was already running for another office remains a mystery. (Reyes, Sandoval, and Al Sanchez didn't return phone calls for this story.) Sweet called the maneuver "intolerable political trickery. It is a violation of trust. Voters, unless otherwise informed, have the right to expect that a candidate will serve if elected."
Avila went one step further, suing Sandoval and Reyes on the grounds that the "dual candidacies of defendant Sandoval do constitute a conspiracy to subvert the public will as he is seeking nomination and election to incompatible offices, one of which he does not intend to serve in." In March a judge ordered Sandoval removed from the ballot for water reclamation commissioner.
How this affects Avila's father's candidacy isn't clear. In the past the success of independent water reclamation candidates has hinged on their ballot position. Those lucky enough to draw top or bottom position generally get more votes, apparently because voters randomly punch in any old name. M. Frank Avila, one of nine candidates running, has the bottom position.
"I think he has a good chance of winning because of his ballot position," says Avila. "Unfortunately, the least thing he's got going for him is the thing that should matter the most--he's the most qualified for the job. And he's got the endorsement of the Tribune and Sun-Times."
Avila insists this is a bigger fight than one election--it's a fight for the future of Latino politics. His friends are watching with a mixture of awe and concern. "Frank's a good guy with a lot of balls--you've got to really give it to him," says one of those friends, a Tenth Ward political operative who preferred not to be named. "He reminds me of a lot of guys I knew coming up, real street fighters. He wants to battle everybody, he wants to march right in. I told him, 'Frankie, this don't come easy. You don't walk right in and kick someone's ass without them coming after you.' But on the other hand, once you're in the fight you can't just walk away. I told him, 'Frankie, the best defense is an offense. Don't let them intimidate you.' You know what happens--after a while they'll get tired of fighting him, and they'll call him in and say, 'Frankie, let's make a deal.'"
As the operative notes, almost every firebrand in recent Chicago history, Congressman Gutierrez included, eventually made a deal with Daley's machine. But Avila insists he has no intention of making any deal that violates his principles. "It's about fairness and democracy--it's not about me against them," he contends. "We have to draw a line in the sand. We can't let our community be ruled like we were slaves on a plantation."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.