Getting Hispanics to the polls in Chicago mayor’s race no slam dunk for Chuy

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If you stand outside a supermercado in Logan Square for an hour, there are few locals who haven’t heard of him.

“Chuy!” they’ll say with clear recognition when asked about the mayoral race.

The Mexico-born Jesus “Chuy” Garcia hasn’t had a problem clearing the first hurdle with Latinos, having instant name recognition with the base of voters he hopes to tap in his bid to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Still, Garcia’s campaign has yet to show he can mobilize a group to the polls that is historically underrepresented.

With just three weeks before the April 7 winner-takes-all runoff, it seems Garcia still has a lot of work  to do.

Bouncing around some neighborhoods last week, I heard from a group that holds a deep distrust for the government they believe makes big promises — especially on immigration — that it won’t keep.

Nicolas Martinez, just one customer at Super Mercado La Villa in Logan Square typified many of the concerns I heard.

People know Garcia is running against Emanuel. They like that he’s Hispanic — but they’re not sure if they’ll vote at all. What can he really do for them? Again and again, Hispanics brought up President Barack Obama’s plans to reform immigration, pointing out they went nowhere.

“No one knows what politicians are going to do until they’re elected and sitting in the chair,” said Martinez, who is Mexican. “The president made big promise, and he didn’t do anything.”

Wanda Vazquez, a traffic safety liaison with Rincon Family Services at 3700 N. Kedzie, said there’s a lack of awareness by some in the community who are simply too immersed in getting through their lives —finding work, keeping work, managing their children — to get involved in politics.

“To tell you the honest truth, of all the clients who come in here, not one person has mentioned the race,” said Vazquez. “We have large groups that come in from all over the city and [are] majority Hispanic. Not one person has brought it up.”

Wanda Vazquez, a traffic safety liaison with Rincon Family<br>Services at 3700 N. Kedzie, says most of her clients are Hispanic, but<br>no one’s talking about the mayoral race. Natasha Korecki / Sun-Times

Wanda Vazquez, a traffic safety liaison with Rincon Family
Services at 3700 N. Kedzie, says most of her clients are Hispanic, but
no one’s talking about the mayoral race. Natasha Korecki / Sun-Times

These are some of the forces at play as Garcia and Emanuel both work to court the Hispanic vote, which in Chicago is vastly underrepresented at the polls. According to census data from 2010, Hispanics make up just shy of 29 percent of the city’s population — but they account for only 13 to 15 percent of the electorate. (Garcia’s campaign says that number was at about 16 percent on Feb. 24.)

Like any other group, Hispanics in Chicago aren’t monolithic. There are North Side and South Side divisions;  Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Argentines and every Latin country in between.

“We speak the same language but do not have the same voice,” said Ramon Mario Gimenez , owner of Buenos Aires Liquors and Deli, a small shop off of Cicero Avenue in the 31st Ward. “It’s like saying: ‘The Irish speak English, the English speak English, so they must have the same agenda.’ ”

Gimenez pointed out that even on immigration, Hispanics have differing points of view.

The Garcia and Emanuel camps both insist they’re reaching out to Latinos to bring them on board.  Thursday night, the Garcia campaign held a rally in Logan Square, where it says 500 people turned up.

“The mainstream media is missing the boat on what kind of momentum is building in the Latino community,” said Ald. Ricardo Munoz, a Garcia supporter. “There will be a robust communications program with TV, radio and mail to talk to voters. Then, he’s going to churches and community centers all over the city to make sure they come out to vote.”

In the five-way, first-round race, Garcia won 50 percent of the Hispanic vote, and Emanuel had more than 37 percent, according to data from both campaigns.

Emanuel’s camp says its strength is  in issues like full-day kindergarten, Spanish-speaking tutoring at public libraries, support for a $13 minimum wage and free tuition at the City Colleges for any CPS student with a B averae or better — including  undocumented kids.

“The Hispanic population is the fastest-growing segment of the early-childhood population,” says Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, an Emanuel supporter. “Latinos make up 47 percent of students in CPS,. It’s a very significant population that now, thanks to this mayor, all the children will be going to a full day of kindergarten.  Not only are the kids benefitting from the longer school day, but that mother or that father are able to work the whole shift.”

Garcia campaign manager Andrew Sharp said the excitement among Hispanics for “Chuy” is palpable: “What we expect in the next round are two things — turnout to increase and the level of support to increase.”

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