Mihalopoulos: ‘Rauner Dem’ vs. Dem tool in NW Side Senate race?

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9-14-98 Latino leaders endorse Glenn Poshard for Governor...Poshard shakes hands with state rep. candidate Willie Delgado as State Sen. Miguel Del Valle (center) looks on....Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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A phone call from Puerto Rico earlier this month set off an intriguing political battle on the Northwest Side.

Shortly after the holidays — and after he’d filed for a place on the ballot in the March primary — state Sen. Willie Delgado interrupted a visit to his ancestral homeland to call  supporter Omar Aquino and tell him he wasn’t running after all.

The call didn’t shock Aquino. A few months earlier, Aquino was helping Delgado collect nominating signatures when the veteran Democratic lawmaker told him he might not seek another term.

That prompted Aquino to launch his own campaign in Delgado’s 2nd Illinois State Senate District. But Aquino says he would have quit the race if Delgado had run again.

About three weeks ago, Delgado finally decided he has been in Springfield long enough, and he is endorsing Aquino to succeed him.

“The senator called me from the island,” says Aquino, who also has roots in Puerto Rico. “He told me, ‘Omar, I’m going to take my name off the ballot. I’m going to support you.’ ”


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Aquino says he hopes to “continue the tradition of progressive Latino elected officials” such as Delgado.

To succeed him, the 28-year-old Aquino first must win the Democratic nomination over the well-funded campaign of another young candidate, Angelica Alfaro.

Alfaro, 30, emphasizes her humble roots as a daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants and a first-generation college graduate. Rather than using her education to escape the inner city, Alfaro invested a couple years in Humboldt Park, where she grew up.

“I chose to buy a property, but the neighborhood is not changing,” she says, citing gun violence and prostitution on her old block. “That’s what prompted me to run. There could be 1,000 more Angelicas in our community, but we need to make a change.”

Angelica Alfaro. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Angelica Alfaro. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Despite modest beginnings, Alfaro is getting heavy backing from some of the richest people in town for her first campaign.

Alfaro has received maximum individual contributions of $5,400 each from billionaire James Crown, wife Paula Crown, former Exelon Corp. CEO John Rowe and insurance firm chairman John Butler.

The Crowns have been major supporters of privately run, publicly funded charter schools, and Rowe and Butler are board members of the Noble Network of Charter Schools.

In 1999, Alfaro was in the first class at Noble, now one of the city’s biggest charter networks. And she has worked for Noble since graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2007.

Alfaro says she’s not running merely to promote charter schools. She says she supports an elected school board, in line with the charter advocates’ bitter enemies in the teachers union.

But the national pro-charter group Stand for Children is spending tens of thousands of dollars to run Alfaro’s campaign, records show.

Before he became the state’s Republican governor, a wealthy businessman named Bruce Rauner welcomed Stand for Children to open up shop in Illinois.

Aquino  — who supports a halt on the approval of new charter schools — says Alfaro is a “Rauner Democrat.”

Alfaro fires back, calling Aquino a tool of the Cook County Democratic Party. Alfaro says party Chairman and county Assessor Joe Berrios asked her to quit the race to leave a clear path for Aquino, who worked for Berrios’s daughter Toni when she was a state representative.

Alfaro also alleges that Berrios’ son, who works in the assessor’s office, suggested her withdrawal from the race could lead to a public payroll spot.

“He said in the future there could be some opportunities for me,” Alfaro says.

Joe Berrios says no jobs were offered, and he had a different take on his recent meeting with Alfaro.

“She tried to get me to support her but I told her I had committed to Aquino,” Berrios says, adding that he has known Aquino’s family “for a long time.”

The March primary in the 2nd District will propel one of two ambitious young people into the big leagues of state politics. The outcome also will make vicarious winners or losers of many other major players in local politics.

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