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Former behind-the-scenes Daley operative Victor Reyes steps into spotlight

Victor Reyes speaks.

The once super-secretive political adviser to Mayor Richard M. Daley — now an equally enigmatic behind-the-scenes lawyer, lobbyist and consultant —made a rare public appearance Wednesday in Pilsen.

And while he didn’t say anything earth-shattering, just hearing his voice was a revelation to me after years of chasing his shadow.

Reyes was part of a panel discussion about redistricting reform and Latino political power hosted by the Latino Policy Forum and CHANGE Illinois, a group that advocates taking redistricting away from state politicians and giving it to a nonpartisan, independent commission.

Reyes, not surprisingly, doesn’t like the idea, although he did surprise me by relaying a message from House Speaker Mike Madigan on why he is opposed.

Afterward, Reyes was gracious enough to stop to talk for a few minutes — long enough to give his take on the upcoming Chicago election.

Capsule version: he expects to work as a campaign adviser to several incumbent aldermen, has no involvement yet in the mayor’s race, but says he would support Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election if asked (after managing former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun’s failed mayoral bid in 2011.)

Of Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, his longtime rival in Southwest Side Latino politics, Reyes said: “Chuy would make a great professor, not a great mayor.”

And there was this personal tidbit that struck me as insightful: Born in Mexico to a Puerto Rican father and Mexican mother who met working at the old Oscar Mayer plant in Chicago, Reyes says he is a U.S. citizen twice over.

Although legally a citizen at birth by virtue of his father’s citizenship, Reyes said he attended school in Mexico through the fourth grade. After moving here, his parents made sure he went through the citizenship naturalization process to make doubly sure there would be no confusion.

Reyes said it is this dual Latino heritage as both a Mexican and Puerto Rican that allowed him to work so effectively in forging political coalitions between the two ethnic groups that had often been antagonists in Chicago.

Reyes didn’t mention it, but much of that work was running the controversial Hispanic Democratic Organization, the Daley political machine that ran aground in a federal prosecution of illegal patronage hiring.

HDO is pretty far in everybody’s rearview mirror at this point, and Reyes seems to only have grown stronger in subsequent years through his law practice, Reyes Kurson, and his lobbying and public affairs arms, The Roosevelt Group and Compass Public Affairs — in which he is a partner with former Madigan operative Michael Noonan.

Reyes said his political work these days is confined to strategy and fund-raising.

“I don’t do precinct work any more,” he said.

Reyes said he agreed to participate in Wednesday’s discussion because he was invited by the Latino Policy Forum’s Sylvia Puente, often his opponent on redistricting matters.

Reyes served as a lawyer for the City Council’s Latino aldermen for each of the last two ward remaps and also worked on the state legislative redistricting in 2011.

It was only to be expected, therefore, when Reyes argued the current politically based redistricting system has worked well for Latino voters, challenging Puente’s assertion that Latinos legally deserve more representatives in Springfield by virtue of their share of the state population.

“Democrats realized that if they draw maps that benefit Latinos and African-Americas, they draw maps that benefit Democrats,” Reyes said.

Before coming to the event, Reyes said he called Speaker Madigan to “get this thoughts.”

“He said, ‘Vic, you know, the current movement is, in his opinion, a Republican-funded movement that when the Republicans were winning state legislative districts they didn’t have an interest in changing the process. Now that they’re somehow unable to win these legislative districts, they want to change the process,” Reyes related.

Reyes said minority voters will find better protection in the courts than through any appointed commission.

Ryan Blitstein, president of CHANGE Illinois, sharply disputed Reyes’ conclusion — and any implication his group is a “Republican front,” citing some of its prominent Democratic supporters by name.

But I wasn’t really looking to engage in the nitty gritty of redistricting reform, so I’m dropping it there.

Reyes admitted it is unusual for him to speak in public, and when I asked if he plans to do more of it, he said he might, if asked. There was no maybe about his willingness to support Emanuel.

The mayor has “come 180 degrees” in his treatment of Latinos since the 2011 election, Reyes said.

“[Emanuel] talks to Latino aldermen more in a day than Rich Daley did in a month,” he said, explaining his former boss preferred dealing with planners more than politicians.

Now that Reyes has found his public voice, it should be interesting to see how often he uses it.