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Political power up for grabs as populations shift — but some predict ‘strong force to really flex Latino, Latina muscle’

The latest Census numbers show the Latino population growing, and surpassing, the Black population as the largest racial or ethnic group in Chicago, Cook County and in Illinois. And that’s raising questions and sparking discussions about power among politicians and advocates.

A polling place in the 47th Ward in 2015.
A polling place in the 47th Ward in 2015.
Craig Newman/Sun-Times file

The rising Latino population across the state isn’t likely to change the face of City Hall or the governor’s mansion overnight — but some Hispanic leaders say it’s only a matter of time.

“I think before the decade is over there will be a Latina or Latino mayor in Chicago,” said U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who ran for mayor himself in 2015.

“And the possibility that Latinos can run statewide — as has been done already but with more frequency — certainly suggests that a Latino or Latina can be a state office holder, whether it’s secretary of state or treasurer or comptroller or governor.

“That is certainly a realistic expectation of what we will see without a doubt.”

The latest Census numbers show the Latino population growing, and surpassing, the Black population as the largest racial or ethnic group in Chicago, Cook County and in Illinois. And that’s raising questions and sparking discussions about power among politicians and advocates.

García said he expects the greatest political growth to happen in local elections, but it could also mean more Latinos running for higher office.

To leverage that political power, the Southwest Side Democrat said Latinos need to get involved in primary elections, which in Illinois often tend to determine who will ultimately be elected in the general elections. Getting young Latinos civically engaged will also be crucial.

Latinos who are naturalized citizens tend to be more civically engaged than U.S.-born Latinos, he said.

“[We’ve] got to get them to turn out in these elections,” he said. “That will be such a strong force to really flex Latino, Latina muscle in the coming years.”

Then Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, center, leaves a polling place after casting his ballot in 2015.
Then Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, center, leaves a polling place after casting his ballot in 2015.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Figures released Thursday by the Census Bureau show a rise in the Latino population in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois. Latinos represent 29.8% of the city, 26.2% of the county and 18.2% of the state’s population.

In 2010, those numbers were 28.9%, 24% and 15.8% respectively.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza agrees those rising numbers could pave the way for the state to see its first governor of Latino descent or for Chicago to see its first Latino mayor.

The Northwest Side Democrat doesn’t “see why that’s not possible.”

“Certainly, we need more people in more offices,” said Mendoza, who ran for mayor in 2019. “Right now, if you look at me as a statewide constitutional officer who’s Latina — I’m kind of a unicorn, there’s, you know, a couple more throughout the country, but there need to be more of us.

“And we certainly have the know-how and the capability, but having the numbers behind being able to make those dreams a greater reality I don’t think are far away.”

Susana Mendoza, Illinois comptroller and mayoral candidate, talks to patrons during a campaign event in 2019.
Susana Mendoza, Illinois comptroller and mayoral candidate, talks to patrons during a campaign event in 2019.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The Asian population also grew over the past 10 years — by almost 45,000, a 31% increase, in Chicago alone.

Ameya Pawar said he imagines the census data will be a “calling card in Asian American communities to say, ‘Look, our numbers are growing, we are a fast-growing community in not only Chicago, but across the state, and the representation should reflect that.’”

Pawar was the City Council’s first — and, so far, only — Indian American and Asian American alderperson, representing the North Side’s 47th Ward for two terms, before launching an unsuccessful bid for city treasurer in 2019.

Then Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) announces his candidacy for Chicago city treasurer in 2018.
Then Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) announces his candidacy for Chicago city treasurer in 2018.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

He was involved in efforts 10 years ago to create an Asian American ward and expects that push to continue, something he said would ensure “the ward maps are reflective of every community and constituency in the city.”

Grace Pai, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, expressed hope the new demographic data will translate into fair representation and policy priorities for the Asian American community, such as greater language access in government services.

Asian Americans have been one of the fastest growing racial groups across the United States, in Chicago and in Illinois for many years, so the census figures aren’t a surprise, Pai said, but she’s still concerned Asian Americans were undercounted.

Pai noted more Asian American representation in government can lead to legislative wins for the community, such as a new law that mandates teaching Asian American history in public schools.

“As we see this growing recognition of Asian Americans in our city and our state and the needs of our community, which I think have especially been brought to the fore just in the wake of anti-Asian violence that we’ve seen, that will help to translate into policy priorities that our elected leaders can act on,” Pai said.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, said the growth in Chicago’s Hispanic population over the past decade strengthens the case for an increase in the number of majority Hispanic wards.

“The numbers tell us that Latinos right now are the major-minority,” Villegas said, also expressing concerns about an undercount. “Now we are the major minority and nipping on the heels of being the majority population in the city of Chicago because we’re only 40,000 people away from Caucasians that make up 31% of the city’s population.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th)
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th)
Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times file

The last time the city drew its ward map it included 13 majority-Hispanic wards and two Hispanic “influence” wards to reward Hispanics for their 25,218-person population gain in the 2010 census. It also included 18 Black wards, down from 19, after a 181,453-person drop in Chicago’s Black population.

Villegas refused to say how many wards there should be or at whose expense, only saying the Hispanic Caucus would demand “parity” with its share of the population. That would mean at least two more Hispanic wards.

“This is the raw data that shows the amount of residents. We want to see where they’re located. Once we’re able to compile that data into a program we’re using to draw maps, that will give us a better sense of where we think there’s a possibility to have representation,” Villegas said.

Historic political tensions are likely to be rekindled during the remap process as Black alderpersons attempt to hold onto the 18 wards they have in spite of population losses and Latino alderpersons fight for parity because of their population gains.

The last time those tensions were put aside was to build a multi-racial coalition to elect Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor.

The new census figures show Chicago lost nearly 85,000 African-American residents over the past decade and the overall Black population has dropped in Cook County and Illinois.

Despite that, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who chairs the City Council’s Black Caucus, believes a strong case can be made to hold onto what the African American community has: 18 majority-Black wards.

Ald. Jason Ervin in 2019.
Ald. Jason Ervin in 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“Just because there’s a small drop in population doesn’t mean that you lose all your rights. We have protection under the Voting Rights Act. Those districts are protected federally and also under state law. And it’s going to be our job to draw 18 Black wards. We’re currently working with our topographers to do that,” Ervin said.

Ervin noted that some of the 18 majority Black wards are “90-plus percent African-American.”

“There are ways and opportunities to work with the map that will help retain the majority of members that we have in the Council as it is today. That’s our job, and that’s what we’re seeking to do,” he said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.