Ald. Gilbert Villegas launches congressional bid in new heavily Hispanic district in Illinois

The new heavily Hispanic district creates a very rarely available open congressional seat anchored in heavily Democratic Chicago.

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Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) is launching a bid for Congress.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times,

WASHINGTON — Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) on Wednesday will become the first candidate to announce a bid for the newly created heavily Hispanic congressional district — which sweeps in parts of Chicago’s North Side while meandering through suburban Cook and DuPage counties.

The new 3rd Congressional District is so Democratic that the winner of the primary in June is the favorite to clinch the seat next November.

Villegas, 51, a Council member since 2015, is a former Marine, state of Illinois official and bakery truck driver who co-founded a government relations firm.

Though Gov. J.B. Pritzker has not signed the new map yet, Villegas picked Wednesday to make his run official because it is the 246th birthday of the United States Marine Corps.

Villegas joined the Marines after graduating in 1988 from Theodore Roosevelt High School, at 3436 W. Wilson Ave., where he played Roughrider baseball and football.

During his four years in the Corps, Villegas rose to the rank of corporal, becoming a logistics specialist deploying for stints in Japan, the Philippines and, during Operations Desert Shield and Storm, Saudi Arabia.

Villegas is the chair of the City Council’s Latino Caucus and has been deeply involved in negotiations over adding more Hispanic wards. He also advocated for the creation of the new Hispanic-influenced 3rd Congressional District he hopes to represent.

State legislative Democratic mapmakers drew the new district after considerable behind-the-scenes maneuvering among the incumbent Illinois congressional Democrats and Hispanic activists. The first version of the proposed remap didn’t have a second Hispanic district. The next version did, and it stuck.

At present, the earmuff-shaped 4th is the only district in Illinois designed to have a majority Hispanic voting-age population. It links together Hispanic communities on the North and South sides of the city.

Former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., was the first Hispanic member of Congress from Illinois, and when he retired, he basically anointed Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., to replace him. Garcia easily won his first term in 2018.

The new map decouples the two Hispanic communities and presents a very rarely available open congressional seat anchored in Democratic Chicago.

While Villegas is the first to jump into the 2022 Democratic primary, it’s hard to see how he will be the last.

Reelected to a four-year City Council term in 2019, Villegas does not risk his aldermanic seat to make a bid for Congress.

The new 3rd District includes portions of Humboldt Park and Belmont Cragin and then roams through the suburbs, taking in sections of Wheaton, West Chicago, Elgin, Bensenville, Addison and Elk Grove Village.

The district includes all of Villegas’ Northwest Side 36th ward.

The new 3rd is called a Hispanic-influenced district because although it’s heavily Hispanic, it does not have a majority Hispanic voting-age population. If multiple Hispanic candidates join the primary, the vote could split and the district may not elect another Hispanic member to Congress. I asked Villegas if that was a concern.

“If there are too many Latinx representatives that get in, I think that potentially could be an issue,” Villegas said.

Villegas’ story is compelling. His father died when he was 8 years old and his mother, Naomi, raised her two sons. For a time, the family lived in the Chicago Housing Authority’s Lathrop Homes.

He graduated from Maternity BVM elementary school in Humboldt Park in 1984. Villegas went to high school at Roosevelt after the family moved north to Montrose and St. Louis avenues.

Returning to Chicago after active duty in the Marines, Villegas became a truck driver, working nine years for the Alpha Baking Company, where he was a shop steward for Teamsters Local 734.

Villegas told me he got his start in politics working on the campaign of former Ald. Michael Wojcik (30th) while at Alpha.

After Alpha, Villegas worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation, where he was the deputy director of business and workforce development. From there, Villegas was an associate director of the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association, which led to the Illinois Capital Development Board, where he was chief of staff.

Villegas also co-founded Stratagem Consulting Group, a government relations and lobbying firm. Villegas said he sold his interest two years ago.

Years after dropping out, Villegas said he is finally finishing up coursework to earn his undergraduate degree from Northeastern Illinois University in North Park.

Villegas kicks off his race with the endorsement of a fellow Marine, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who grew up in south suburban Evergreen Park.

Villegas will be making his second trip to Washington in recent weeks for his campaign as he seeks to build a national Hispanic political network that will be useful in fundraising. Gallego will be the “special guest” at a “meet and greet” reception for Villegas on Nov. 17.

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