First Ward alderman Manny Flores says he’s running for the seat in Congressman Luis Gutierrez has vowed to relinquish after his current term ends in 2009.

“I’ve been talking to folks about it, and I’ve been pretty open with them: I’m doing it,” Flores said during an interview this afternoon. He listed environmental sustainability, immigration issues, and health care for the uninsured among his top priorities.

The race for the Fourth Congressional District–which is made up of predominantly Latino swaths of the northwest and southwest sides connected by a membrane of the west suburbs–should be impassioned. Already 22nd Ward alderman Ricardo Munoz has announced his intention to run, and officials and politicos have speculated that 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis and Cook County commissioner Roberto Maldonado may also dive in.

That would be a stark contrast with Flores’s experience in the most recent City Council elections. “I’m very proud of the fact that of the 50 alderman, I was one of only 3 who had no one file petitions to run against him,” he said.

Flores pointed out that the fourth district, while majority Latino, also includes large numbers of ethnic Europeans, and that it’s economically diverse–not unlike the ward he’s represented since winning office after a hard-fought 2003 campaign. “I have demonstrated the type of leadership that has worked to reach out to all of the residents of the First Ward,” he said–a statement that, behind the rhetoric, would seem to be a dart lobbed at Munoz, whose southwest-side ward is predominantly Mexican.

Last week Flores held a fund-raiser at a the home of a supporter, he said, and he’ll soon start setting up a campaign team. He said he’s been reaching out to area politicians, including Gutierrez, for whom he was once an aide. “His response to me was that if this is something I really want, I should pursue it and do everything I need to mount a successful campaign.”

Flores’s critics say he’s too cautious; though he ran as an independent, they charge, he’s spent the last four years making a priority of avoiding confrontation so he doesn’t have any enemies who would block a run for higher office. To be fair, Flores has voted and spoken out against Daley administration policies far more often than most aldermen, but he’s rarely been very loud about it. He took some hits when he voted in favor of the big-box minimum-wage ordinance but then missed the vote to override the mayor’s veto of it because he was traveling overseas. 

This afternoon, when asked if he had or would seek the support of Mayor Daley, Flores said: “My philosophy has always been that you win by building coalitions.”