Reporters throughout the city flocked to the near northwest side’s 26th Ward in 1986 to cover the raucous special aldermanic election between independent Luis Gutierrez and machine-backed Manuel Torres, a contest that ultimately ended Chicago’s famous Council Wars by handing control of City Council to Mayor Harold Washington. Most reporters ignored a simultaneous legislative election. Miguel del Valle, a community center director, upset veteran state senator Edward Nedza to become the first independent Hispanic member of the General Assembly (Juan Soliz, who started his career as an independent, made peace with party regulars before his 1984 victory) and the first Hispanic of any stripe to win nomination (and election) to the Illinois State Senate.

Del Valle is up for reelection next year. And his behind-the-scenes antagonist is none other than independent-turned-regular Gutierrez–in an election that could determine the shape of Hispanic politics in the 1990s.

Since his 1986 election (in the general election he defeated Wayne Haney, a Republican placed on the ballot after the primary), del Valle has compiled a record that supporters describe as between admirable and exemplary. “He’s been in the forefront on education issues,” claims del Valle aide Roberto Rivera. “He led the fight for a new $7 million vocational skills center at Wabansia and California. He arranged $1 million for a minority transfer center at the City Colleges.”

In addition to his education work, del Valle also boasts a record of Hispanic empowerment. “I chair the Illinois Hispanic Democratic Council, a branch of the state Democratic Party, and set up branches in several downstate cities. I also organized the Illinois Hispanic State Employees Association, an advisory vehicle for Hispanic employment,” he claims.

Rivera adds, “We did an analysis of Hispanic employment in state government. While Hispanics comprise 8 percent of the Illinois population, we make up only 1 percent of the state government work force. Miguel del Valle introduced successful legislation to require increased activities to recruit Hispanics for state employment. Our ‘colleagues’ from the regular party organization tell Hispanics, ‘You do precinct work and we give you a job with the state.’ We work for a more open employment process.”

Del Valle’s most successful use of legislative muscle may lead to Hispanic empowerment in another area. After Cook County Democrats refused to recommend any Hispanics for slating for circuit court judge in 1988, del Valle (a member of the State Senate’s black caucus) and black senators Anthony Young and Paul Williams filed a lawsuit calling for an end to the at-large election of circuit judges and the creation of 15 judicial districts within the county. The black coalition (with del Valle) met with Republicans and even threatened to support a “Republican” supreme court seat from Cook County.

Democratic senate leaders refused to yield to the caucus demand until del Valle and the blacks refused to ratify a Democratic tax increase. “The first roll call on the tax bill, we all voted ‘present,’ and the tax bill didn’t pass. That worked. We sent a message to the General Assembly,” del Valle claims. Democratic leaders agreed to form Cook County judicial districts based on the 1990 census, including (del Valle hopes) one drawn to maximize the chance for Hispanic representation.

Given del Valle’s work with education and Hispanic issues, two areas of utmost importance to the local community, why would Gutierrez, who demanded of his precinct workers in 1986 that they also support del Valle, fail to endorse his onetime ally? The answer, not surprisingly, lies in politics. Gutierrez in early 1989 split from the rest of the City Council “progressive” bloc and endorsed Richard Daley for mayor instead of third-party candidate Tim Evans. Gutierrez foes charge that the opposition is part of a deal made with Democratic regulars under which he would support a del Valle opponent in exchange for possible endorsement for Congress in the 1990s.

Gutierrez makes no secret of his congressional desires, but he denies that ambition has anything to do with his stance on the legislative race. Instead, he decries del Valle’s backing of Evans in the mayoral election. “Miguel’s endorsement of Evans was a big loser of a decision in this community,” he says. Gutierrez also criticizes del Valle’s alleged silence on certain issues, asking, “Where was he on the Human Rights Ordinance? Where was he on affordable housing?”

One legislative insider claims that the Daley-Evans excuse offered by Gutierrez has nothing to do with the real reason for his opposition. Instead, he says, “Del Valle is on the Elections and Reapportionment Committee–and party regulars might not be happy with the idea of an independent on that committee.”

Rivera agrees. “The big picture is reapportionment,” he says. “That committee will have a great impact on Hispanic empowerment. And party regulars know that Miguel del Valle, with his Hispanic empowerment agenda, won’t be bought.” Del Valle has called for “at minimum, another Hispanic state representative” on the north side, an idea not favorably viewed by his Anglo legislative neighbors. (Reapportionment could cost Chicago a legislator: it certainly won’t yield the city an extra seat.)

In a recent interview, Gutierrez stated, “So far, I’ve decided to remain neutral”–in the state senate race. However, del Valle’s all-but-declared opponent, Nelida DeLeon Smyser (who’s running as Nellie DeLeon) is a member of Gutierrez’s ward organization.

Putting it mildly, Nellie DeLeon is not a household name. Experienced political observers greet her name with comments such as “I’ve never heard of her before,” “I don’t know–nobody knows,” and “Luis’s handpicked challenger, that’s all I know.” Rivera says, “I once hired her as a tutor at ASPIRA [a social service agency]. I’d not heard of her before or since.” Rivera hints that she might not have been the regulars’ first choice. “From what I’ve heard, the regulars went around asking lots of people to run, and they even promised [27th Ward Democratic committeeman] Rickey Hendon jobs and money if he could run a black candidate against Miguel to siphon off the black vote.”

DeLeon declined to elaborate on her background or her reasons for opposing del Valle to this reporter. Likewise, she did not appear at a recent slating session among ward committeemen (the Fifth District includes all or parts of the 1st, 26th, 27th, 31st, 32nd, 33rd, and 37th wards). Del Valle (through a proxy, Alderman Raymond Figueroa of the 31st Ward) made his case before the committeemen. But Gutierrez and 32nd Ward committeeman Terry Gabinski (who together hold most of the weighted vote of the district) voted not to endorse him. Instead, they moved for an open primary.

Robert Kennedy, a longtime del Valle ally and precinct worker, says the slating session might have been a moral victory for del Valle even though he failed to get official party backing. “What was it Luis said, that he didn’t think the del Valle candidacy lent itself to a strong Democratic organization? Isn’t that the same argument everyone used against all Harold Washington allies, including Luis himself, when Washington was alive? Actually, Miguel did himself a favor by coming before the committeemen. When he [actually, Figueroa] showed up, it forced Luis’s hand; he could no longer assume this stance of a statesman above the fray. Luis’s response didn’t surprise anybody, but did show a weakness in his armor.”

Most impartial observers see del Valle as the solid favorite to retain his seat. He maintains the advantages of incumbency, including a legislative record, ready media access, and high name recognition. “It’s not difficult for workers to find signatures for his petitions,” says Raymond Figueroa. “People say, ‘Oh yes, Miguel del Valle,’ and gladly sign the petitions.” Del Valle partisans claim the support of three Hispanic aldermen (Jesus Garcia, Juan Soliz, and Figueroa), independent politicians such as Hendon, 49th Ward alderman David Orr and 29th Ward alderman Danny Davis, and the black caucuses of the Illinois house and senate.

DeLeon, however, may expect the support of the local ward organizations. In 1986, only Gabinski carried his ward solidly for Nedza. Del Valle and Nedza split their home 31st Ward. Del Valle carried the other wards decisively: Gutierrez’s 26th, which lies within the district, and the other four wards, which each have only a few precincts in the 5th.

Gutierrez predicts that del Valle should not expect those results this time around. “Miguel del Valle didn’t have to spend a penny in the 26th Ward in 1986, and he didn’t have to send in a single volunteer. He’ll need troops this year. And don’t forget, this year there will be no other strong races like there were in 1986” to disperse regular forces. “Do you think [33rd Ward alderman Richard] Mell is going to send his troops into the 26th Ward this time?” Gutierrez wondered. “Or Gabinski? And [Board of Appeals member] Joe Berrios has been strengthening his organization in the 31st Ward, while Figueroa has been losing ground.”

Del Valle, unlike most other Hispanic pols, has never bothered to build his own ward organization. And he has never been known as a prolific fund-raiser (del Valle himself concedes, “I’ll probably have a campaign debt”). “We’re not going to have money to pay people $100 a day on election day,” Rivera notes. “But we do have an upcoming fund-raiser of 100-plus Latino community leaders for del Valle. We have grass-roots support.”

Allies count on the grass roots to lead del Valle to victory. Ray Romero, an Illinois Commerce Commission member who served as a plaintiff in the remap case that led to the special aldermanic elections, says Hispanic independence is the key issue in the election. “We’re still subject to plantation politics,” he claims. “There was a brief flourishing of independent thought in Harold Washington’s time. But now, we see mainly people who play by the party rules. I don’t think there’s any independent besides Miguel del Valle with citywide influence.”

“I think my reelection is very important,” del Valle states. “The question is no longer how to increase Hispanic numbers, but how good is the representation. Will those representatives be silent regulars who toe the line, or will they have the voice to challenge the political establishment? I want to build seniority; I should get a committee chairmanship once I’m reelected. Most of all, I want to send a message that I have a constituency–not just Hispanics but whites, blacks, everyone.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.