By Carlos Hern‡ndez G—mez

Cynthia Soto seems to make a lot of people nervous. Last year, as a relative newcomer to politics, she forced incumbent First Ward alderman Jesse Granato into a runoff election. She lost by a mere 347 votes, battling a huge machine effort for Granato. One south-side alderman told me he’d personally worked a precinct for the incumbent. “We barely squeaked by that one,” he conceded, “didn’t we?”

Now Soto is making Edgar Lopez nervous. Lopez, a four-term state representative, is locked in a tight race with Soto for his job in the Fourth District. He admits she’s the toughest competitor he’s ever faced. “This is my first election since my first primary,” Lopez says.

Why is so much attention focused on a race for state representative on the near northwest side? The race between Soto and Lopez reflects the continuing evolution and shifting alliances of Latino politics in Chicago. It’s not so much who these people are as what they represent.

In her own way Soto is a descendant of the independent movement that emerged from Harold Washington’s 1983 campaign. Lopez, on the other hand, is a product of the old-line Democratic organization, whose roots go back to Alderman Tom Keane and old man Daley. It’s a battle that’s been raging for 20 years, and if this race is any indication it will continue well into the next decade.

Lopez gained notoriety as chairman of the controversial state investigation into the alleged misuse of Chapter 1 antipoverty funds at Roberto Clemente High School. As many see it, that investigation was an attempt to use the left-wing politics of Puerto Rican independence as a hammer to ruin the reputations of mainstream politicians. Lopez generated a lot of press and attention by accusing politically connected Latinos of using government money to “fuel political activities connected with a Puerto Rican independence movement.” Ultimately the accusations proved groundless, and Lopez was forced to say as much in the state’s final report. “The complexity of the investigation” made it “impossible for the committee to do an in-depth study of State Chapter 1 Funding policy,” Lopez wrote.

Even so, the investigation may have served its purpose–Lopez put 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio on the defensive. He had tried to call Ocasio to testify before the committee because for six months in 1992 Ocasio had headed the Center for Community and Leadership Development, a social service agency in Humboldt Park that had a contract with Clemente. Ocasio refused to testify, citing his “profound distrust of the motives of the Committee Chairman, Edgar Lopez.” His “longtime political opponent,” he wrote, was “far more concerned with creating sensational and inaccurate news stories than with any legitimate legislative function.”

In February of last year Lopez’s campaign contributed $34,000 to Ray Rubio, the local Spanish-language radio personality who was running against Ocasio. But Ocasio won. And with the political ground shifting beneath his feet, Lopez met with Soto’s husband, David, at the Illinois Bar and Grill on Taylor Street. David Soto claims Lopez offered to help Cynthia Soto in her runoff with Granato if she would promise to support Lopez in his reelection bid. Lopez acknowledges the meeting took place, but says nothing came of it. “I think there were talks,” he explains. “It didn’t go any further than that.”

Lopez might have bet the farm on Rubio and the Clemente case, but his maneuvering may have hurt him–it needlessly infuriated the opposing faction. Ocasio is the protege of Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who was still smarting from the defeat of former First District state senator Jesus Garcia. Garcia had been a strong ally of Gutierrez, going back to the 1980s, when they were both alderman during Council Wars. “There are many lessons to be learned” from Garcia’s defeat, Gutierrez says now. He thinks too much of their attention was claimed by Sonia Silva’s close reelection race for state representative in the same district (she won her primary by just 55 votes), and consequently Garcia didn’t get out the vote in the 11th and 14th wards, where white ethnics handed the prize to Antonio “Tony” Mu–oz, a Chicago cop unofficially backed by Mayor Daley and his roving band of Latino patronage workers, the Hispanic Democratic Organization. “I think that it is clear that Daley targeted Jesus Garcia for defeat,” says Gutierrez.

If politics makes for strange bedfellows, it’s especially true of Latino politics, which has long been known for its complicated rivalries. The number of odd pairings in this race is truly noteworthy.

Lopez is running in the Democratic primary with strong support from the state’s top Republican, George Ryan. The governor’s liaison for Hispanic affairs, Jose Mu–oz, has taken a sabbatical from his job to run Lopez’s campaign. Lopez was among the few Latino Democrats to publicly support Ryan in the 1998 gubernatorial election, and last year he helped arrange the governor’s trip to Cuba. In late August Lopez’s campaign received $1,000 from Ryan’s war chest.

Lopez also has the support of house speaker Michael Madigan, who appointed him Democratic caucus leader. Surprisingly Granato is also helping Lopez. The pair continue to share an office, though Lopez’s flirtation with Soto reportedly left a bad taste in Granato’s mouth.

Gutierrez says he has “nothing personal” against Lopez, but the two increasingly head opposing sides among Latino politicos. Joining Gutierrez are Ocasio, state senator Miguel del Valle, and state rep Willie Delgado, as well as the newly appointed 26th Ward Democratic committeeman, Roberto Maldonado. Gutierrez says in the wake of Garcia’s defeat this group has learned how to make the hard bargains necessary to protect its interests.

For example, Maldonado had wanted to run for 35th Ward committeeman, a position currently held by Alderman Vilma Colom, but he backed off after the others in the group decided to keep the peace with 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, generally regarded as Colom’s patron. Instead, Ocasio stepped down as 26th Ward committeeman, and this position was then assumed by Maldonado, who helped retire Ocasio’s campaign debt. Gutierrez ended up endorsing Colom, but now, in what some deem a double cross, Colom appears to be favoring Lopez.

Gutierrez says such elaborate deal making was necessary to preserve financial resources and to avoid a “battle on two fronts” like the one that cost Garcia his office. On December 7 the group met to strategize at Gutierrez’s Wicker Park home. Del Valle wanted to run for 31st Ward committeeman against Joe Berrios, a commissioner on the Cook County Tax Board of Review who’d given Lopez his first job in politics.

When del Valle announced his intention to run for committeeman, Maldonado revealed he had already cut a deal with Berrios so no one would run against Delgado. Del Valle says he was told that if he insisted on running for committeeman the rest of the group “would have to ‘rethink’ their support for Cynthia.”

Mayor Daley appears to be quietly putting his muscle behind Lopez, though once again he has chosen to stay above the fray by making no official endorsement. In the February Chicago Reporter, mayoral ally Alderman Danny Solis says Daley “stays away from internal political disagreements among groups or schools.” Del Valle agrees, saying Daley’s support of Lopez is a calculated move. “He doesn’t want either group having too much power,” del Valle says.

In the past, Gutierrez, Ocasio, and Maldonado have all been allied with the mayor. In 1989 Gutierrez made the bold move to support Daley, and he was rewarded in 1992 when Daley appointed Ocasio to the aldermanic seat Gutierrez vacated to go to Congress.

Recently, however, the group’s relationship with Daley has cooled. The mayor was reportedly angered by their support for President Clinton’s offer of conditional clemency for 11 members of the FALN, the militant Puerto Rican nationalist group. But this wasn’t the first the time Daley and Gutierrez had been at odds. The mayor was reportedly ticked off by the congressman’s refusal to get behind the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was heavily promoted by Daley’s brother Bill.

The last straw may have been Gutierrez’s endorsement of Bill Bradley for president. Daley had reportedly assumed he would back Al Gore. While Gutierrez has disagreed with the mayor before, he says his endorsement of Bradley and all-out support of Soto continue to signify his independence. “My life could have been much easier simply staying out of it,” Gutierrez says of the presidential race. “There’s no political upside for me to engage in an insurgent campaign against an incumbent vice president.” He smirked, then added, “As though I have a constitutional responsibility to check with the fifth floor before I endorse the candidate for the most important office in the nation.” Gutierrez is quick to note that he still supports Daley on most issues, though their recent flare-up has led some to speculate that Soto versus Lopez may actually be round one of Gutierrez versus Daley.

Ocasio says he asked Daley in early January to keep the Hispanic Democratic Organization out of the race between Soto and Lopez, but the HDO has reportedly been working for Lopez for almost two months. Daley has concentrated more on the state representative’s race in the First District, where Sonia Silva faces a rematch against Daley ally Susana Mendoza, a former press secretary for Alderman Ray Frias. Gutierrez has once again endorsed Silva. If Silva loses, Alderman Ricky Mu–oz would be the last Latino independent on the south side.

On Saturday, January 8, Lopez opened his campaign office just west of the large Puerto Rican flag hanging over Division at Artesian. It’s pro-Soto territory, though Soto has located her campaign headquarters in a storefront on Ashland just north of Chicago Avenue.

Lopez had gone on the offensive early, stating in a November interview that this race will be a contest pitting him against the FALN and the Puerto Rican revolutionary group known as the macheteros. Soto, who’s not Puerto Rican, says she is her own woman and calls Lopez’s charges “ridiculous.” Lopez stands by his earlier statement. “It’s true,” he says. “You got Luis Gutierrez, you got Billy Ocasio, you got Roberto Maldonado, who was there at the release at the rally.”

He’s referring to the Humboldt Park rally held on September 10 to welcome home four of the FALN members given clemency. Earlier, on August 12, Lopez said he’d “always” supported the release of the 11 prisoners for “humanitarian” reasons.

The Clemente hearings have figured heavily into Lopez’s campaign. He touts the investigation as his greatest accomplishment during eight years in office. “We’ve achieved our goal,” he says. “If you go to Clemente, it’s better than it was three years ago–we got politics out of there and the American flag is flying.”

The investigation failed to produce charges against anyone, but Lopez says, “Our job was not to indict people, and now everything is in the hands of the U.S. attorney’s office, and they have power to do a lot more than we could.”

The state’s inquisition “wasn’t about politics,” Lopez says. “It was about kids. Why would I want the headaches I had?” He says the “only reason” he’s facing Soto is because Gutierrez has a vendetta against him. Gutierrez asserts it’s the other way around.

“It’s the cynical manner in which he’s used investigations,” says Gutierrez. “It’s clear why Edgar investigated Billy Ocasio in connection with Clemente. It was shown to be true when he expended tens of thousands of dollars and all of his political capital attempting to defeat Billy Ocasio.” Gutierrez denies that his support of Soto is about Clemente or other “petty” politics. “We didn’t go ethnic either–we’re Puerto Rican and she’s Mexican. She’s the best candidate for state rep and a breath of fresh air.”

Lopez denies that he tried to use the Clemente investigation to drive Ocasio from office. But several days before last year’s election, Ocasio filed a libel suit against Rubio, citing a campaign flyer that said, “Billy approved the use of [government] funds to hire clowns, kidnappers, and speakers on radical Puerto Rican nationalism and on trips to terrorists training camps.”

Ocasio later dropped his suit after Rubio wrote an apology to the court. Rubio’s letter, dated November 12, 1999, seems to bolster the claims of Lopez’s challengers. “During the heat of a hotly contested race for Alderman of the 26th Ward in the city of Chicago, the defendant’s [Rubio’s] supporters, under the direction of State Representative Edgar Lopez, caused a piece of direct mail campaign literature to be mailed to the voters of the 26th ward which was misleading and inaccurate. . . . Lopez promoted the use of the information in this damaging, negative and misleading way. Ray Rubio regrets relying on Edgar Lopez for this information and this particular campaign tactic.”

Last month Lopez told me he supported Rubio but did not run his campaign–therefore, he says, the dispute was purely between Ocasio and Rubio. He did add, however, that the mailer looked “pretty accurate.”

I told Lopez the Clemente investigation’s chief witness, FBI informant Rafael Marrero, had gone to the Board of Election Commissioners on December 10, 1998, to examine nominating petitions from the 26th Ward race. According to the board’s sign-in sheets, Marrero was there at the same time as Gloria Chevere, a top Rubio contributor. Lopez expressed his doubts. “We directed that and I know who went,” he said. “No way. No, I know who went. I even went one day.” Sign-in sheets show Lopez dropped in at 4:47 on the afternoon of December 17, 1998. Rubio’s campaign manager, Marco Morales, signed in at the same time.

While Lopez contends he supported Rubio because Ocasio was “an inept alderman,” Soto claims his motives were selfish. “That money he spent at Clemente could have gone back to our community,” she says. “He’s been there four terms and what do we see? Nothing.”

The contest between Soto and Lopez may end up being the most important race for Latinos in at least a decade, because the 2000 census means that whoever wins will assist in drawing up a new district map. There’s a lot at stake for Gutierrez, whose congressional district was originally drawn to create a Hispanic majority. The district survived a court challenge a few years back.

Soto, a supervisor in the child-support enforcement division of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, bills herself as an outsider making her second run against the machine. Lopez, meanwhile, portrays himself as the experienced politician, attacking Soto for her supposed ignorance. Soto responds that Lopez is an insider indebted to special interests.

Lopez says his insider status is his greatest strength. “I know how everything works here,” he says. “The first couple of terms I really had to learn the process, and it’s built on relationships. I work with everyone . . . except my two Hispanic colleagues [Silva and Delgado].” He says Soto is a front for Gutierrez and company. “She is a puppet. I don’t think she knows what a state rep really does. Right now they’re guiding her by the hand.”

Soto has lived in West Town for 30 years and this, she says, makes her intimately familiar with constituent concerns. “I’ve lived here so long I know what the concerns are.” She says her main priorities are property tax relief, neighborhood safety, and education. Lopez also lists neighborhood safety as a priority and cites his sponsorship of the Safe Neighborhoods Act as a sign of his commitment to fight crime.

Soto has attacked Lopez for his support of casino gambling in Rosemont. Lopez answers, “Gambling was there before I got there. Yeah, I believe it’s gonna help Chicago and a lot of our residents will benefit with jobs and contracts. In exchange for a vote you get some commitments for your community. I was given commitments.” Rosemont’s Republican mayor, Don Stephens, gave Lopez $1,000 at a campaign fund-raiser last September. Del Valle says the Rosemont casino won’t benefit Lopez’s constituents: “This will affect the Fourth District by getting them on the Blue Line so they can spend their money in Rosemont.” According to his campaign disclosure forms, Lopez has also received $1,000 from the Empress Casino in Joliet and $500 from the Hollywood Casino in Aurora. Soto says, “Edgar’s never seen a pro-gambling bill he didn’t like.”

A majority of Soto’s contributions have come from such in-kind donations as postage or office space and from the coalition of Puerto Rican politicos supporting her, especially Gutierrez and del Valle, who have each donated several thousand dollars to her campaign. But she’s received help from another interesting corner.

When Lopez supported Governor Ryan’s controversial trip to Cuba last October, Orlando Miranda, a public-relations professional and the former president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce, was angry, not only at the trip but at the lack of dialogue with the Cuban-American community. “What do they know about Cuba?” Miranda asks. “Why didn’t they talk to us? What do we got, the plague? Ryan knew how to find us when there was an election.” Miranda has now decided to help Soto defeat Lopez. “We gotta make a stand here, and I’m doing my bit. She’s got a good shot and if we prove a point here, good.

“This election is about finding someone that actually represents the interests of their district and is not gallivanting all over the world trying to pay back lobbyists en contra of his own district,” Miranda says.

During the Cuba trip, the Springfield Journal-Register caught Lopez joking about his lack of agricultural acumen: “The only thing I see growing in the city is marijuana.”

Lopez was considered instrumental in arranging the trip, but he had the help of a political ally, Republican Charles Serrano. Serrano is the managing director of Legislative Strategies Group, a lobbying concern that helps clients seeking business in Caribbean countries. Legislative Strategies was awarded a $20,000 no-bid contract for its services. Soto has cited Lopez’s ties to Serrano as proof of his indebtedness to special interests. According to the Journal-Register, between 1994 and ’97, Serrano and Inter-American Communications, where he also works, had given Lopez’s campaign $7,250 in loans, contributions, and other receipts and $2,644 in meals and lodging.

In 1997 Lopez helped to secure $5.5 million for a teachers’ training school called the Teacher’s Academy for Math and Science. At the time Serrano’s Legislative Strategies was being paid $45,000 per year by the school. Lopez denies charges of favoritism. “They do their work,” he says. “They’re good at it. They have top people in the state as the board of directors. They have a proven record for years.”

Last Thursday Soto called on Lopez to return the $1,000 contribution from Citizens for Ryan. She said the money is tainted by the licensing scandal in the secretary of state’s office. Lopez scoffs and says he still supports Ryan. “He was a great secretary of state, and I knew he would be a good governor. I don’t run away from friends just because supposedly the media is supposedly portraying somebody as having done something wrong.

“My influence in Springfield will only continue to grow,” says Lopez. “In eight years I’ve shown leadership and I’ve never forgotten where I came from. I take nothing for granted, but I’m gonna win.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry/Ellen Domke-Chicago Sun-Times.