By Ben Joravsky

They’re at it again on the near west side, where politicians in and around the 31st Ward are waging yet another war for the political soul of Humboldt Park. In this case, newly installed incumbent Elba Rodriguez and Willie Delgado, her independent challenger, are in a one-on-one campaign in the March 17 Democratic primary for state representative from the Third District.

The rhetoric’s flying, with Delgado castigating Rodriguez as a patsy for the remnants of Tom Keane’s corrupt old machine. And Rodriguez (or at least her allies, since she rarely, if ever, speaks publicly), accuses Delgado of everything from being soft on communism to having smoked pot as a teenager.

“We don’t like them and they don’t like us,” says Dennis Perez, a Humboldt Park real estate agent who’s one of Rodriguez’s key supporters. “That sums it all up.”

Passions are fired by the fact that almost all the players know each other well; some of them have been going at it since the early 70s, when most of Humboldt Park was still controlled by Keane, the 31st Ward’s alderman and Democratic committeeman. A combative old cuss, Keane ran the City Council for Mayor Richard J. Daley in much the same way Ed Burke now does for the late mayor’s son.

Keane liked to taunt independents, claiming they were too wimpy and naive to beat his patronage employees, a tough crew unafraid to rough up the opposition on election day. They continued to bring out the vote for white ethnic candidates even as the ward became predominantly Puerto Rican.

Keane might have ruled forever, but he was convicted for his part in a complicated corruption scheme involving the sale of public land. After he went to prison in the 1970s his organization was taken over by state senator Ed Nedza, who attempted to cultivate Hispanic support by slating a schoolteacher named Miguel Santiago to run for alderman.

Santiago proved to be an embarrassingly timid machine lackey, even for the City Council. Sent to office in 1983, when savvy aldermen were winning jobs and goodies by playing one side of Council Wars against the other, Santiago refused to waver from the anti-Mayor Washington fold. When activists reminded him that most of his constituents had voted for Washington, Santiago told reporters they’d threatened to burn him by vowing to “hold his feet to the fire.”

By the late 1980s the area (roughly bounded by Kedzie, Cicero, Diversey, and Grand) was up for grabs. In 1987 the independents scored a major victory when Miguel del Valle, a social worker, unseated Nedza (who eventually was imprisoned for shaking down a local flea-market vendor). A few weeks later Santiago was bounced from office by a pro-Washington candidate.

But the regulars reclaimed the aldermanic seat in 1991 when Ray Suarez was elected. A year later Santiago was elected state representative from the Third District, which includes most of the 31st as well as portions of the 35th, 26th, and 33rd wards.

In 1996 Delgado, supported by del Valle and Congressman Luis Gutierrez, ran against Santiago, but he lost after the regulars pulled tricks that surely made Keane proud (the old master died last year). They put a guy named Ernie Delgado on the ballot to confuse the voters and went around calling Willie Delgado a “deadbeat dad,” an allegation for which they have never offered any proof.

“They distorted my record as a husband and father by saying I should support my wife and children. It was a lie, and I’m warning them–if they repeat those lies, I’ll sue them,” says Delgado. “I have two sons–Adam and Ruben–and one wife, Iris. I have no other wife, I have no other children. We were never divorced. I’ve never had to pay child support. She is my high school sweetheart. We should be celebrated as an example of what it’s like to be together for all these years.”

Both sides were gearing up for a rematch when Santiago, following in the footsteps of Keane and Nedza, was indicted in a ghost-payrolling scheme (his trial started earlier this month). In January, 31st Ward committeeman Joe Berrios talked Santiago into resigning and tabbed Rodriguez as his successor.

Rodriguez did not respond to several calls for comment, leaving others to champion her cause. “She works as some sort of senior-citizen-housing site manager,” says Perez. “She’s the real thing–a hardworking woman who raised two children. She’s not a hack like Delgado.”

In contrast, Delgado is more than willing to champion himself. As an orator–“I am loquacious and persuasive.” As a true believer–“I am a hyperenergized individual with nothing but passion in my heart.” As a role model–“I have mentored dozens of outstanding young people.” And, most passionately, as a jock–“In high school I wrestled and played baseball and I still work out. I’m five-foot-five, weigh about 150, have a 32-inch waist, and 12-inch biceps. They call me ‘Popeye Arms.’ I run a 4.3 40 [a world-class time]. I still play basketball and tennis. I’ll take you or anyone else on the court right now.”

For all his swagger, Delgado says he rose from humble origins. The son of a south-side steel worker, he graduated from Tilden Tech High School in 1974 and Northeastern Illinois University. He worked for over a dozen years as a child-abuse caseworker for state agencies here and in Florida. He’s currently del Valle’s chief aide.

For the campaign, each side has brought in its best tacticians. Delgado’s effort is being run by Roberto Rivera, a streetwise strategist who once said, of his successful efforts to elect del Valle: “The reason Miguel has a reputation as a saint who walks on water is because he’s standing on my back and I’m down on my knees in the mud.”

Rodriguez’s campaign is being run by an odd coalition of machine regulars (committeeman Berrios and alderman Suarez) and freelancing politicos Perez, Gloria Chevere, and Manny Torres, who are bound by their passionate hatred of Luis Gutierrez. (Essentially, they are against Delgado because Gutierrez is for him.)

If they lose, it won’t be because they didn’t try. They are running a can’t-possibly-win candidate against del Valle in order to divert his energies from Delgado’s campaign. And they’re giving Gutierrez fits by running Francisco DuPrey for Cook County commissioner against the congressman’s crony Roberto Maldonado.

But much of their venom’s reserved for Delgado. They know, they say, the “real Delgado.” They know what he did and who he did it with many years ago. And that’s probably true; Humboldt Park politics are incestuous, most of the players having run with or against one another since their college days. Perez, Chevere, and Torres call him “Roach Clip Willie.” They say he’s a creature of the “loony left,” with close ties to the extremist wing of the Puerto Rican independence movement. To prove their point, they’ve dug from the archives a Tribune article dated July 23, 1981 which describes how Delgado was evicted from the federal trial of a Puerto Rican bomb-making “terrorist” for not rising for the judge.

“He’s an out-of-town political hack,” says Torres. “What’s he say, he’s got Popeye arms and he runs fast? Where did he run that 4.3–in Miami? He’s got a classic Napoleon complex. The little dog barks the loudest but the big dog don’t have to worry about that.”

Delgado dismisses the accusations against him as old and meaningless. “Yes, I was an activist. Yes, I got involved in political causes. So what? As for the roach clip stuff, give me a break. We all did things in our hippie days that we don’t do anymore. I used to be close to some of the people that are on Rodriguez’s side. Now they share all their teenage stories. So they want to call me ‘Roach Clip.’ I laugh in their faces. I could put out so much dirt on them, but I don’t want to play that stupid game.”

So far Delgado has a big advantage because Rodriguez is running a timid campaign. She doesn’t make many appearances (she recently failed to attend a heavily advertised forum by the Nobel Neighbors community group), nor does she talk to the press. All of which leaves her unable to counter Delgado’s accusation that she’s another puppet of the old Keane/ Nedza machine. “This election’s about bringing to an end the Keane machine,” says Delgado. “We will bring them down. They will not steal this race from us. If she’s afraid to answer the questions of reporters or people in the community, what good will she be when it comes to standing up for the community? You don’t want someone who only does what the bosses tells her. That’s old Keane politics and those days are over.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Willie Delgado photo by Cynthia Howe.