News Column

Ill. gets first Hispanic mayor

March 4, 2003

Gregory Tejeda, United Press International

Cicero, Ill., will be one of the first midwestern U.S. municipalities to elect a Hispanic as its chief executive. But the election has the potential to make Hispanic people shudder.

Voters in the town of 85,616 people on the western border of Chicago will cast ballots April 1, and both candidates for the post of town president (the equivalent of mayor) are of Mexican ethnicity.

But the election is less about promoting the political influence of Hispanics than it is about who can best cope with the blue-collar town's raucous political past of officials with loyalties to The Outfit (a.k.a., organized crime).

Some cities already have Hispanics in charge. Currently, 12 cities with populations over 100,000 (including Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Hartford, Conn., and Miami) have local governments run by a person whose ancestry traces back to a Spanish-speaking country.

Smaller towns in parts of the United States where Spanish is widely spoken also are likely to have Hispanic mayors -- California has 55.

But it's still rare in the Midwest and has never happened in Illinois. Because of its history, Cicero would have been one of the last places to expect such a progressive political event.

Cicero was an uneventful place until 1923 when William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson was dumped as mayor of Chicago after two scandal-ridden terms. His successor, William Dever, was determined to clean up the Second City, but mob boss Al Capone evaded his grasp by moving to the suburbs.

Capone chose Cicero, and used his goons in his first municipal election as a suburbanite to strong-arm the election of a town board loaded with officials who would look the other way while he ran his criminal operations.

Capone lost interest in Cicero in 1927 when Thompson made a political comeback, beating Dever and becoming the last Republican, to date, to win a Chicago mayoral election. "Scarface" Al was able to move back to the city without having to worry (for the time being) about arrest.

But Cicero's mob-tied government remained. Civic groups that monitor organized crime and local government say it's the political ancestor of the establishment that still runs Cicero.

The most-recently elected town president was Betty Loren-Maltese, whose late husband, Frank "Baldy" Maltese, was a mob-connected bookmaker and Cicero town assessor who served time in prison after pleading guilty to federal gambling conspiracy charges.

Betty herself had to resign last year, and is now serving an eight-year federal prison term, after being found guilty of helping other local government officials divert the town's insurance claims to a firm described as "mob-connected" by the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago.

But one fact about Cicero has changed. The town that used to be loaded with immigrants of Eastern European background turned Mexican.

The 2000 Census indicated 66,299 of the town's residents (77.4 percent) were Hispanic, with 58,542 saying they were specifically of Mexican ethnic background.

So when Loren-Maltese resigned, the town board of Maltese loyalists replaced her with 35-year-old Ramiro Gonzalez, who had been a town trustee since 2000. Last week, Cicero voters chose Gonzalez to be the Republican nominee in the April 1 election.

Gonzalez -- who has never been accused of wrongdoing -- admits he got his start in Cicero politics because of his support for Loren-Maltese, and he defends her management of the town. But he downplays his ties to the Cicero establishment, going so far as to name Wayne Johnson, a long-time investigator for the mob-monitoring Chicago Crime Commission, as the new police chief.

But critics cite Gonzalez' inexperience, saying he allows himself to be guided by attorneys who are part of the established order of Cicero politics.

They include Edward R. Vrdolyak, a Loren-Maltese political adviser and former Chicago alderman who was a leader of "Council Wars," a mid-1980s racially charged rebellion by white elected officials against Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington.

The idea of a clean break with the past is what motivates Democrat nominee Joseph Mario Moreno. He lost to Loren-Maltese in the last municipal election, but believes voter disgust combined with Gonzalez' inexperience will make him victorious this time.

But Gonzalez not only took 74 percent of the Republican primary vote, he got more votes than the combined tally of his GOP opponent, of Moreno, and of Moreno's Democratic opponent.

Some believe the Cicero establishment will turn out the vote for Gonzalez on April 1, while also harassing the Moreno campaign. They see the removal by the town of public benches on which Moreno had paid to put campaign ads as just the first step.

Although Moreno believes the growing Hispanic population of Cicero will pick him because he's a Democrat, it is notable that 70 percent of primary voters voted for a Republican over a Democrat.

Moreno, a member of the Cook County Board with an undistinguished record, suffers from the perception among locals that he's a political opportunist.

He only recently moved to Cicero from Chicago. Some believe he only wants the village president post in hopes that a combination of the county and municipal jobs will boost his influence in Chicago political circles.

So what should we make of the Cicero election? Those people who want to boast about yet another advance in Hispanic political empowerment will be happy because the new mayor will be Mexican-American.

But the winner may carry too much political baggage to be able to make a difference. Victory on Election Day could wind up being the ultimate April Fools Day joke on Hispanics.

(Hispanidad is a weekly column about the culture of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States, written by Greg Tejeda, a third-generation Mexican-American.

Source: Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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