CHICAGO — A rubble-strewn, predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood northwest of downtown Chicago is the unlikely site of a fierce ballot-box battle that many believe will change the shape of Chicago's political future.
Here, in a section plagued by street gangs--in the 26th Ward, where sidewalks are crumbling and gutters are blocked by debris and abandoned cars--the voters on Tuesday will go to polling places policed by federal agents to elect the first city councilman of Puerto Rican descent.
"This ward will decide who will be the next mayor of Chicago and which way the City Council will go," says Manuel A. Torres, a Cook County official who is the candidate backed by the city's Democratic political machine and its boss, Edward R. Vrdolyak.
"Twenty-six is the pivotal ward," agrees his opponent, Luis V. Gutierrez, a Sanitation Department supervisor who is supported by independent Democrats and by his boss, Mayor Harold Washington.
The 26th is one of seven wards where voters will pick new city councilmen Tuesday, in a contest between Washington, the city's first black mayor, and his arch political foe, Vrdolyak, who is chairman of the organization best known as Chicago's Democratic Machine.
The election is expected to determine whether the city's celebrated "Council Wars," between forces aligned with Washington and Vrdolyak's supporters, will continue. If he loses his majority, Vrdolyak--who sponsored an unsuccessful attempt to delay the election--and his Democratic Machine may remember Tuesday as their Waterloo.
The election also will mark the emergence of Chicago's Mexican and Puerto Rican population as an important political force. Four of those to be elected will be Latinos. The first and only Latino ever previously elected to the City Council won in 1983.
"This election is the most significant political event since the death of (former Mayor Richard J.) Daley and the election of Washington," says Samuel Betances, a sociologist with Northeastern Illinois University.
Because so much is at stake, these heretofore insignificant neighborhood elections are being contested with political passions usually reserved for main-event general elections. So great is the potential for fraud that the Justice Department plans to send a small army of U.S. marshals and other federal agents to police the balloting--something that also was done three years ago to guarantee a fair vote when Washington won a narrow victory in a particularly bitter contest.
Court Ordered Election
A federal court ordered the special election in the seven districts after finding that a 1980 political map of Chicago's 50 wards was drawn to guarantee the election of white council members in areas where a fairly drawn map would have resulted in the election of blacks or Latinos. The court ordered new boundaries drawn for the seven wards, so that Latinos are in the majority in four wards and blacks hold majorities in three.
Currently, all seven wards are represented by aldermen--as City Council members are called in Chicago--who are loyal to Vrdolyak. He has used his majority of 29 aldermen to thwart most programs and appointments made by Washington, who has only 21 supporters on the council.
Political analysts here expect three Vrdolyak-backed candidates to win on Tuesday. If that happens, he will be assured of the votes of 25 council members. Candidates backed by Washington are expected to win in three wards, giving him 24 votes on the council.
The contest most in doubt is in the 26th Ward. A victory for former Washington aide Gutierrez would deadlock the council 25 to 25, with the mayor casting the tie-breaking vote on legislation. A victory for Torres would assure Vrdolyak of control of the council.
Campaigning has been the most vigorous, and the most violent, in the 26th Ward. News accounts from the 26th often sound more like reports of an election in a Third World nation.
Threats on Both Sides
Both sides have reported receiving death threats against workers, and both sides forbid campaign workers--and candidates--to walk alone. Campaign workers have been beaten, and at least one was shot at. Merchants and homeowners say they were threatened after putting up posters for one side or the other. Billboards have been vandalized. Street gangs have joined the campaign.
There also is the more traditional, Chicago-style campaigning.
On a recent walk through part of the 26th Ward, a woman told Gutierrez that she had a garage full of trash and needed a special city pick-up. He quickly got on the phone to City Hall and arranged for a garbage truck to make the unscheduled stop--before the election date.
A former English teacher and community activist, Gutierrez, 32, comes from the same liberal tradition as Washington. He speaks Italian as well as Spanish.