Friday, February 25, 2011

Election Day was an ethnic collage

This election cycle is giving us so many “firsts” when it comes to ethnic politics that it is a perfect display of the mish-mash of ethnicities that comprise our city.
PAWAR: The 1st Asian-American alderman

Being “ethnic” in Chicago no longer is limited to identifying oneself as “Irish” or “Polish,” although I’m not saying those groups have withered away in the city.

SOME ARE MAKING much of the fact that Chicago has its first mayor of the Jewish religious persuasion, while we not only got the first female elected to be city clerk, she’s a Latina.

Among the aldermen, there are those political observers who are amazed that Ameya Pawar got himself elected to represent the 47th Ward in the City Council. Many people seemed to think that the retirement of Eugene Schulter from the council would result in nobody getting a majority – and the top two guns going at it in an April 5 run-off election.

Yet Pawar, an Indian-American who is only 30 (and expects to complete work on a second master’s degree from the University of Chicago later this spring), managed to get 51 percent of the vote on Tuesday in that Northwest Side ward that includes the Ravenswood and Lincoln Square neighborhoods.

In short, he will be Rahm Emanuel’s alderman – presuming that the tenant who has leased Emanuel’s house for nearly a year actually leaves when the lease expires (he’s been throwing out some hints lately that he’d like to stay).

I’D SAY THE chances of that happening are extremely fat, except there probably are people who never would have expected a person with India ethnic origins (or anything Asian) to ever get elected to the City Council.
MENDOZA: The 1st city-wide Latina

So the City Council now has its first Asian-American, and he came from a neighborhood that doesn’t have a large ethnic enclave that would be expected to cater to him. But that is an area where many people who can’t quite afford Lincoln Park or Lakeview proper choose to live.

I’m sure for many, the thought of having an “Indian” alderman seemed exotic – although I also understand that some people living in that ward (in a moment of disclosure, I lived there for one summer of my life some 27 years ago) resented Schulter’s efforts to designate a successor to himself.

But if the end result is that the City Council will provide a greater diversity than it did in the days when political people thought ballot diversity consisted of nominating candidates from each of the “three I’s” (Ireland, Italy and Israel) and no one else, then we’re all better off. Although I couldn't help but notice that in the far Southeast corner 10th Ward that has the city's original Spanish-speaking enclave, non-Latino Alderman John Pope got a solid 59 percent of the vote; even though some activists had thought this might be the year that the ward would get a Latino as alderman.

THOSE PEOPLE WITH an interest in Latino political empowerment instead will have to get a kick out of seeing Susana Mendoza rise from the ranks of being a legislative aide to then-state Rep. (later Alderman) Ray Frias (which is what she was when I first met her while covering the Illinois Statehouse scene just over a decade ago) to the post of city Clerk.

I’m not sure what I think of her campaign idea to raise more money for the city by selling advertising space on city stickers to businesses. I can fully appreciate why people would not want to have their personal automobiles turned into billboards for a company that gave the city – and not themselves – some money.

But her youth (she’s not even 40 yet) and energy will make her a worthwhile public servant, while also providing proof that the city’s Latino population (officially, 29 percent, compared to 32 percent white and 33 percent black) does have the ability to provide significant numbers of votes. Her victory may even have been a factor in the resignation of state Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago, from his post, as some have reported that Hendon (who backed Mendoza's African-American female opponent) was "embarrassed" by how much she won by.

It was her domination of the Latino voter bloc that gave Mendoza a base of votes that combined with other people to give her that 60 percent victory on Tuesday, and the chance to say that she is the highest-ranking Latina in city government.

FOR THE TIME being, that is.

For any serious look at the maps being published this week about which wards and precincts voted for whom would show that the few areas that did not get on board the Rahm Emanuel bandwagon were the areas that have predominant Latino populations. Many of those wards went for former Chicago Public Schools/City Colleges of Chicago/Chicago Park District boss Gery Chico.

Although when one looks at the Latino voter bloc, it seems the majority wanted either Chico or former city Clerk Miguel del Valle as mayor, with Emanuel taking the votes of the roughly one-third of Latinos who were more interested in having an “in” with the expected mayoral winner, rather than trying to elect “one of our own” on Election Day.
EMANUEL: NOT Illinois' 1st Jewish official

Not that I’m ranting about Rahm, even though I haven’t forgotten his apathy toward immigration reform during his two years as chief of staff to President Barack Obama and will be watching to see if he takes a similar apathetic attitude toward the Latino population. For his own sake, he’d better not.

AS FOR EMANUEL himself, we now have a mayor who is Jewish (although Chico, had he won, had an ex-wife and daughters who also are Jewish). That is a “first.”

But it is one I am less inclined to be impressed by, mainly because Illinois had its first Jewish governor during the 1930s – the honorable Henry Horner, who served until his death in 1940.

It’s about time Chicago caught up to the rest of the state in this regard. Here’s hoping that Emanuel gets a better-lasting legacy than Horner – whom I’d suspect is remembered (if at all) by most Chicagoans these days as being the namesake for the public housing development that used to exist near the United Center arena.


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