This month’s primary is the first time voting will take place for a new congressional district drawn by state lawmakers to more broadly represent the growth and spread of Chicago-area Latinx people. Their spurt in population in Cook County and the collar counties largely flew under the radar until 2020 Census data showed that the multiethnic group gained more than two million Illinois residents over the last decade, and their presence extended well beyond the city and county.
The reshaped 3rd Congressional District—its previous iteration was represented by Rep. Marie Newman, who is now running for the redrawn 6th District—was reconfigured during the redistricting process that happens every ten years to account for population changes. Prior to the remap, there was only one congressional district in Illinois that was majority Latinx: the 4th District, represented by Mexican-American Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García.
The 3rd District’s new boundaries no longer cover the southwest suburbs, but extend as far north as Albany Park, and stretch westward into racially diverse municipalities including Addison, Rosemont, Elgin, Bensenville, and West Chicago. The 4th District was also redrawn to accommodate those southwest suburban areas previously represented by the 3rd.
The new district is 47.35% Latinx, 39.08% white, 6.12% Asian, and 4.61% Black. The newly generated seat has the potential to strengthen the interests of Illinois Latinos in D.C. for the foreseeable future, and the race has grown heated between two current elected officials who are vying for the federal seat.
A total of four candidates are running in the Democratic primary for the open seat, but taking the lead in recent polls and gaining notable local and national support is State Representative Delia Ramirez, a Latina elected official representing parts of Hermosa, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and West Town on the North Side. Running neck and neck is current Puerto Rican alderman of the 36th Ward and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s former floor leader, Gilbert Villegas.
Ramirez, who has a community advocacy background, spoke to the Weekly about her accomplishments in Springfield during her first term. She ran on a housing platform in a district that has experienced significant homelessness and gentrification compared to the rest of the city.
One of her early goals was to help the Illinois General Assembly create a housing committee. “We had forty other committees, but nothing to deal with housing,” she said. “In January of 2021, we established a legislative Housing Committee… We’ve had more than twenty pieces of legislation go through it, including my bill to keep people in their home in the midst of the pandemic.”
Ramirez rallied state Republicans and colleagues to pass comprehensive emergency housing legislation that included rent assistance and an eviction moratorium. Thought to be the first Guatemalan-American elected to the state legislature, she believes that she can take the issues that Illinois working families care about to D.C.
Working with both sides of the aisle is one of the things that Ramirez said has prepared her for Congress. During the process to replace disgraced Mike Madigan as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, she helped bring the Progressive Caucus and Latino Caucus together to support Emanuel “Chris” Welch. She nominated him on inauguration day and was chosen by Welch as an assistant majority leader in the House.
Ald. Villegas is a moderate Democrat who may appeal to more conservative voters in more distant parts of the 3rd District, analysts say. His policy stances have been less than progressive; he typically votes with the mayor and has voted in favor of controversial measures in Black and brown communities, such as expanded policing and large-scale developments like Lincoln Yards.
Records show that since 2015, Villegas received $64,800 in political contributions from Purple PAC, a PAC funded by Howard Labkon of General Iron that also contributes to the Republican Party.
Notably, as the chairman of the City Council’s Latino Caucus, Villegas has pushed for more Latinx representation, repeatedly questioning why there are so few Latinos on the City’s payroll. Recently, he contributed to a short-lived roadblock in the collective effort to reach a deal between the Black and Latino Caucuses on a new ward map—unsuccessfully pressuring the City Council to add two wards with Latinx plurality, due to their growing numbers in the city, at the expense of predominantly Black wards.
Ramirez is slamming Villegas in political ads for his work as a state lobbyist. The campaign claims that Villegas’s firm, Stratagem, lobbied for clients with ties to the prison industrial complex, as well as various energy companies, including ComEd, during a period when the company admitted to bribing elected officials in Illinois. ComEd hired the firm from 2018 to 2019, though Villegas told WBEZ that he was not personally involved in the lobbying efforts.
Villegas has also been criticized for rubbing elbows with State Rep. Luis Arroyo, who’s considered by many to be his political mentor. Arroyo was sentenced for bribing elected officials in Springfield over sweepstakes legislation; Villegas introduced similar sweepstakes legislation in the City of Chicago and received about $40,000 in campaign contributions from Arroyo.
Villegas did not respond to questions from the Weekly by press time.
García endorsed Ramirez in February, and shortly thereafter she received the endorsement of the Chicago Teachers Union for her role in helping to pass an elected school board. Other big names like Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky are also backing her.
Ramirez told the Weekly she visualizes herself working alongside leaders like Schakowsky on freedom of choice, Rep. Cori Bush and Julián Castro on housing, Reps. Verónica Escobar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on immigration, and with those working for the self-determination of Puerto Rico.
“I see this as an opportunity and a continuation of the work that I’ve done in Springfield, and taking that work to Congress and… the place where we feel most disconnected from Washington,” she said.
Further, she has the endorsements of SEIU Healthcare, SEIU 73, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Mijente, End Citizens United, United Working Families, and the Working Families Party.
Villegas has received endorsements from former Rep. Luis Gutierrez, outgoing Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, former State Senator Iris Martinez, and alderpersons such as Susan Sadlowski-Garza, Ariel Reboyras, and Chris Taliaferro.
He also has the support of SEIU Local 1, the Teamsters Joint Council 25, the Chicago Firefighters Local 2, and the Chicago Police Sergeants’ Association.
Also running, but behind on the polls and the coffers, are Iymen Chehade, a professor at Columbia College and foreign policy director for Newman’s campaign, and Juan Enrique Aguirre, a registered nurse and small business owner.
With most votes expected to be cast by city voters, the high-stakes race represents the fault lines that often divide the local Latinx electorate and the need for more representation at the federal level that will fight for the interests of this growing voting bloc.
Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief of the Weekly. She last wrote about workers organizing at Amazon.