As Chicago redraws its voting districts, Hispanics suddenly find themselves with a key role

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Chicago, Hispanic voters and their leaders are now seen as key power brokers in a politically and racially divided city. Although large numbers are not registered as voters, Hispanics now account for 17 to 18 percent of the city's population.

They are being eagerly courted. Former Mayor Jane Byrne, who will run again in 1987, has learned Spanish since the last election. Mayor Harold Washington has appointed a number of high-ranking Hispanics to his administration and talks of a black-Hispanic coalition.

At issue now is a citywide redistricting fight that could shift the reins of power within the city council. Democrats there have been locked in a power struggle since 1983 when Mayor Washington became the city's first black mayor.

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On issue after issue the majority of 29 aldermen, mostly white and led by Cook County Democratic Chairman Edward Vrdolyak, has been at odds with the 21-member minority. That group, largely black, is allied with Mayor Washington. The fight is often billed as a struggle of old machine politics vs. Washington's efforts to reform patronage and other traditional practices.

A court-ordered redrawing of the boundaries of seven wards to provide fairer representation for the increasing numbers of blacks and Hispanics in Chicago opens a new door of opportunity for the mayor. Special elections may be held as early as next March. If his allies can gain four council seats, Washington's vote could then break any tie.

But Hispanic voters hold the key. Four of the remapped wards have Hispanic majorities. While they are predictably Democrats (with the exception of Cubans), few other generalizations hold.

Juan Soliz, a popular state representative who is considered likely to run and do well in the city's 25th ward, says Hispanics should steer an independent course and take sides only on an issue-by-issue basis. ``If you align yourself 100 percent with any one group, they'll take you for granted,'' he says.

An early supporter of Mayor Washington, he has received campaign funds from the Vrdolyak forces and is likely to have the backing of the machine Democrats in his upcoming bid for the 25th ward. ``He won't be beholden to either,'' says one political observer.

Representative Soliz concedes that Hispanics have problems as well as interests in common with blacks. ``But these are also shared by poor whites and working people,'' he says. ``It's not a question of black or white.''

Indeed, Mr. Vrdolyak has said he will sponsor his own slate of Hispanic candidates in each of the four wards. Miguel Santiago, the only current Hispanic member of the Council and a Vrdrolyak supporter, is considered almost sure to be reelected in one of those wards.

Mayor Washington is not assured of an automatic win even in two new wards with largely black constituencies.Frank Damato, a white alderman of one of them and a Vrdolyak ally, vows that his black precinct captains will pick their own candidate.

Illinois Institute of Technology political scientist William Grimshaw says it will be an ``uphill'' struggle for Washington and that the final outcome may depend on organizational skills.

``Washington doesn't really have a stable cadre of precinct captains -- he relies on volunteers,'' he says. ``The regular Democratic organization has an advantage. . .in that they can flood these wards with precinct captains from other areas.''

A look at Hispanic voting patterns in recent Chicago elections confirm that Hispanic alliances are not easily predicted. Washington drew the support of more than three-fourths of the city's voting Puerto Ricans, who are seen as having closer economic ties with blacks than any other Hispanic group does.

But Jorge Casuso, co-author of a new book called ``Hispanics in Chicago,'' says general Hispanic support for Washington was only about 60 percent.

Attributing some of that lack of enthusiasm to racial prejudice, Mr. Casuso notes that many Hispanics have fled neighborhoods with growing black populations. He points out that in the three-way 1983 Democratic primary, pitting Washington against former Mayor Byrne and Richard Daley, Hispanic votes were almost equally split between the two white candidates.

Mr. Casuso will make no predictions on the outcome of the remap election: ``It's all pretty much up in the air,'' he insists.

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