THE landslide victory of Miriam Santos in municipal elections here demolishes a barrier for Hispanic candidates and puts Ms. Santos on a springboard to higher office. "People will know we're not just blowing smoke" when Hispanics talk of electing senators and governors, says Juan Andrade, president of the Midwest-Northeast Voter Registration Education Project. The non-partisan MNVREP registers anyone, but targets Hispanics.
Santos is on the verge of becoming the first Hispanic elected to a citywide office in Chicago. Last month she won the Democratic Party contest for treasurer, the office she currently holds by appointment.
Success in the primary virtually assures her prevailing in April's general election in this Democratic stronghold. Democrats cast 676,000 primary ballots compared with 21,000 for all other parties combined.
Santos received almost 70 percent of the votes cast in the treasurer's race, a higher percentage than her running mate, Richard M. Daley, got in the mayor's race.
"The victory was even sweeter when I could win citywide, in areas where traditionally the support for a Hispanic candidate was not there," Santos says. In fact, she could not have succeeded otherwise. While Hispanics have surged to 20 percent of Chicago's population, they are still only 8.3 percent of its voters.
Victory in April would make Santos the only Hispanic woman in the United States elected to an office by voters citywide, Mr. Andrade says.
"This looks great for Miriam," he adds. "It certainly puts her on a track potentially leading to national prominence."
Santos has proved the American dream is real, that hard work and education do bring success. But as someone who clawed her way up through poverty and discrimination, she champions making opportunities for women and minorities. She believes the government has a role in helping society's unfortunates, those who have nothing else to fall back on.
Her parents immigrated in the 1950s from Puerto Rico to Gary, Ind., where Santos was born.
The family, which grew to include five children, lived in a four-room apartment above a machine shop. Her father worked in the steel mills until suffering an industrial-related disability. Her mother would later become disabled as well.
By age seven, Santos often accompanied her parents or other Hispanic adults to translate at the doctor's office or in court. The latter was a formative experience. The judges consistently berated Hispanics for being foreigners and not learning English. "I remember my anger at it," she says. From then on, Santos knew she would be a lawyer.
She skipped a grade in high school and graduated with honors, then got a political science degree and law degree from DePaul University in Chicago, all the while holding down jobs to help support her family.
One hated job during high school required assembling Christmas ornaments so fast that she sometimes cut her hand on the machinery. The factory boss would tape her up and put her back to work.
Bob Mann, a lawyer and state legislator for whom Santos clerked after law school, recalls her as "bright and very dogged and thorough in her work." He adds that she was "extremely devoted to her parents."
Santos worked for a time for Mayor Daley when he was state's attorney.
Faced with her parents' astronomical medical bills, she left to take a higher-paying job with Illinois Bell.
In 1989 she co-chaired Daley's transition team when he won a special mayoral election to serve the remainder of the late Harold Washington's term.
When the city treasurer was appointed to fill Daley's old post of state's attorney, the new mayor asked Santos to take the treasurer's job.
She had just been promoted to "this great job where I felt I could be Santa Claus at Illinois Bell and give to every cause that I ever dreamed of."
She was also halfway through the MBA program at Northwestern University.
But seeing the untapped community development potential of the treasurer's job, which manages $40 billion in city revenue and is responsible for five pension funds, she agreed to take the post.
Santos quickly caught Chicago's attention by shutting down inefficient operations, computerizing the money management operation, cutting bank fees in half, putting all funds into interest-bearing accounts, and squashing embezzlement.
All in all, Santos has generated $7 million for the city. On top of that, she has made it possible for minorities and minority-owned institutions to bid for city business.
She also got Chicago banks, businessmen, and community development groups to design a program in which the city will deposit money in banks that lend to minority-owned, women-owned, or emerging businesses.
Meanwhile, Santos finished her MBA.
In running for the treasurer's job this year, "I wanted to be viewed as a capable, competent professional," Santos says. Everyone agrees she's exactly that.
"If the mayor had doubts about her electability, [this election] should answer all questions," Andrade says.