Kevin Conlon became senior class president of Rich Central High School in 1976 by appealing, in part, to students of different backgrounds.
Using the same strategy in 1989, he became the first Democratic trustee on south suburban Rich Township’s five-member board. Three years later, for the first time, most township voters backed a Democratic presidential candidate–”Bill Clinton–” say top party officials and political experts.
Conlon, who is white, says the influx of non-white voters is the primary reason: From 1990 to 1997, the African American population in Rich Township’s Richton Park jumped almost 80 percent, the Latino population in neighboring Park Forest rose by one-third and Flossmoor’s Asian population grew nearly 40 percent, according to projections by Claritas Inc., an Ithaca, N.Y.-based market research firm.
“This is an area where 10 years ago, a Democrat had a very difficult time winning, and now they’re winning by at least a 2-to-1 margin,” said Conlon, now township supervisor. He serves with trustee Bobbie King, one of several blacks elected to township offices in the 1990s. “We’ve had demographic changes in the last 10 to 15 years that have helped the Democratic Party tremendously,” Conlon said.
Results from this fall’s election prove it, shows an analysis by The Chicago Reporter. Democrats in some of the hottest contests relied on non-white voters for some of their biggest tallies, and party leaders say that bodes well for the future. No longer, they say, can Republicans count suburban Cook County to rival Democrat-dominated Chicago.
“If I was in the Republican Party,” said Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Thomas G. Lyons, “I’d go back to the drawing board.”
Republican leaders, however, aren’t ready to concede defeat. Cook County Republican Central Committee Chairman Manny Hoffman predicts a bigger countywide GOP push to educate voters.
“This has to be a two-party county,” Hoffman said. “We can’t say the Democrats are controlling Cook County, and we’ll just walk away.”
But Democrats clearly have benefited from demographic changes that began in the 1980s. By 1997, blacks accounted for 13 percent of the county’s suburban population, up from 10 percent in 1990. The Hispanic population grew from roughly 6 percent to nearly 9 percent, while Asians rose from about 3 percent to more than 4 percent, according to the projections.
The trends will likely continue, the Reporter found in its December 1997 story,
” –˜White Flight’ Taking Off in Chicago Suburbs.” By 2002, nearly 140,000 whites will have left suburban Cook County since the 1990 census, while the white population in the five collar counties will have grown by 20 percent.
The vote totals reflect those shifts. Democratic U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun received 36.5 percent of the votes cast in the collar counties against state Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald (R-Inverness), but earned 48.1 percent in suburban Cook.
Gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard (D-Marion) lost suburban Cook to Secretary of State George Ryan. But of the 31 towns Poshard won, nearly half were majority black.
Cook County Board President John H. Stroger Jr. did better than Poshard, winning 40 suburbs. Challenger Aurelia M. Pucinski finished with 51.7 percent of the suburban Cook vote, but topped 70 percent in just two towns–”west suburban McCook and Kenilworth on the North Shore. Both were 95 percent white in 1997.
Neither party, however, has reached the county’s growing immigrant population, said Mila Laschkewitsch, bilingual services and citizen initiative coordinator for Township District 214 Community Education in northwest suburban Arlington Heights.
Many new citizens initially turn to Democrats as the party “for the underdog,” said Laschkewitsch, a native of Panama. “The Republican Party, to them, comes off as a party of elitism.”
But suburban voters, Hoffman said, don’t have such strong ties to the Democratic Machine, giving the GOP a chance to entice voters. “I think we have more of an independent voter out there that votes for the person and not the party,” he said.
For more information on voting trends and Cook County demographics, visit the following web sites:
The Chicago Reporter’s December 1997 story “–˜White Flight’ Taking off in Chicago Suburbs”
Heather Kuipers and Terris R. Tiller helped research this article.