State Rep. Cynthia Soto greets people at a food giveaway in their district. Soto is part of the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus, which represents the state's fastest-growing population. (Photo by Jason Reblando).

Latino lawmakers may have ended the year proclaiming support for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but their patience is wearing thin.

Blagojevich reaped political benefits from Latinos throughout 2002, edging out his rivals in the hard-fought March primary with overwhelming support from Latino neighborhoods. So the following spring, legislators from those districts felt confident about a deal struck with the new governor to increase funding for cherished programs on homelessness, immigrant health care and citizenship classes.

During the summer, however, he turned around and sliced some of that money out to help cure a $5 billion budget deficit. The move shocked many community leaders. “There was a high level of frustration,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Latinos United, a Chicago nonprofit advocate for affordable housing. “We did a lot to elect this governor.”

So did members of the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus. Like many Democratic legislators during Blagojevich’s first year in office, caucus members felt blindsided by their party’s first governor in 30 years. They thought a verbal agreement with the governor’s staff was enough, said state Sen. Miguel del Valle, a Democrat from the city’s Northwest Side. It wasn’t.

Politicians should not have expected business as usual, said Abby Ottenhoff, press secretary for the governor. “A lot of lawmakers are used to the way things were done by the former administration, which did include a lot of inside meetings,” she said. And she did not apologize for any misunderstanding. “There were never any specific promises made about specific [dollar] amounts,” she added.

But Blagojevich’s mandate to balance the budget and change the culture in Springfield has collided with the expectations of a community exercising its growing political power. Latinos gained five seats in the General Assembly last year, after the population grew 69 percent statewide in the previous decade.

Immigrants accounted for more than half of that growth, and politicians are being forced to respond to them and the advocacy organizations calling attention to their population’s issues, said Sylvia Puente, director of the Metropolitan Chicago Initiative of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies.

Del Valle cautions the governor that the Latino caucus now has 13 members, including four senators–a powerful force, with the Senate now divided 32-26-1 in favor of the Democrats. “Four votes are crucial votes,” he said.

African American and white ethnic voters, who also backed Blagojevich, can claim the new governor owes them a few favors. But their support came relatively late, after former Illinois Attorney General Roland W. Burris and former Chicago schools chief Paul G. Vallas were defeated in the spring primary. Seven percent of voters in mostly black wards backed Blagojevich then, along with 40 percent of those in white wards. Latinos, however, gave him 60 percent of their votes during the primary, thanks in part to the early backing of U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez. Blagojevich, after all, emphasized repeatedly in his campaign that he is the son of immigrants. But the high hopes many had were quickly shaken.

Shortly after the governor’s spending cuts were announced in July, del Valle, state Rep. Edward J. Acevedo, a Democrat from the Pilsen neighborhood, and the other members of the caucus held a press conference denouncing the action. The event, caucus members contend, worsened relations with the governor’s office. “I’ve waited 16 years in the General Assembly to work with a Democratic governor,” del Valle said, “but he can’t be successful if he doesn’t work with us.”

House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, a Southwest Side Democrat who chairs the party statewide, said he will not blame this year’s rash of infighting between the executive and legislative branches on the governor directly, but that “the politics of Rod Blagojevich” appear more focused on “getting a good news report” for the administration than on addressing some of the communications problems. But he said he also has no plans to press the issue. “I’m just not going to get into it with the guy,” he said. “I won’t be his target.”

Young Latinos frequent the computer lab at Erie Neighborhood House in the West Town neighborhood. Workers there say they can’t get an answer on when state funds needed for repairs will arrive. (Photo by Christopher B. Santiago)

Amid the controversies, Blagojevich has achieved some significant victories. Even some critics admit, for instance, that he provided key leadership in successful efforts to increase the minimum wage to $6.50 an hour by Jan. 1, 2005.

He also emphasized the importance of House Bill 60, which allows non-citizens to attend state colleges and universities at the reduced price given to Illinois residents, by signing it in May at a ceremony at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen.
And, for the first time since 1997, the state raised the amount of income a parent can earn and still qualify for state-subsidized day care. The move, which ensures that parents can keep their subsidies when they change jobs, will cost the state $48.4 million per year.

Latinos “are the youngest population in the state,” said Ric Estrada, executive director of Erie Neighborhood House, which receives state funds to provide day care, nutrition and early education to about 400 children, mostly Latinos, in the Northwest Side’s West Town neighborhood.

“The governor did commit to bring more dollars to early childhood development, and he’s kept his promise,” he said.
“When you stand back and look at the successes,” said Ottenhoff of the governor’s office, “they far outweigh any tension that existed in the process.”

Not so fast, say many Latinos, who charge that Blagojevich missed some key details. Leaders such as Juan Salgado, executive director of the Institute for Latino Progress, had pressed the Latino caucus to increase funding for the citizenship classes and other immigrant services his agency provides. By June, caucus members thought Deputy Governor Bradley Tusk, with whom they negotiated, had agreed to boost funding to more than $6 million, an increase in excess of $1 million.

But, after the legislature approved a budget in May, Ottenhoff said, the governor’s office moved to cut some additional spending the General Assembly had added, fearful it would push the state back into the red. Blagojevich used his amendatory veto power to strip spending measures without legislative approval.

The governor made $220 million in cuts in July. They included $1 million for immigrant services, along with some funding for AIDS outreach in black and Latino communities, homeless services and job training. Added together, these reductions totaled about $7.5 million, del Valle said–a tiny percentage of the budget.

Ottenhoff reiterated that the governor’s staff did not commit to any specific dollar amounts for such services. And she countered that the only dollars cut were increases from the previous year, so the governor “basically maintained or improved a funding commitment while in the midst of a huge budget deficit.”

Both Latino and black lawmakers recognize the need for spending limits, but many said these particular cuts targeted the state’s most vulnerable populations. “Suburban and Downstate Latinos don’t have these services,” Salgado said.

According to the census, Illinois is home to more than 350,000 Latino immigrants outside Chicago, and nearly half moved here in the last decade. “We couldn’t believe that such a small amount of money that goes such a long way would get cut,” Salgado said.

The Latino legislators struck back during the July press conference, vowing to overturn the cuts during the fall veto session. Then, in stark contrast to Blagojevich’s staged event at Juarez High, another six bills sponsored by Latino lawmakers and passed by the legislature in the spring languished for 60 days without the governor signing them, at which point they became law automatically. Not since the early 1970s, under Gov. Dan Walker, had a governor failed to personally sign bills into law.

Most of the bills didn’t even address specific Latino concerns. But many members of the Latino caucus and their supporters took the inaction as pay-back for tussling with the governor. Del Valle now says he received two explanations. Blagojevich told him that someone on his staff “goofed up,” and didn’t realize the bills had reached the 60-day mark. But some press reports, citing unnamed sources in the governor’s office, pointed to the July press conference. “I have to take the governor at his word,” del Valle said.

Some blame Blagojevich’s team of advisors as much as the governor himself. “I couldn’t fathom why this Democratic governor would not receive a better analysis on these issues,” said state Rep. William Delgado, a Northwest Side Democrat who belongs to both the Latino and black caucuses.

“Any new administration that comes in has to start from scratch and figure out how things go,” Ottenhoff countered. But she maintains the cuts were necessary. “There are probably a lot of groups out there that support very good programs,” she said, but added that the governor has to think about the whole state, and balancing the budget is the top priority.

Chalking the controversy up to a clerical error “seemed like a weak excuse,” said Irizarry, who echoes the opinion of many advocates. At the same time, they stop short of wholly condemning the governor.

“You have a brand new administration that might not know what they’re doing,” said Victor Alvarez, the housing program manager for Latinos United.

Founded in 2002, today’s Latino caucus is a symbol of changes since 1986, when del Valle became the first Latino elected to the General Assembly.

The need for allies from similar neighborhoods was driven home early on. Del Valle’s 2nd Senate District lies in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhood, and has pockets of high poverty.

When he went to Sprinfield, del Valle received letters from Latinos across the state. At first, he tried to steer many to their own representatives or senators, to no avail. “They didn’t want to hear how the state is divided up into districts,” he said, and they preferred instead to talk to someone who spoke their language. Del Valle quickly became the first non-African American member of the black caucus. There, he was able to address many of the issues that mattered to his own community. But del Valle felt that only legislators who were accountable to Latino voters would be sure to address issues such as immigration or the lack of bilingual state employees.

Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years, and Republicans controlled the process after the 1990 census. As the Latino population ballooned, it remained split up into districts stretched out to include traditionally Republican voters.

But Democrats won a lottery to control redistricting after the 2000 census. They consolidated much of Aurora, a city about 40 miles west of Chicago, from five House districts into one, which is about 45 percent Latino and 12 percent African American. And, in 2002, Linda Chapa LaVia, a 37-year-old small-businesswoman and real estate broker, became the first Latino elected to the legislature from outside Cook County.

Each of the caucus members is expected to focus on one issue and become the eyes and ears for other members. Del Valle has made himself into an education expert, while state Rep. Cynthia Soto, a Northwest Side Democrat first elected in 2000, concentrates on business development. “Our peripheral vision has improved dramatically,” del Valle said.

But, as Latinos become a real force in state politics, their burgeoning population has also brought about a greater political diversity within the caucus. One of the members, state Rep. Frank J. Aguilar, is a Republican from west suburban Cicero. He criticizes Blagojevich for not taking enough action against crime and plans to push a bill that would label street gang members “terrorists.”

Chapa LaVia labels herself a “very conservative Democrat.” In the 2002 general election, her Republican opponent garnered more than 45 percent of the vote. Politically cautious, she has no plans to press the governor during the budget crisis. And Blagojevich has been attentive. Two Aurora school districts got about $5 million in extra aid this year, she said.

But Delgado said he has had to contend with election challenges from people who are connected to the nearby 33rd Ward, led by Blagojevich’s father-in-law, Alderman Richard F. Mell. While Delgado said Mell pledged in December to endorse him this time, he remains adamant about Blagojevich.

“I’ve been led astray too often by the governor’s office,” he said, slapping his office desk. Unless improvements are seen, he added, he does not “anticipate endorsing any of his programs.”

Del Valle, however, seems to speak for many when he claims the caucus and the governor have “patched things up.” It has not hurt that the caucus members won a few victories of their own during the fall veto session, such as restoring $500,000 for homeless services. Both del Valle and Acevedo, as caucus co-chairs, met with Blagojevich during the veto session, and del Valle said they agreed that the Illinois Department of Human Services would try and shift any extra money into immigrant services to make up for the $1 million cut. Blagojevich also promised to try and hunt down some money for a program to lower Latino dropout rates, del Valle said.

Blagojevich’s continued standing among Latinos also depends on how he responds to issues in the coming year. Last year, the Latino caucus pushed a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Blagojevich initially raised some concerns with the legislation, but lawmakers agreed to several amendments he suggested, and they expect he will sign it if it passes this year.

But, if any issue is brought up again and again, it’s communication. Estrada of Erie Neighborhood House has been waiting a year for a $100,000 grant from Illinois FIRST, former Gov. George H. Ryan’s public works program, to repair structural damage. “What’s disturbing is we’re not getting any notice on the status of these grants.”

Ottenhoff said Ryan approved thousands of such grants, and some are undoubtedly wasteful. The governor’s office is reviewing each proposal.

But the past year has left caucus members wary. Del Valle said they have agreed with the governor that any future budget agreements will be put in writing. He hopes communication between the two groups improves, but warns, “I want it to get better fast; it’s already been a year.”

Barbara Castellán, the chief executive officer of Gads Hill Center in the Pilsen and North Lawndale neighborhoods, usually teaches English as a second language and family literacy classes. But the center relies heavily on government grants, so state budget cuts forced it to cancel the family classes. While she sympathizes with Blagojevich, she thinks he’ll have to change his style soon to satisfy his supporters.

“He has the community we serve at heart. But he’s on a steep learning curve,” she said. “He could dig his grave really easy.”

Contributing: Alysia Tate. Hiroko Abe, Kimberly A. Evans and Erin Meyer helped research this article.