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Miller: Latinos have more sway over Illinois politics

Five years ago, most Illinois House Republicans, including House GOP Leader Tom Cross, voted against a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver’s licenses. The conservative rhetoric against the legislation was very harsh. Even so, it was approved by the House but was never called for a floor vote in the state Senate.

Back then, the legislation was seen as political suicide by many Republicans fearful of a backlash within their own party. But since November’s election results showed a heavy Latino turnout that may have swayed several races in favor of the Democrats, Republicans suddenly have become far more interested. Leader Cross, for instance, called the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights the day after the election, offering to work with the group. The ICIRR now considers the driver’s license bill will be a “down payment” on whether the parties want to make a “good-faith effort” to work with it in the future. And Cross is supporting it.

The ICIRR used a nonprofit group and a political action committee to play in several districts. It claims it hired 18 field coordinators, registered more than 26,000 immigrants to vote, raised almost three-quarters of a million dollars, and fielded more than 1,800 election-day volunteers, many of them concentrated in the suburbs

One of the ICIRR’s top priorities this year was defeating state Sen. Carole Pankau, R-Itasca. Pankau has been demanding for years that the children of undocumented immigrants be removed from the state’s All Kids health insurance program. The ICIRR claims it contacted 3,600 immigrants in her district and had staff assigned to defeat her. She lost by fewer than 2,000 votes.

Another target was the 55th Illinois House District, a suburban Cook County district that has been in Republican hands forever. Voter registration, door-to-door canvassing, direct mail and phone calls helped Marty Moylan, D-Des Plaines, defeat conservative Republican Susan Sweeney.

Yet another target was state Rep. Sandy Cole, R-Grayslake. The ICIRR contacted more than 6,000 voters in her district, which has more than 9,000 Latinos. Democrat Sam Yingling won by a little more than 4,000 votes.

Not every race won by Democrats was due to the Latino vote. President Barack Obama’s big win in his home state most certainly propelled several Democratic candidates to victory. The House and Senate Democrats also outspent the Republicans and generally outmaneuvered them. In some cases, the Democrats simply had better candidates than the Republicans did.

But the importance of that Latino vote cannot be underestimated because it was so large and so unexpected by just about everybody, except maybe the folks at ICIRR.

Latino turnout, as measured by a percentage of election-day voters, jumped by 50 percent in the past four years, from 8 percent of turnout to 12 percent, according to exit polling data. The national climate most certainly inspired some of that turnout boost, with Latinos and other immigrants (including Asian-Americans) feeling besieged by the Republican Party.

But ICIRR believes the turnout numbers are sustainable over the long term, and points to explosive growth in the Latino population to buttress its case.

Just in Illinois, 70,000 Latinos are expected to turn 18 every year for the foreseeable future. “We are past the tipping point,” one ICIRR official crowed. According to the group, 350,000 legal permanent residents have become U.S. citizens in Illinois in the past 10 years. ICIRR has helped more than 70,000 of them with the paperwork and filings.

The group has been working closely with Senate President John Cullerton on its driver’s license bill and it has received assistance from some unlikely corners, including Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, who has in the past been vilified by immigration activists for his hard-line stance against illegal immigrants. Curran recently came out in favor of the driver’s license bill because, he said, it’s a public safety matter that would mean training and insurance for drivers who don’t currently get either. Lake County is now more than 20 percent Latino. Even hard-liners can read a Census report.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno supported the bill last time around, and members of her caucus worked with the Senate Democrats last week to amend it. Sen. Bill Brady, a conservative Republican who ran for governor in 2010, now supports the bill. As I write this, the proposal appears to be heading for passage.

• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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