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Gutierrez’s Status a Mystery

The race to replace Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) is on, but only a few would-be candidates heard the starter’s gun.

Gutierrez held a news conference in Chicago on Dec. 12, 2005, to say that he was running for an eighth and final term in 2006 and planned to run for mayor in 2007.

He even told contenders in the heavily Democratic and majority Latino 4th district that he was making his announcement so early because: “I want to give anyone interested in running the opportunity and the time to articulate their values, their vision and their policies.”

But only recently has anyone taken him up on that. Part of the confusion may stem from the fact that Gutierrez wound up not running for mayor this year.

Even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee does not seem ready to put the seat in the open column yet.

“If Congressman Gutierrez decides to retire, we believe there are a number of capable candidates prepared to succeed him,” a committee spokesman said.

Two local politicians said they heard Gutierrez loud and clear and have begun campaigning.

“We all have started to make our political moves,” said Cook County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (D). “I am one of those 250,000 potential candidates aspiring to run for Congress.”

Maldonado said he established his campaign committee last year and held his first fundraiser Wednesday.

“I started meeting with many of the political leaders last year upon his announcement and now I am just following up and reconfirming commitments and possible commitments,” he said.

Chicago Alderman Ricardo Muñoz (D) said he, too, is putting together a Congressional campaign.

“I think it’s pretty clear that he’s not running,” Muñoz said. “But I think a lot of people in Chicago don’t believe it now.”

Nonetheless, Muñoz filed his papers with the Federal Election Commission earlier this month.

“We’re running,” Muñoz said. “We’re fundraising and reaching out to people.”

Muñoz said he called on Gutierrez while he was in Washington, D.C., last week.

“He told me, ‘Mijo, do what you want,’” he said, using the Spanish word for “my son” that has become a general term of affection among Latinos.

Muñoz said he has spoken to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, as he held a fundraiser for Dean and the DNC in Chicago last week. Muñoz also plans to call on the DCCC soon and said that he will phone House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) this week.

Though Muñoz believes that Gutierrez is calling it quits, he did refer to Gutierrez as a “good friend” and said that he would end his campaign if Gutierrez changes his mind.

Democratic State Sen. Iris Martinez is one of those potential candidates who thinks Guiterrez might not be done with Congress just yet.

“I’m really saddened by the fact that Congressman Gutierrez will be leaving us,” she said. “He’s worked really hard and done a lot of work on immigration … a lot of us are hoping and praying that he will reconsider.”

As for her own plans, Martinez said: “Would I love to run for Congress in the future? Of course. I’m not saying yes or no to it [in 2008] — always keep your options open.”

Martinez will have to decide whether to jump into what is likely to be a crowded Democratic primary and try her luck as probably the only Latina in the race, or to seek re-election to the state Senate.

“Gutierrez has worked hard on immigration reform and that is where his focus now lies,” according to his spokesman, Scott Frotman, who added that Guiterrez is still on course to retire.

Martinez, who also is a DNC committeewoman, said that immigration reform is why Gutierrez should not leave yet.

“Now that Democrats are in the majority this is an opportunity to complete the work that he’s started over the last 14 years,” she said. “I’m still holding out; I really believe he will stay.”

Guiterrez plans to launch a Chicago-based Latino “empowerment” organization once he leaves Congress and spend more time with his wife, who has cancer. The board of advisers for the as-yet-to-be-named group includes many of the local leaders most likely to seek his seat.

Aldermen Manuel Flores and Danny Solis are also considered top contenders. Other possible Democratic candidates include Alderman Billy Ocasio and Juan Ochoa, who just stepped down as president of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in January.

Flores used to work for Gutierrez, whereas Solis, whose sister, Patty Solis Doyle, is running Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) presidential campaign, is tight with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley — whom Gutierrez contemplated challenging in this year’s City Hall election.

Solis was first appointed to the city council by Daley in 1996 and now serves as that body’s president pro tempore.

Neither Flores nor Solis returned calls seeking comment for this story.

One thing that seems certain is that a Latino will hold the seat.

The 4th district is the only predominately Hispanic district in Illinois — almost 75 percent of Gutierrez’s constituents call themselves Latinos.

Martinez said that is why it would be a shame for Gutierrez to go now.

“Latinos would have to start from the bottom again,” she said. Martinez, who used to work for Daley and is now Assistant Majority Leader in the state Senate, said it also would be nice for the race to include a woman.

“It’s a very cultural issue, the thing about [Latino] men, the machismo that’s very, very vibrant so you have to fight these battles,” she said. Women deserve a seat at the table.”

Muñoz, who already has hired a general consultant, fundraiser and pollster, agreed the seat should be held by a Latino.

“I think it should go to the best qualified candidate that happens to be Latino,” he said.

Several points of friction could arise, not the least of which is that most of the potential candidates are friends.

“Most of us who are running, we have a good relationship,” said Maldonado, who is holding his first strategy session today.

“An open seat only comes around every 15 to 20 years, so it’s going to be a crowded field,” Muñoz said. “There will be some bumping into each other.”

The other issue is that the district’s Hispanic community is not monolithic and does not look to any one place for leadership.

Gutierrez is Puerto Rican, but 60 percent of the district’s Latinos are Mexican or of Mexican descent. There likely will be a voter bias toward having a Mexican hold that seat, said one knowledgeable Democrat.

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