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Thursday, May 5, 2016 12:23 am

History made on Chicago’s South Side

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
Theresa Mah (D-Chicago) was never given much of a chance at winning the 2nd House District Democratic primary race on March 15 against a well-known political name who had a huge demographic advantage.

Mah was vying to be the first Asian-American legislator in state history. But the 2nd District was purposely drawn to include Chinatown in order to give Asian-Americans only some “influence” in the district. In previous years, Chinatown and Asian-American neighborhoods were sliced up between several legislative districts, but the Democrats made a conscious decision to avoid a federal lawsuit against their map by creating an “influencer” district.

The Census numbers show the 2nd has an Asian-American voting age population of 23.5 percent, vastly smaller than the 53 percent Latino VAP. And Rep. Eddie Acevedo’s (D-Chicago) organization had put another Asian-American on the ballot to further muddy things on behalf of Acevedo’s son Alex’s candidacy to replace him. But that put-up candidate was kicked off the ballot on February 1, and things went rapidly downhill from there.

The younger Acevedo’s campaign took its own Latino base for granted and didn’t take Mah very seriously. Acevedo only sent two negative mailers against Mah, and they hit the boxes very late and weren’t all that effective. On the other hand, Mah, a former Pat Quinn administration official, sent numerous mailers which disastrously defined Acevedo as a Rauner/Emanuel candidate. Acevedo’s Facebook page displayed a photo of himself and his father with their arms around Gov. Rauner along with a post about endorsing Mayor Emanuel’s reelection. Both men are hugely unpopular in Chicago and they were tied around Acevedo’s neck in multiple, brutal mailers.

The Acevedo organization reportedly expected Asian-Americans to make up about 18 percent of the district’s final turnout. Instead, the final number was closer to 30 percent. Asian-Americans in the city typically turn out in far lower numbers than their population strength would suggest. Not this time.

Why? Well, a big reason was they finally had a legitimate candidate to vote for who spent a lot of time, energy and money on getting them to the polls. One Acevedo operative said he knew they were in big trouble when he saw the first packed bus unload Mah supporters at an early voting location. Same day registration played a huge role in Mah’s win as well, and it really kicked into high gear when Acevedo sent loud, obnoxious thugs to disrupt a Mah campaign event featuring Congressman Luis Gutierrez’s endorsement of her. Gutierrez told reporters that he feared for his life during the rowdy event.

Word spread like wildfire (helped along by Mah’s campaign) that the demonstrators had called Gutierrez a “ch-nk lover.” There isn’t any video evidence of that, but the rumor took hold and Chinatown’s elders were furious and demanded that powerful 11th Ward Committeeman John Daley withdraw his endorsement of Acevedo.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ big surge in Chicago also contributed. Sanders won the top three wards in the 2nd District, including Daley’s 11th. But that backing was put into focus when Sanders supporter Chuy Garcia, a former mayoral candidate, endorsed Mah’s bid. Liberal whites and younger Latinos took strong notice, and their fury at Donald Trump’s appearance in Chicago and their fervent support of Sanders was channeled into supporting Mah.

The Acevedo people realized late in the game that the district’s “hipsters” were coming out hard and tried to address it by placing “Acevedo/Sanders” signs at polling places. It didn’t work.

Mah won Daley’s ward. Some say Daley pulled his captains from the precincts the afternoon of election day under pressure from Chinatown. Others say he cleverly diverted some Democratic voters into a contested Republican ward committeeman race, where each candidate received over 700 votes while Mah won the district by a bit over 500. Others point to the fact that Daley refused to appoint the younger Acevedo to the seat if the elder Acevedo retired early as evidence that he was secretly backing Mah.

The Acevedo family also got itself involved in a nasty Democratic ward committeeman race, siding with Sen. Tony Munoz over 12th Ward Ald. George Cardenas. Ald. Cardenas lost the committeeman’s race, but he ended up backing Mah and she won the 12th by a couple of hundred votes. There were more contributing factors, but this isn’t a book, even though it may feel like it.

Rep. Acevedo vows his son will be back for another try in 2018, so Mah, Illinois’ first Asian-American legislator-elect, will have to work hard and not ever let her guard down.  

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

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