Leadership in local communities lacking for diversity
By James Fuller
By November 2002, Nick Teramani knew he was going to die.
Before it was too late, Teramani sat down with his friend Luis Mendez and said he wanted him to take his seat on the Prospect Heights City Council.
Mendez carried his friend’s dying wish to the polls the following spring as a write-in candidate, and won. Barely.
By five votes, Mendez became a speck of pepper in a jar of salt. He is the only non-white city council member in the 19 suburbs that make up Northwest suburban Cook County.
The reasons are varied. Researchers and city officials say many minorities in the suburbs are struggling first-generation immigrants who don’t have the time or money to get involved.
Others come here with an ingrained mistrust of government. Still others are frustrated by electoral systems that make it harder to elect minorities.
Yet advocates and community leaders who believe it’s vital to get minority representation in municipal government are finding ways around the roadblocks – by creating a training ground on zoning boards, plan commissions and committees.
The issue is growing in proportion. Nearly 400,000 new immigrants came to the Chicago suburbs in the last decade, according to a Roosevelt University study. In Northwest suburban Cook County, that’s resulted in twice as many Hispanics and Asians as there were in 1994, who now make up 20 percent of the population here.
Blacks haven’t moved to the Northwest suburbs in large numbers. They represent 2 percent of the community.
“It’s very awkward for us and these other government units to have the situation we have now where we don’t have minority representation,” said Hoffman Estates Mayor William McLeod, whose village is about 23 percent minority, Asian-American and Hispanic. “When you look at village boards, it’s still 1975 in the Northwest suburbs.”
But you can’t elect minorities if they’re not running for office.
Only two people of color ran for village boards or city councils in Northwest suburban elections in 2001 and 2003.
A cultural divide
Glenn Adams thought he’d made a breakthrough when several Hispanic residents who lived along Algonquin Road came to him, complaining about drivers speeding through their apartment complexes.
As the alderman of Rolling Meadows’ heavily Hispanic 5th Ward, Adams explained they needed to come to a city council meeting and voice their concerns.
But this was also Adams’ chance, he thought, to develop a conduit to the Hispanic community.
So he asked several residents from the apartments to meet with him to discuss problems in the area. They agreed. Adams hosted the meeting. No one came.
Adams shouldn’t take it personally, says Victor Hernandez, president of the Association of Hispanic Municipal Officials. Lack of Hispanic involvement in government is deeply rooted, he said, not just here but in their native countries.
Most people with the time and resources to run for office are older, have college degrees and small families, which doesn’t fit most first-generation immigrants, Hernandez said.
“The Hispanic constituencies are dealing with lower needs like paying the bills, making sure there’s food on the table and keeping the lights on,” Hernandez said.
Many also possess a general fear of government, he added. Many Hispanics have had bad experiences with police or government officials – both here and in their country of origin. Government becomes a necessary evil rather than something in which to participate.
That leads to few Hispanic role models in leadership roles.
Hanover Park Mayor Irv Bock, whose community is about 27 percent Hispanic, said he tries to persuade those he meets to get involved.
“I hear a lot of ‘I don’t have time. I have to work,'” Bock said. “No matter how much I say to somebody that (our government) is good … they don’t understand the concept of being active in the community.”
Aside from economic and cultural issues, there are other barriers, said James Svara, a professor at North Carolina State University. Svara recently completed research on the diversity of America’s city councils for the National League of Cities.
He found the percentage of minorities serving on city councils in America almost doubled from 1979 to 2001, from 7 percent to 13 percent. That lags well behind the minority growth rate.
Svara blames the gap partly on the suburban penchant for electing representatives “at-large,” instead of the ward system used in large cities.
“To get your own members elected, you have to have allies,” Svara said. “With at-large elections, the same majority can elect everybody.”
In Rosemont, for example, one in three residents is Hispanic, yet the village board consists of seven Caucasians, all of whom live on the south side of town within about 200 feet of each other.
Village spokesman Gary Mack said Rosemont’s leaders would be “delighted” to have direct representation from the Latino leaders of the community. But no one has stepped forward.
Instead, the village appointed Miguel Santiago, a former Chicago alderman, to be a liaison to its Hispanic community. Santiago said he maintains almost daily office hours at Rosemont village hall.
“Mayor (Don) Stephens wanted Hispanics to have a voice in city government,” Santiago said. “It’s very smart politics. The politicians who don’t do it ultimately pay the price. I’m a Hispanic. I’ve suffered through, probably, the same things they’ve suffered.”
But Hispanic residents won’t see Santiago on the Rosemont village board anytime soon. Santiago can’t run for office because he doesn’t live in Rosemont.
Even where wards or districts are in use, such as in Des Plaines, Rolling Meadows, Prospect Heights and Palatine, the results are not all that different.
One in five people in Rolling Meadows is Hispanic and after the 2000 census, the city redrew the ward map, expanding the largely Hispanic 5th Ward by 4,000 people. Still, in 2003, Adams was the only candidate running.
Similarly, Des Plaines has no minorities on its city council despite a Hispanic population that now stands at 14 percent.
A few years ago, Palatine annexed land along Dundee and Rand roads heavily populated by minorities. The new territory was divided among three wards stretching almost the length of the whole village.
The northeast side of Palatine is represented by three Caucasians.
Planting the seeds
Some Northwest suburbs are slowly finding ways around the barriers.
Minority advocates are pinning their hopes on the children of immigrants, hoping they will cast aside their parents’ fears as they learn civics and politics in school.
But that’s the dream for the future. Local leaders say a more immediate solution is to bring minority residents into the system at the lower levels, by appointing them to boards, commissions and committees.
These are the breeding grounds for elected office, agrees McLeod, who said he finds good candidates, for instance, in the people who organize local block parties. School boards and township positions are much more sought after by minorities, attracting nearly 20 candidates in the past few years.
Miguel Fuentez is one such person. He sees his current seat on the Hanover Park Park District board as a launching pad to the village board.
In 2003, Fuentez ran for the park board, campaigning on the idea that the park district should appeal more to Hanover Park’s Hispanic community. Fuentez lost the election, but when a seat on the park board opened up, he was appointed.
He believes Hanover Park needs his contribution. The village is 27 percent Hispanic; the village board is 100 percent white.
“The village is missing out,” Fuentez said. “They’re not hearing a whole side of town. With me, those people can talk to someone who understands them. “We’ve got to start somewhere. By keeping your opinions to yourself, nothing will change.”
Mohinderjit Singh Saini isn’t quite as ready to make the leap from Palatine’s zoning board of appeals to the village board. Saini won his appointment after networking with village officials during planning for Palatine’s 125th anniversary. He made enough of an impression to get on the zoning board when a spot opened.
“It’s part of our civic duty to be involved in the community,” Saini said. “Especially for us, the Indian community, it becomes more important to be visible because we do not have much representation.”
Saini said he’s lining up other Indian residents to volunteer when other government opportunities become available.
Professor Svara applauds the effort. City officials can’t just wait for minorities to get voted into office, he said. They must provide opportunity. That includes advisory committees, direct outreach efforts and focus groups.
“The city staff needs to make their own effort to decide whether or not they’re providing adequate opportunities for involvement,” Svara said. “If nobody’s showing up, then it’s not working. You need to identify the leaders.”
That’s what Nick Teramani did in making Luis Mendez his heir apparent.
Mendez represents the city’s mostly Hispanic 1st Ward. The ward system worked in his case. Prospect Heights, as a whole, is about 28 percent Hispanic.
Driven by a friend’s dying wish, Mendez forced himself past the cultural barrier and the fear. Teramani, he says with feeling, was “a good man.”
Now, Mendez is helping shape the future of an entire city.
“It’s time-consuming, without much pay, but I don’t mind at all,” Mendez said. “I’m glad I’m here.”