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HDO grows into political powerhouse


June 12, 2005




No army of political workers. No ties to Mayor Daley. And never any promises of jobs or promotions in exchange for political work.

That's how power broker Victor Reyes describes the Hispanic Democratic Organization he runs with the promise of empowering Latinos.

"There are no members," Reyes told the Chicago Sun-Times. "HDO is, and always has been, a political action committee, which only has a chairman and a treasurer.

"There is no recruiting, no membership form, no board of director[s], no bylaws, no dues."

But it does have plenty of something else.

"Jobs, jobs, jobs," said former state Sen. Jesus Garcia, who was targeted for defeat by HDO in 1998. "Definitely."



HDO deputy registrars: 1,173
HDO workers with city jobs: 482
Average salary: $57,918.36



HDO deputy registrar jobs by department
Streets and Sanitation: 216
Water Management: 92
Aviation: 32
Police: 24
General Services: 21
Transportation: 20
Fleet Management: 19


Job types
Motor truck drivers: 107
Laborer: 83
Hoisting engineer: 25
Police officer: 13
Staff assistant: 7



HDO deputy registrars by ward/with city jobs

10th: 285 127
23rd: 99 57
11th: 67 34
19th: 66 34
13th: 58 28
25th: 57 19
22nd: 52 19
41st: 45 25
26th: 34 12



Whether members or not, 1,173 men and women are certified to register people to vote on HDO's behalf. And 482 of those HDO deputy registrars -- or 41 percent -- also have city jobs, a Sun-Times analysis of the government payroll and voter registrar records found.

And they're good jobs.

At least 53 of HDO's deputy registrars serve in city posts that pay $74,000 a year or more. Nine registrars are assistant or deputy commissioners.

If you believe Reyes, HDO doesn't sound like much of a political threat.

But its ward-level effectiveness -- supporting Daley and his allies, elevating political newcomers and forcing sitting aldermen to drop out of races before Election Day -- says otherwise.

Conceived during a series of meetings beginning with Daley's 1989 mayoral campaign, HDO grew from ragtag South Side precinct workers confused by North Side addresses into the city's preeminent political organization.

Since then, HDO has proved its political might with Election Day successes quickly followed by a job boon some call patronage.

But recently, the group has disappointed and embarrassed Daley, with some HDO members having run-ins with the law.

Angelo Torres, a former gang member who ran Daley's scandal-plagued Hired Truck Program and who pleaded guilty in March to shaking down trucking firms for bribes and political contributions, has been marked an HDO operative, though Reyes denies it.

And just last week, city worker George A. Prado, one of HDO's deputy registrars, was arrested on charges of conspiring to sell heroin. An HDO attorney says Prado isn't a member.

On top of those troubles, federal investigators are said to be looking into whether HDO wields a clout-heavy hand in city hirings.

Responding in writing to a series of questions from the Sun-Times, Reyes, Daley's former political enforcer, paints HDO as the political heir of other immigrant groups seeking a voice in the city.

"The Hispanic Democratic Organization was formed in 1993 to help politically empower the Hispanic community," Reyes said. "We have accomplished this, in part, by registering more [than] 75,000 people to vote over [the] last 10 years."

But critics say doling out jobs was always the point.

"I view HDO as a criminal organization," said Frank Avila, a lawyer and one of the group's harshest critics. "The organization is set up as a wholesale violation of [patronage hiring bans]. . . . Everyone knows that Victor Reyes was the 'go-to guy.' "

Born in a bar

G's Bar was a shot-and-a-beer joint at 95th and Ewing frequented by the blue-collar workers of the South Chicago community.

And it was in the back room -- with 60 chairs set up on the dance floor -- where mayoral strategist Tim Degnan enlisted 100 Southeast Side Hispanics in the fall of 1988 to help get Daley elected mayor, said a former volunteer who was there.

On paper, HDO was formed on March 1, 1993. But insiders say that HDO started with Daley's 1989 election.

Former foot soldiers in Ald. Edward Vrdolyak's once-mighty 10th Ward organization, which disbanded when the alderman switched parties, crowded the back room, the former volunteer said.

And former Vrdolyak precinct captain Al Sanchez organized the "standing room only" gathering, the former volunteer said.

Degnan's message was simple.

" 'We're going to build a Hispanic organization like you have never seen,'" he said, according to the former volunteer.

"That was the inception of HDO. Al [Sanchez] came up with the name, Hispanic Democratic Organization. And Tim said, 'That's beautiful.' "

Spreading citywide

The HDO movement headed north and into the inner city. During that same campaign, South Side Hispanics enlisted the help of their North Side Latino brethren.

"We met at El Capitan Restaurant on West Armitage," said Ariel Reboyras, who went on to become an HDO lieutenant and 30th Ward alderman.

Those meetings, Reboyras says, predated HDO, but the faces were about the same.

"My point is that we had a meeting [during Daley's 1989 campaign], and it was the same group of guys . . . who are now HDO," Reboyras said.

Telling a slightly different version of HDO's founding, Ald. Danny Solis (25th), the City Council's president pro tem and Daley's closest Hispanic supporter, said the group was born during strategy sessions in 1991 that included Degnan and the mayor's brother Bill Daley.

At the time, Solis was running the United Neighborhood Organization and had not yet been elected to the City Council. Degnan had just hired Reyes, then a young Hispanic law student.

"We had discussions about how can we strengthen the mayor's popularity among Hispanics," Solis said.

What followed was a larger meeting with a number of Daley's Hispanic appointees, Latino elected officials and political activists from a scattering of neighborhoods -- Al Sanchez of Southeast Chicago, Javier Torres of Little Village and future state Sen. Tony Munoz of Pilsen.

And they later plotted strategy during retreats in Miami and Puerto Rico.

Bill Daley, Degnan and Munoz declined to discuss the birth of HDO. Reyes and Reboyras, however, embrace their roles.

"I would admit I'm a member in a heartbeat," Reboyras said. "I don't have anything to hide . . . I'm proud of HDO."

'These guys are here'



Logan Square political activist Larry Ligas had his first run-in with HDO during Vilma Colom's 1995 aldermanic campaign against HDO-backed candidate Iris Martinez and seven others.

Colom defeated Martinez and the unsophisticated HDO army of South Side guys trying to navigate North Side Streets.

"They were standing on the wrong side of the street . . . totally confused," Ligas remembers.

Despite the win, Ligas realized HDO was the new political game in town. When he faced HDO in other races, Ligas said, their campaigning skills and profile had improved, most notably in the 2003 30th Ward aldermanic contest that Reboyras won over Ligas' candidate, Joe Pagan.

By 2003, HDO precinct workers not only knew the Northwest Side streets, they knew most of the voters by name, Ligas said. Some wore Hispanic Democratic Organization jackets, black windbreakers with white lettering. Others wore jackets identifying them as from different city departments.

"I told people, 'Hey, these guys are here. They mean business,'" Ligas said.

Reboyras, a top HDO lieutenant, clobbered Pagan and two other rivals with 77 percent of the vote.

"They basically overpower each precinct," Ligas said. "They were 15 people deep in each precinct . . . and they were persistent."

Garcia, who lost his Near Southwest Side state Senate seat to HDO lieutenant Tony Munoz in 1998, describes HDO's campaign style as "aggressive."

"People would call us and say 'The thugs were at the door,' " Garcia said. "If not illegal, it was arm-twisting. . . . Everyone with a badge was flashing them, whether police officers or deputy sheriffs or city inspectors."

Reyes and Reboyras said HDO workers are no thugs and intimidation didn't win Munoz that seat.

"That is untrue," Reboyras said. "That's not to say none of them have been part of a gang. . . . It is something they fell into. It's open to everyone. It is like any other political organization."

And Reyes said a massive voter registration push -- not intimidating campaigning -- knocked Garcia from his seat.

Wasn't 'Mexican enough'

HDO's success is evident in its Election Day record and its bank account.

It has helped elect Solis in the 25th Ward, Reboyras in the 30th Ward and George Cardenas in the 12th Ward, as well as Munoz, Martin Sandoval and Iris Martinez to the state Senate and Edward Acevedo and Susanna Mendoza to the state House.

HDO has spent $530,338 on campaigns, with 72 percent of that supporting Hispanic politicians or organizations. The rest went to non-Latinos.

Reyes said he's proud of HDO's high percentage of support for Latino candidates, but some critics question just how committed HDO is to Hispanics.

Lawyer Nick Valadez, 44, points to his 1995 aldermanic bid against HDO-backed incumbent John Buchanan.

During a parade through South Chicago, he said, HDO volunteers riding in the float mocked his candidacy because Valadez doesn't speak Spanish and isn't "Mexican enough."

"Meanwhile,they were supporting a 65-year-old Irish candidate," Valadez said. "It's like, what's wrong with this picture?"

Four years later, when Buchanan retired, Valadez and three other Latinos ran, but HDO successfully backed another non-Latino, John Pope, then a Daley aide.

"It has nothing to do with Hispanic empowerment," Valadez said. "It has to do with running a city-run and funded political Machine by the mayor and his underlings.

"I mean every day on the campaign trail when going against HDO, you will find someone who has been promised a job, and you will find someone else that has been threatened to have their job taken away from them," he said.

Reyes insists HDO never uses city services or promises of jobs, promotions or overtime to further its political agenda. And he dismissed suggestions of HDO invading wards, saying they only go where candidates ask.

"HDO has never 'taken over' any political campaign," Reyes said.

And Reyes said HDO supports Daley because no one else in the state does more to "empower the Hispanic community politically, culturally, socially and in commerce."

But Reyes insists: "Neither the mayor, nor anyone in his administration, runs or directs this political action committee."

The politicians HDO helps elect insist they are not under the thumb of Daley or HDO.

"There is no such thing as someone getting on the phone and telling me what to do," Cardenas said. "If it's wrong, I don't care if it's the pope calling me, I ain't doing it."

Who is HDO?

HDO's total membership remains a mystery.

Reyes says there are no members, while the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners lists 1,173 deputy registrars as being part of HDO.

Reboyras insists the actual number is closer to 500, arguing that election board numbers included everyone who shows up to HDO-sponsored voter registration training sessions whether they're part of the group or not.

Official or not, there's no doubt plenty of city workers are part of the HDO family.

During one six-month period in 2003, more than two-thirds of the 306 contributors to HDO's federal political action committee were city workers.

Nowhere is the nexus between city jobs and HDO more apparent than in the 10th Ward.

Nearly a quarter of HDO's 1,173 precinct captain-level workers -- folks certified as HDO workers to register voters -- live in the Southeast Side ward that is the organization's beating heart.

More than 40 percent of those foot soldiers -- 127 of 285 -- have city jobs, a Sun-Times analysis of the city payroll and voter registrar records found.

A wave of city work flooded the ward after Pope was elected in 1999.

Soon after, Daley picked a new Streets and Sanitation boss: Al Sanchez -- an HDO founding member who pulled off the narrow victory for Pope.

Streets and Sanitation counts 216 HDO workers, more than any of the 27 other city departments where the organization's foot soldiers work.

During Sanchez's six-year Streets and Sanitation reign, 38 HDO affiliates living in the 10th Ward have scored Streets and Sanitation jobs. Twenty-five from the 10th Ward landed jobs in other city departments during that same period. Sanchez, who is paid $134,424 a year, declined to be interviewed.

'Does HDO have jobs? Yeah'

The organization's clout isn't confined to the city's Far Southeast Side. HDO deputy registrars are clustered in South Side enclaves, most of them hailing from wards long dominated by Chicago's most powerful white politicos.

Across the city, eight HDO deputy registrars are either assistant or deputy commissioners in seven city departments, including the scandal-plagued Water Management Department. Five others have top administrative positions working directly for department heads.

Reyes and Reboyras insist no one is promised anything for joining HDO -- no jobs, promotions, overtime or special treatment.

"Does HDO have jobs? Yeah," Reboyras said. "People join political organizations in hopes of getting a job -- and not just HDO. In any organization they do that. . . . You have to be honest with these people, 'I cannot promise you a job' or 'We are not here for that.' . . . It's outright wrong."

Mayor Daley's chief political adviser, David Axelrod, said it's clear that HDO has helped some folks get elected, but he's not willing to comment on what access to city jobs that may have afforded the organization.

"The mayor believes strongly a city work force's only mission is the job of doing taxpayer business and nothing else," Axelrod said. "He's committed to take any step necessary to make sure that happens anywhere if and when it hasn't."

As for HDO's future, Reyes said HDO will survive.

"The existing political establishment, which is chafing at Hispanics' ever-increasing participation in the political process, must not deter Hispanics from following the same path as every other immigrant group in Chicago."

The question is: Will there be a federal roadblock?




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