Image: Miguel del Valle
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Chicago mayoral candidate Miguel del Valle shakes hands with parents before speaking at a news conference Tuesday at Telpochcalli Elementary School in Chicago. Del Valle, the Chicago City Clerk, is one of two Latino candidates running to replace the retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley.
updated 1/11/2011 5:12:45 PM ET 2011-01-11T22:12:45

In a city with a long history of voting along ethnic lines, the two prominent Latinos running for Chicago mayor don't see a reason to unify around a consensus candidate as several African Americans who once eyed the job have done.

Gery Chico and Miguel del Valle don't even see themselves as direct rivals — reflecting the fractured nature of the city's Hispanic population and their different approaches in a campaign that has a chance of producing Chicago's first Latino mayor. How strongly they run could have a big impact on a tough race with two more widely known candidates, former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

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Chico, formerly a Chicago schools president and chief of staff to outgoing Mayor Richard Daley, is a Mexican-American who has raised big money and scored a key endorsement Sunday with the backing of U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Del Valle, currently Chicago's city clerk, is a neighborhood-focused former state senator from a Puerto Rican family and proudly proclaims himself the "poorest" candidate in the race.

The two are considered among the most prominent candidates in a field of almost a dozen names on the ballot. And both candidates say they'll stay in the race, even if that means splitting the city's Latino vote and all but ensuring no candidate in the field reaches the 50 percent needed to win the Feb. 22 race without a runoff.

"We're giving people a choice," said del Valle, who has a history of independence from Chicago's Democratic establishment. "It's anti-democratic to try and limit the field for people to choose from."

Chico, who has emphasized his experience more than his ethnicity, doesn't consider splitting Latino votes an issue. "I don't even think about it. Why should I?" he said.

Despite their words, each candidate has recently made a big push to appeal to Latinos, who make up about 15 percent of Chicago's 1.5 million registered voters, according to estimates from city election officials. Until recently, Latinos were not considered an active voting bloc, but they have the numbers to make a difference in a close race if mobilized.

Image: Gery Chico
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Chicago mayoral candidate Gery Chico speaks at a news conference in Chicago on Monday.

The candidates have set up field offices in Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, created Spanish-language television ads, sought out endorsements from high-profile Latinos and leaned heavily on their life stories to identify with potential voters.

Overall, Emanuel has been leading in the polls. On New Year's Eve, Braun was chosen by a coalition of black leaders as a "unity" African American candidate, as two other prominent black potential candidates dropped out. But, with Hispanics representing about a quarter and blacks and whites each making up close to a third of the city's nearly 3 million people, the candidates know that no ethnic group can be ignored.

"It's like the door's really been opened to the Latino community and there's a lot of political ambition," said Maria de los Angeles Torres, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "If given the right configuration, Latinos have a shot at" the mayor's office.

But experts say it's hard to predict what will happen with Latino voters, who are divided along many lines: nationality, immigration status, class and geography.

Coalition leaders were able to rally Latino voters to the polls in the 2008 presidential election in historic numbers and to massive immigrant-rights rallies on May 1. But it remains to be seen what will happen in local elections, said Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll released in December showed 36 percent of Hispanic voters were undecided. It showed that Emanuel was drawing more support among Hispanics (27 percent) than del Valle (14 percent) and Chico (12 percent) combined.

The community's divisions were evident when one influential Latino leader, Juan Rangel, a Daley ally who heads the United Neighborhood Organization, endorsed Emanuel. On the other side, many immigrant rights activists blame Emanuel for the Obama administration not moving as quickly as promised on immigration reform.

Many voters in the city's Latino neighborhoods say they're still deciding.

Jose Gonzalez, a Mexican American, said he signed a petition to put del Valle's name on the ballot, but didn't think he could win. He said he'd vote for Braun.

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"Gery Chico is to me more Daley machine," Gonzalez said. "He might try to come across as Mexican. What has he done for Mexicans?"

Bank Manager Eric Porrez disagreed. He said he liked Chico's business background, and his call to curb bureaucracy at City Hall. "If he's bold enough to say it, he'll do it," Porrez said.

Chico, who now runs a downtown law practice, has raised $2.5 million, according to his campaign. That's compared with just $150,000 raised by del Valle.

Chico boasts of multicultural roots. He's Mexican, Greek and Lithuanian and married to a Cuban. But his recent campaigning has stressed the poor immigrant story of his Mexican grandfather.

Del Valle, who migrated from Puerto Rico with his parents at age 4, has a strong base of support on the city's West Side, particularly in the heavily Puerto Rican Humboldt Park neighborhood. He was a community organizer until he was elected the first Hispanic state senator in 1987.

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