Congress hopefuls court suburban voters in Latino-leaning district

Two Chicago Democrats dominate the race for the party's nomination in a vast congressional district stretching from the city's Northwest Side to a traditional bastion of suburban conservatism in DuPage County.

Throughout the primary fight, the front-runners - state Rep. Delia Ramirez and Chicago Alderman Gilbert Villegas - have carefully tailored their pitch to suburban voters in the Latino-leaning 3rd Congressional District.

Ramirez argues she's able to unite people of varying political persuasions, pointing to hard-fought legislative achievements in Springfield. The candidate backed by teachers unions supported successful legislation to create an elected Chicago Public Schools board.

"We need someone that's willing to listen to people in Wheaton, listen to people in Glen Ellyn, and listen to people in Humboldt Park and Belmont Cragin," Ramirez said at a League of Women Voters forum. "It's who I am. I've been a coalition builder."

The primary battle reflects tensions within the Democratic Party around the country. Ramirez has laid claim to the progressive mantle, earning an endorsement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the final stretch of the campaign.

Villegas, who heads the Chicago City Council's Latino Caucus, is running on a more centrist platform. The Democratic nominee will be heavily favored in November, effectively turning Tuesday's primary into a winner-take-all contest.

"This district, again, is going to elect a Democrat," Villegas said during a recent interview with the Daily Herald Editorial Board. "The question is, what kind of Democrat do you want? And I'm telling you that I'm a Democrat that's pragmatic and progressive on ideas."

Two other candidates, Juan Aguirre, a registered nurse, and Iymen Chehade, a college professor, are running against the major contenders for the Democratic nomination. The newly created district was specifically drawn by Democratic state lawmakers to boost Latino voting power and account for Latino population gains over the last decade.

"My campaign has attempted to weed out the middleman, which in this case is the Chicago political machine," Chehade said. "I have to say this, but the other two candidates were coronated to run in these positions. My campaign doesn't have the fancy political endorsements of the politicians. But one thing we do have is that we are extremely authentic, and we have a willingness to go directly to the voter."

Ramirez and Villegas have spent considerable time courting suburban voters. Ramirez revved up an abortion rights rally in Elgin last month. Both appeared at a Glendale Heights forum hosted by Bloomingdale Township and county party leaders in April.

On health care, both candidates support lowering the age for Medicare eligibility from 65 to 55. Villegas favors a public option plan as an alternative to private coverage, but he stops short of fully embracing Medicare for All.

"I would like to see a Medicare for All plan, but we have to build up enough popularity for it to be enacted," Villegas said. "But it's just not going to pass anytime soon. ... If we can get 218 votes (in Congress), I'm for it."

Ramirez supports Medicare for All, and as a lawmaker, she pushed for a bill that expands coverage of Medicaid, the government insurance program for low-income people, by dropping the age limit in Illinois to 42.

"We have to negotiate the prescription drug prices. That's why I don't take any money from pharmaceutical companies," Ramirez said. "We have to make sure that people don't have to choose between their medication and paying for their mortgage."

Crisscrossing the district on the campaign trail, Ramirez shares her personal story as the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants and a wife of a recipient of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as she calls for comprehensive immigration reform. At 21, she became the executive director of a community shelter.

"How many members of Congress can tell you that they know what it's like to have to help your parents because your mother is on Medicaid in her 60s? And she's still a home-care worker making less than minimum wage," Ramirez said.

Villegas joined the Marines out of Roosevelt High School in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood. His father, a Vietnam veteran, died at a young age.

"I can tell you that had it not been for a federal program, survival death benefits from Social Security, that it could have been a different story for our family," Villegas said.

He went to Northeastern Illinois University on an Illinois veterans grant, worked as a truck driver and belonged to the Teamsters union.

"I knew I had a life in politics because my peers elected me to represent them with contract negotiations, making sure that we were paid livable wages," said Villegas, now in his second term as alderman.

Justin Burau of Winfield is the lone Republican candidate for the seat. The suburban turf in the 3rd District extends to parts of Wheaton, West Chicago and Wayne.

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