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Chicago Tribune

Gutierrez Finds Tough Opponent In Castro

By David Mendell

March 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

In winning five straight elections to represent the 4th Congressional District, Luis Gutierrez has fended off his share of attacks from political rivals, from being called a terrorist sympathizer to a request that he take a drug test.

Armed with a campaign war chest of about $400,000, Marty Castro, Gutierrez's main opponent in the March 19 Democratic primary, would seem to pose the greatest threat yet to the congressman. On Monday evening, the two faced off in their only debate in the race to represent the state's lone Hispanic majority district, which winds through Latino neighborhoods on the Northwest and Southwest Sides.

The event proved as fiery as the candidates' rhetoric, with supporters packing the auditorium of the Clemente Community Academy and jeering, booing and cheering with abandon depending on the speaker.

A Chicago lawyer who grew up in the district from humble beginnings, Castro is a first-time candidate but brings wealth and savvy to a contest that historically has been a romp for Gutierrez. Entering the final weeks, however, it's difficult to gauge if Castro has gained significant traction with voters.

The Gutierrez-Castro battle has been overshadowed this season by other area congressional races, most notably the expensive Democratic primary fight for an open seat in the 5th District on the Northwest Side.

Castro has pressured Gutierrez on a number of fronts, arguing that Gutierrez has ignored his constituents in favor of national and international issues. Gutierrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has been outspoken in his opposition to the resumption of Navy bombing target practice on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques . He was one of 180 people arrested during protests there last spring.

"Luis has put his emphasis elsewhere. He has been worrying about Vieques rather than families in Pilsen," said Castro, who is of Mexican descent. "You have limited political time, and you aren't going to see me going down to Chiapas every other week to protest how the Mayan Indians are treated."

Castro charges Gutierrez has produced little for his district and has successfully sponsored just one piece of legislation--a bill that renamed a post office for Roberto Clemente.

"The kids in this district are dodging gang bullets, and his priorities are on renaming the post office for a baseball player," Castro said. "His priorities should be on making the district safer."

Castro said he would expand so-called cease-fire zones in the district and touted his endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police.

Gutierrez, who arrived in Washington in 1993 as a flame-thrower but has tamed his rhetoric in recent years, counters that he has tended to his district in stellar fashion. He said he has fought for the working poor and immigrants' rights in the face of stiff GOP congressional opposition.

He also said he has brought funding from the federal government for the Chicago Transit Authority to keep the Blue Line running, helped send millions to enhance health care for veterans and poor children, and expanded the number of housing vouchers for Latino families in Chicago by 3,000, among other accomplishments.

"I didn't work as a lawyer in one of the largest law firms in the country," Gutierrez said, taking a dig at Castro, whom Gutierrez said lived on Chicago's Gold Coast before moving back to the district to run for office. "I am a simple teacher. I have worked hard in these last 10 years for the people of the 4th District."

Castro, a protege of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), also alleges Gutierrez has a history of tax problems. Castro's campaign pulled together records from Puerto Rico showing that Gutierrez was forced to pay more than $7,500 in back taxes on a beachfront home there.

Puerto Rican tax authorities mistakenly had assessed the home as a vacant lot instead of a home appraised at $240,000. The situation, Castro said, sounded familiar to Gutierrez's tax problems in 1998 in Cook County, when he paid nearly $14,000 in back taxes on his Bucktown home. In both cases, Gutierrez claimed no knowledge of the error and said he acted quickly to correct it.

Gutierrez attacked Castro for taking on as a law client the Navistar Corp., which Gutierrez said "has broken unions and made engines which pollute the environment of our children in the 4th District." He called Castro's campaign, which has been filled with attacks on Gutierrez's record and character, "dishonest and disappointing."

"They have that commercial that says Mikey will eat anything. Well, Marty will say anything," Gutierrez said.

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