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Chicago Tribune

Diversity Becomes Issue In Elgin Council Race 4 Candidates In Running For 3 Seats

by Dan Mihalopoulos, Tribune Staff Writer

December 13, 2000
t © 2000 Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

More than one of every four people in Elgin is Hispanic, but voters have never elected a Latino to the City Council, a political reality Juan Figueroa--who didn't speak English when he arrived from Puerto Rico in 1992--hopes to change.

Appointed to the seven-member council in 1999, Figueroa filed Tuesday for one of three seats at stake in next year's municipal election.

Veteran Councilmen Bob Gilliam and John Walters also will try to keep their seats. Accountant Thomas Sandor was the first candidate to enter the race and so far is the only challenger to the three incumbents.

Figueroa, 40, said his election would help make city government more representative of Elgin's diversity.

"This would be a triumph for the Hispanic community," said Figueroa, a mortgage loan officer and father of three teenagers.

According to a special census in 1996, Hispanics make up 26 percent of Elgin's 87,000 residents.

But the city is not divided into wards like many large cities. All seven City Council members are elected at-large by a citywide vote.

Those circumstances force Latino candidates to champion not only the interests of their community but those of the entire city population.

"Juan is a coalition builder," said Gil Feliciano, the city's Hispanic outreach worker. "More than anybody else in the Latino community, he has got the best chance at this point."

When Mayor Ed Schock was elected in 1999, he appointed Figueroa to serve the last two years of his four-year term as a council member.

Figueroa has sided with the council majority on almost every issue. He voted to approve a $31.4 million recreation center for downtown Elgin and backs plans to push the city limits westward by annexing upscale subdivisions.

He also is a vocal supporter of developing a permanent shelter for the homeless.

"On the council you have to represent Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, blacks, whites, Lao, everybody," Figueroa said. "I've achieved the balance."

Gilliam, an assistant superintendent of Elgin-based Unit School District 46, is the dean of the City Council, having served for 28 years. Walters, an attorney, has been on the council since 1989.

"We're not in lock step, but we're on the right path," Gilliam said.

Sandor, who made an unsuccessful bid for a council seat in 1997, said the council needs to show greater diversity of opinion. Hemounted a failed petition drive to force a referendum on plans for the recreation center.

"You could do a very good recreation center for a lot less than $31.4 million," Sandor said.

If more than six candidates apply for the three seats before the Monday filing deadline, a primary will be held Feb. 27.

The top six finishers in the primary compete in the April 3 general election.

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