posted August 31, 2009 at http://www.suntimes.com/news/cepeda/1743767,CST-EDT-esther31.article
Will the immigrant story play in 2010?
ESTHER J. CEPEDA
As we head smack-dab into the middle of election season again, let's take a look at the personal narratives of some of this season's colorful crop.
Of the handful of universal political stump speeches -- love of country, mom and apple pie, reform -- one in particular has resonated especially with crowds from sea to shining sea: being the child of immigrants and living the American dream.
But how does that play out today as we steel ourselves for another round of contentious immigration law reform battles in 2010? I set out to take a temperature read on whether the "child of immigrants who achieves the American Dream" page of a candidate's personal story still makes people feel all warm and fuzzy -- or just gets their blood boiling.
Tall, alabaster-skinned Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who's running for U.S. Senate, speaks openly about his heritage.
"As you can tell from my last name, I think it's pretty obvious to everyone that ... I am the proud son of immigrants," he told a group of Hispanic businessmen and women at a recent conference. "My parents came here from Greece with nothing, didn't speak the language. My father started his own business ... and achieved a level of success for himself and his family that is part and parcel to the American Dream."
For Alexi, this story line is a total asset -- surely no one immediately wonders whether Giannoulias' parents came into this country legally or not.
"It connects him to a working-class background and humble beginnings," political consultant Jeff Riley told me. "For others, it might be a double-edged sword."
Of course it is. Others, for example, who are Mexican-American.
One little-known candidate for lieutenant governor, Elmhurst-based Thomas Castillo, finds himself maneuvering a very fine line of potential liability when talking about his immigrant roots.
"I'm Mexican, Italian, American Indian, German and Irish, so it doesn't really come into play," he told me in his thick Sout' Side accent.
So far the only Latino running for statewide office, Castillo is a long shot. He's a never-elected, mostly Mexican, Obama-inspired newcomer.
"Most people hear the name and assume I'm Italian, but I don't want it to matter anyway. I don't want people to vote for me just because I'm Latino," he said. "Of course, I'd be an idiot to not make that connection to Latino voters, but you have to be aware of your audience -- I've tried to avoid any divisive stuff because I don't want to be typecast as 'The Latino candidate.' I'm focused on talking about how to be a representative for all people across Illinois."
That's exactly the tack Pete D'Alessandro, a longtime political consultant, has suggested to candidates he's worked with over the years -- Giannoulias included.
"You are what you are -- use it to your advantage," he said. "And, above all, forge a connection to your constituencies."
Still, in increasingly global Illinois, just being who you are can present as many challenges as opportunities, especially a mere four years after Congress floated harsh anti-illegal immigration legislation and even more so during a recession.
"This remains a tough issue," said Chicago-based public affairs consultant Jim Prescott. "Talking about immigrants living the American dream in a positive way in a campaign could be difficult even though there is nothing more American than coming to this country and succeeding."
It's not difficult at all for Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is running for Illinois Comptroller in the Democratic primary.
"I am an immigrant," the former deputy state treasurer told me on the day he officially announced his candidacy near his hometown of Peoria. "I was born in India and was very young when I came here. This country has given my family everything, and people feel really good hearing about my story."
Krishnamoorthi said he's aware as he travels the state that he might have to respond to a heated cross-examination about how Illinois is outsourcing tech jobs to places like India. But he's not worried about double-edged swords. He exudes a palpable American folksiness -- just call him Raja, he says -- that is the antithesis of foreign.
"Despite what's swirling in the greater immigration debate," Krishnamoorthi said, "people still want to hear that it is possible to reaffirm the highest values of our country and attain the classic American dream."
In politics, as in life, The American Dream -- haunting, prophetic, or sweet -- is recurring.