Why Phil Ponce Just Won Chuy the Election

I know I’m still a young man, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard of a debate moderator personally attacking a candidate. If Phil Ponce’s questions were to come from anyone, you’d think they would be Mayor Rahm Emanuel or one of his supporters—and it still would’ve crossed the line.

It was arguably the most cringeworthy TV moment of the week. Within hours, angry viewers had signed a petition calling for the Ponce’s dismissal from Chicago Tonight, the nightly news program he’s hosted since 1999.

To be fair, I don’t think Ponce should lose his job over his line of questions. Through his (usually) objective journalism, Ponce has provided a crucial public service to the people of Chicagoland, which is why for years Ponce has been highly regarded and widely respected across the city. Tuesday night was merely one misstep in an otherwise impeccable career. Having been on PBS so long, Ponce is Chicago’s equivalent politically of a Latino Mr. Rogers.

What’s more, Ponce’s questions were not nearly as offensive as the lame jokes that The Daily Show’s next host has tweeted in the past. (I don’t think Trevor Noah should lose his job either. And I don’t question the man’s politics, if I do his comic sensibility.)

Ponce hasn’t issued an apology —which he should— but he has already admitted he crossed the line, telling the Tribune’s John Kass that “in retrospect I think that question was off the mark and that I blew it on that one.” He’s not just saying that. He seems fully aware of how wrong it was of him to ask García that question.

As Ponce explained:

As I think of it, there is no nexus between being a good parent and having a good-kid. You can be a great parent and have lousy kids. Or you can be a terrible parent and have great kids. And the skill set in being a parent are not the same as being a mayor. You can be a great parent and a terrible mayor, and you can be a terrible parent and a great mayor.

Still, the Ponce’s questions came across as such a personal dig at García that it has many people wondering whether the moderator was in cahoots with the mayor. The two do live only a few houses from each other in upscale Lakeview, after all. But I believe Ponce when he says he doesn’t hang out with the mayor. Rahm only rolls with Republican billionaires.

What viewers witness on Tuesday night was an age-old antagonism that has festered within the minority communities for generations. Ponce and García are both Mexican American, but whereas Chuy came to the States as a boy, Ponce was born and raised in Indiana. Ponce has a law degree from the University of Michigan, while Chuy has a bachelor’s from the University of Illinois-Chicago—which is, well, not the University of Michigan. (And I have a bachelor’s from UIC too, so I can say that.) Plus, as I’ve mentioned, Ponce lives in a swanky neighborhood on the North Side, whereas for the past few decades Chuy has lived in the predominantly Latino, heavily working-class neighborhood of Little Village on the city’s southwest side.

Ponce’s sons Dan and Anthony followed in their father’s footsteps. Anthony is a reporter for Channel 5. Dan earned a master’s degree from Northwestern’s School of Journalism and is currently a news anchor for WGN-TV and a radio talk show host. Chuy’s son Sam, well, isn’t.

This is classic respectability politics. By insinuating that Mr. and Mrs. García’s parenting had produced a gangbanger, Ponce was suggesting to the audience that the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree. Chuy’s son grew up to be a thug because Chuy himself is a thug and is therefore incapable of raising any other type of person, according to this brand of thinking.

And while Ponce now seems to see the error of his ways and, after some reflection, understands he was wrong to think that way, there’s no denying that it’s what he instinctively felt. For him García was the other, those Latinos who live on the other, less sophisticated part of town.

The same dynamic is shown in relief in ABC’s American Crime.

In another scene, the Mexican American father played by Benito Martínez flat out tells a reporter that “illegal” immigrants “are the ones…[that] always make the rest of us look bad.”

Chicago educator Ray Salazar, in an op-ed published earlier today, describes how he himself has been the target of “Latino elitism.”

Growing up around 26th Street in the 80s, I remember how the better off families looked down on those who struggled financially or socially.  What I remember most about my parochial grammar school education is the elitism I saw (on picture day when we didn’t wear a uniform) and I heard (the put downs by the rich ladies on the church’s front steps when my mom, a lunch lady, took home a few left-over lunches for our dinner). And when that same kid got in trouble over and over, or when a kid got in trouble with gangs over and over, the parents who believed their kids were better looked down on those parents because their kids did not do ‘that.’

I’m dark-skinned Puerto Rican from a working-class, single-parent household who was raised around other Latinos who were almost exclusively Mexicans. So needless to say, I know just how it feels to be looked down upon by other Latinos.

If the mayor believes his response to Ponce’s faux pas has him looking golden, he should disabuse himself of that belief. If anything Tuesday night’s debate —which should’ve been harmless for either candidate, given the venue— reignited the flames of class resentment in already drastically divided city. Now Chuy isn’t just the Mexican candidate. He’s the people’s candidate, the one who’ll represent the city’s mostly working-class population.

There are decent, hardworking parents in Little Village, Humboldt Park and Englewood whose kids have gotten into gangs and drugs. Too many parents in those communities have lost their kids to gun violence. Those parents don’t believe it’s something they did or didn’t do. They don’t think they’ve failed their children. They know the city failed them, just as it continues to fail people in black, Latino and working-class neighborhoods.

And now those parents —and hopefully some of their kids— are angry. They resent anyone insinuating that they live in a poor and violent neighborhood because they’re not worthy of anything better.

Now, hopefully, they’ll march to the polls on April 7.


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.

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