Arena emerges as early favorite for ’15 election


I never thought I would write these words, but reality so compels: Alderman John Arena (45th) is looking good as he gears up for re-election.

Only 11 months remain before the February, 2015, nonpartisan municipal election, but Arena, despite his mercurial temperament and often abrasive disposition, has shrewdly used the three years of incumbency since his 30-vote runoff victory to establish and entrench himself.

He will be tough to beat.

That presumption, however, is disputed in certain quarters. John Garrido, a Chicago police lieutenant who is a 16th District watch commander, announced his aldermanic candidacy on March 13. Garrido lost the April, 2011, runoff to Arena. Also poised to enter the contest is Michelle Baert, who styles herself as the "45th Ward Mom," who is diligently campaigning, and who says the ward needs a woman as the alderman.

Both will enthusiastically and relentlessly pummel Arena for his failures and shortcomings, both real and imagined. The 2011 aldermanic contest evolved into a choice between Arena and Garrido. In 2015 it will be a referendum on Arena’s performance, personality and productivity.

Nevertheless, Arena, age 47, starts as a solid favorite. His strategy has been effective. It can be encapsulated as follows:

First, solidify and augment your precinct organization and donor base. In 2011 Arena’s base was ideological and geographical, as a liberal Democrat from the Portage Park area. A graphic arts designer who moved into the ward in 1994, Arena was active in community affairs and in the 2008 Barack Obama campaign. With seven candidates running in the 2011 primary and 15,879 votes cast, Arena finished second with 3,598 votes (22.7 percent of the total cast). Garrido was first with 5,142 votes (32.4 percent), and Marina Faz-Huppert, outgoing Alderman Pat Levar’s choice, was third with 3,095 votes (19.5 percent). Garrido finished first in 33 precincts, Arena in 13 and Faz-Huppert in seven.

Turnout in the runoff dwindled to 12,136, a decline of 3,743, even though various unions purchased more than $300,000 in "independent expenditure" cable television ads and mailings castigating Garrido as a "Bush Republican." Garrido’s vote increased by 911, while Arena’s went up by 2,485. Arena won 6,083-6,053, carrying 30 of the ward’s 53 precincts. It would appear that most of the 4,044 votes cast for Don Blair, Anna Klocek, Mike Ward and Bruno Bellissimo went to Arena, while the Levar precinct captains were missing in action.

The 45th Ward contains 36 precincts in Jefferson Park and Gladstone Park, north of Lawrence Avenue and east of Nagle Avenue, and 17 precincts in Portage Park, south of Lawrence Avenue, including the Six Corners Milwaukee/Cicero/Irving Park commercial district. Garrido’s base is in the north, and Arena’s is in the south. In the runoff, Garrido got 54.6 percent of the vote in his base but 39.8 percent in Arena’s base. From the primary to the runoff, Arena went from 18.2 percent of the vote to 45.4 percent in the north and from 32.1 percent to 60.2 percent in the south.

To some it would seem that all that’s needed to beat Arena is a switch of 30 votes. That’s nonsense. Voters and past votes are not static. Arena’s base will erode if it is not cultivated, and Garrido’s base will defect if voters are pleased with Arena’s services or issue stances. "I understand the fundamentals," Arena said. "It’s all about addition." He’s right.

Arena has broadened his base since his election. He was elected the ward’s Democratic committeeman in 2012. He allied himself with Rob Martwick, the Democrats’ slated candidate who replaced Joe Lyons as state representative. He created a 45th Ward Independent Democratic Organization which meets monthly and which worked for Obama in 2012. He recently allied himself with Will Guzzardi, the "progressive" independent who challenged Toni Berrios in the March 18 primary for state representative in the 39th Illinois House District, which has only four precincts in the 45th Ward, all south of Irving Park Road. Those liberal, pro-Obama, anti-Berrios activists, even if they reside in a swath south to Logan Square, will be inclined to work for Arena in 2015.

The unions, especially the Service Employees International Union’s political action committee, have not been disappointed with Arena’s anti-Rahm Emanuel, anti-charter schools, anti-school closings, pro-TIF district spending stances. Arena will be well funded in 2015.

What about the anti-Arena base? Garrido’s base, consisting of conservatives, ethnics, Republicans and law enforcement types, certainly has atrophied. His campaign fund filings indicate that he raised no money in three years and that he had $47,000 in debt owed to himself and his father. The rationale behind Baert’s candidacy is that Emanuel cannot count on support from Arena in 2015, that he needs to build a precinct infrastructure, and that his New Chicago Committee will fund her campaign.

Baert said that she has been campaigning daily and that she gets a "fantastic" reception. "People are excited that I’m not from a political family, that I’m a woman, and they’re angry that they’re not getting city services," Baert said. "The potholes and slow services are epidemic," she adds, citing Arena’s "friction" with the mayor as the cause. "Not true," Arena responds. "Our services are as good as any other ward."

Garrido’s themes are public safety, economic development and lack of ward infrastructure. He cites the shuttered Bank of America, Gateway Chevrolet and Gladstone Park Bakery properties and a lack of development at Lawrence-Milwaukee and Foster-Northwest Highway. "(Arena) is an obstructionist," Garrido said. "He fights with new business owners." Arena counters that many new businesses have opened in the ward, especially in Portage Park, and that "land owners have rights" and redevelopment "is a marathon, not a sprint."

Does having two anti-Arena contenders, both attacking the incumbent, diminish the pro-Arena base or just split the anti-Arena base?

Second, establish a theme. Without question, Arena has not been like Levar — a compliant, unassertive alderman. "I’ve done more in three years than he did in 10," Arena said. "The ward stagnated." "He’s just like Levar . . . another self-serving politician," Garrido responded.
In 2011, Arena said, "I promised to be independent" of the mayor and to "be accountable" to the ward.

According to a Chicago Magazine analysis, from 2011 to 2013, Chicago’s 50 aldermen cast 1,333 "yes" votes in support of the mayor and 122 "no" votes, of which 18 were cast by Arena.

Arena has distanced himself from Emanuel on many issues. He supported the 2012 budget, only after wheel tax hikes and library hour cuts were axed. He opposed the 2013 and 2014 budgets due to not enough police and school funding. Arena said that the mayor’s "failure to be inclusive" and to work with the City Council indicates that he is following Rich Daley’s "top-down approach."

Arena said he opposed Emanuel’s "draconian" cuts to school budgets and that he opposes any charter schools in the 45th Ward. "They are not a replacement for public schools," he said. Arena said he supports an elected citywide school board and that he opposed the mayor’s initiative to install speed cameras near schools and parks. "They are not a safety measure," he said. "They are a revenue measure, and they have generated only $1.5 million annually and were supposed to net $60 million."

Arena bucked the mayor on the ethics ordinance, opposing a legislative inspector general and insisting that the current inspector general be able to investigate all city officials. He questioned the "poor mission clarity" of Emanuel’s touted "Infrastructure Trust," and he said that he and his fellow Progressive Reform Caucus aldermen are working to have a "check" on the mayor’s power and to "change the dynamic" of the City Council from submissive to assertive.

Hence, the 2015 campaign is all about positioning. Arena is anti-Emanuel, Garrido is anti-anti-Emanuel, and Baert is anti-Arena and presumably pro-Emanuel. Garrido’s strategy is to make voters focus on ward problems, not citywide issues or Emanuel.

Third, Arena has been visible, using the social media, his Web site, with weekly newsletter postings, and office availability to elevate his accessibility. "I promised to be accessible and transparent," he said. Garrido has been visible, suing Arena and the unions for libel and getting elected to the Hitch School Local School Council. Baert is unknown, but she has huge baggage because she voted Republican in the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 primaries. Garrido voted Republican in the 2010 primary, when he was running for Cook County Board president, but he voted in the Democratic primary in 2012 and 2014. According to SEIU operative Jerry Morrison, Baert’s prior Republican affiliations will be an issue in 2015.

So how do the numbers shake out?

Obama won the ward in 2008 15,509-7,266, getting 67 percent of the vote in a turnout of 23,150. He won in 2012 by 14,084-6,207, with 67.8 percent of the vote in a turnout of 30,022. That indicates a fairly substantial liberal, Democratic base, as well as a conservative, Republican base of 6,000 to 7,000. Hillary Clinton topped Obama in the ward in the 2008 presidential primary 6,240-6,086.

To triumph in 2015, Garrido and Baert need to articulate reasons why Arena should not be retained, by charging that he is ineffectual, arrogant, self-absorbed, a bully. Expect those epithets to surface. The key is to win more than half of the 2011 anti-Arena vote and to chip away 5 to 10 percent of the pro-Arena vote, thereby keeping Arena under 50 percent and forcing a runoff.

More women voted for Arena than Garrido in 2011. If Baert’s gender-focused campaign succeeds, it takes more votes away from Arena than from Garrido.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www.