Water district primary has ‘collateral damage’


In military terms, collateral damage usually refers to unintentional damage that is done to friendly forces, noncombatants or nonmilitary facilities as a result of military action against enemy forces or facilities, often due to flawed tactics.

On March 18 Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Debra Shore suffered serious collateral damage due to her allies’ flawed strategy. As a result, she won’t be the water district’s next president.

The presidency of the obscure water district board is a prize of dubious worth. The district has an annual budget of $1.2 billion and a professional staff consisting of roughly 2,000 civil service-protected employees. There is no patronage, not even summer jobs. The president is basically a figurehead who presides over 22 2-hour meetings per year, earns $80,000, and is chosen by a majority vote of the nine elected commissioners, all Democrats, each of whom has a 6-year term and earns $70,000 for a part-time position.

The post has historically been a steppingstone to nowhere, a political dead end. Among past presidents, Nick Melas lost the 1992 primary, Tom Fuller lost the 1998 primary and then was convicted of bribery, Terry O’Brien got an embarrassing 23 percent of the vote in the 2010 Democratic primary for Cook County Board president, losing to Toni Preckwinkle, and retired in 2012, and current board president Kathy Meany, with mega clout due to her 19th Ward roots, is retiring after only 2 years in the post.

The infighting to be Meany’s successor has been furious. Commissioners Mariyana Spyropoulos, who was elected in 2010, and Shore, who was elected in 2006, both want the post. So does Commissioner Patrick Daley Thompson, the grandson and nephew of Chicago mayors who was elected in 2012. The ascension of Thompson to the presidency would give him credibility for a mayoral run in 2019 or later. However, the March 18 primary outcome gives a definite edge to Spyropoulos.

Both women are ambitious and well connected, and both have solid political and financial bases. Both view the water district board presidency as a launching pad for a future run for Preckwinkle’s job or for statewide office in 2018. Spyropoulos’ base is among Greek Americans, a powerful donor base which provides substantial funding for county Democrats. Shore, of Evanston, is a self-proclaimed environmentalist, an open lesbian who has strong ties to the gay community, a protege of U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-9) and a cog in her North Shore political machine.

Last summer Shore, Schakowsky and state Representative Lou Lang (D-16) of Skokie, the Niles Township Democratic committeeman, worked with other committeemen to engineer the dumping of Commissioner Cynthia Santos at the slatemaking. First elected in 1996, Santos is an ally of Spyropoulos and a fellow Greek American.

The March slate for the three commissioner posts consisted of incumbent Frank Avila, who was first elected in 2002 as a nonslated candidate, Tim Bradford, a black committeeman from south suburban Rich Township, where he is township supervisor, and Josina Morita, an ambitious Japanese American social service executive from Niles Township who Lang wanted to get into office so she wouldn’t run against him.

Santos didn’t go quietly into the night after her dumping, as her husband Rich Bradley did in 2008. Bradley, a deputy commissioner in the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, was elected as a state representative in 1996 in a Northwest Side district. He was dumped by Alderman Dick Mell (33rd) in 2008 to make room for his daughter Deb Mell to go to Springfield. By not running, Bradley kept his city job.

Water reclamation district commissioners need a clout-worthy committeeman who protects them. Avila allied himself with Mell. After Bradley’s dumping, Santos allied herself with then-36th Ward Alderman Bill Banks, but Banks quit as alderman and his organization evaporated, so in 2013 Santos had no "juice."

Santos filed for re-election anyway, withstood a nominating petition challenge, got on the ballot, and by luck drew top ballot position in the lottery.

Ten candidates sought three nominations in the March 18 Democratic primary. The last Republican to win a countywide water district commissionership was in 1972, so a Democratic nomination is akin to election. Since voters have only the vaguest notion of the water district field, such intangibles as slating, ballot position, race, gender, ethnicity (such as Irish surnames) and media endorsements matter.

Being first on the ballot in a low-turnout like that on March 18 mattered to Santos. In addition, her surname sounds Hispanic, and some voters may have confused her with former city treasurer Miriam Santos. The slate of Avila, Bradford and Morita followed at 2-3-4. Lower on the ballot were six nonentities, including the wife (Kathy O’Reilly) and son (Frank Gardner) of former commissioners, and former Board of Review commissioner Brendan Houlihan, who had the once-coveted last place on the ballot. Houlihan was running to position himself for a 2016 comeback for his old job, and he finished seventh in the field.

The implications, for what they were worth, were simple. Shore had her vote and the vote of Commissioner Kari Steele, and she presumed that if the Avila-Bradford-Morita slate won, she would have the "Magic Five" votes for the presidency, but her expectations were unfulfilled. Shore as president? Forget about it.

It was a record-low primary turnout of just 414,371 countywide, compared to 596,147 in 2010 and to 596,672 in 2012. There were 182,283 votes cast in Chicago and 232,088 in the suburbs. In a low turnout the slate should have prevailed, but Morita encountered two implacable difficulties: candidates with odd-sounding names, especially those ending in a vowel, rarely win a water district race, and in a minimal turnout, ballot position is critical.

Santos got 116,804 votes, running first in Chicago with 74,380 votes, first in the suburbs with 43,424, first in every Hispanic-majority ward and township, second or third in the black-majority wards and townships, and first in the Northwest Side 33rd, 36th, 38th, 39th and 40th wards. Only in the machine-dominated 11th, 13th, 14th and 23rd wards did the slate finish 1-2-3. Morita ran first or second in every ward and township on the Lakefront and North Shore, but turnout was light, and her fourth-place finish in the predominantly black wards was fatal.

Finishing second was the ubiquitous Avila, a full-time campaigner and a perpetual presence on cable television, who was on the ballot for the water district for the fifth time, losing in 1998 and 2000 and winning in 2002 and 2008. Likable and low key, Avila got 115,751 votes, running just behind Santos in Chicago with 73,443 votes and in the suburbs with 42,308. Avila ran second in almost every black-majority ward, where Bradford was on the so-called "Soul Slate" of candidates.

Bradford, obviously boosted by his showing in predominantly black wards and townships, finished third with 111,764 votes, getting 69,976 votes in Chicago and 41,788 in the suburbs. Bradford ran first in all of Chicago’s 19 black-majority wards, as he did in the black-majority suburban townships of Proviso, Rich, Thornton, Bloom, Calumet and Bremen.

Morita was fourth with 88,759 votes, a drop-off of 23,005 from Bradford. She got 55,181 votes in Chicago, almost 20,000 fewer than Santos, and 33,578 in the suburbs, nearly 10,000 fewer than Santos. "She needed to make inroads among black and Hispanic voters," one Democratic insider said. "She didn’t." However, the insider added, if she keeps campaigning and "spreads around some money," she could win in 2016 or 2018.

Far behind were O’Reilly, the only Irish-surnamed female, with 66,838 votes, Gardner with 42,180 and Houlihan with 33,697.

Mike Alvarez, who has been a water district commissioner since 2010, said that voters normally spend time and pick and choose among the multiplicity of contenders, usually eight to 15 in each primary, scanning the entire list, but not in this primary. "They just hit the top three," Alvarez said. Had Santos been in Houlihan’s last spot and he on top, she would have lost and he would have won, Alvarez said. In a nasty 2010 primary, Alvarez finished third in Chicago, and fourth in the suburbs, topping a gay candidate backed by Shore and Schakowsky by 27,789 votes.

Now the fun begins. Can the "Daley Dynasty" resurrect itself? In 2012 county Commissioner John Daley squired his nephew Thompson around the county to Democratic functions. The slated Thompson finished third in a six-candidate field in both the city and suburbs, squeezing out a 25,645-vote edge over the fourth-place finisher. "There is no ‘Daley clout’ any more," the insider said. "His uncles won’t tell any commissioner how to vote." The Meany succession is a test. Does Thompson have the smarts to build a coalition? All he needs is the votes of Shore, Steele, Avila and Bradford, and he’s president.

Spyropoulos counts on the backing of Alvarez, board vice president Barbara McGowan and Santos, and one more vote — from Avila, Thompson or Bradford — will give her the presidency. If Thompson aborts and jumps on the Spyropoulos bandwagon, he’d get the Finance Committee chairmanship that she holds.

However, if Thompson and the Daleys calculate wrong, he’ll be a has-been before he becomes a could-have-been. If Spyropoulos is the water district board chief, it could be her, definitely not Thompson, who looms as a future Chicago mayor.

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