‘Politics ain’t beanbags’ saying true in 39th Ward
by RUSS STEWART
About a decade ago, at a political function, 39th Ward Democratic Committeeman Randy Barnette, the husband of Alderman Marge Laurino (39th), quoted Mr. Dooley, an Irish-American character created by writer Finley Peter Dunne in the 1890s. "Politics ain’t beanbag," he said.
That’s especially true in the 39th Ward, where a Laurino has been the alderman continuously since 1965 and a member of the "Laurino Clan" has been an area state representative for 36 of the past 44 years.
Mike Stirk, a civil engineer and a former officer of the North Mayfair Improvement Association, was part of a group of residents, including Matt Robertson, who replaced the officers who had run the association for decades. Soon thereafter Stirk began criticizing Laurino, sparking rumors that he was angling to run for alderman in 2015.
"She’s a terrible alderman," Stirk said. "She failed the ward on airport noise issues. With the new runways, decibel levels are up 218 percent. Every night, all night, hundreds of old, noisy cargo planes fly over our ward. She failed the ward on Foster Avenue safety issues. Rahm Emanuel told her to pass the photo-enforced speed/red light camera ordinance, with 300 cameras which would generate at least $7 million in fine revenue yearly. She rammed it through her Pedestrian and Traffic Committee, and now she’s got her reward. She’s president pro tem of the council, which means she presides when Emanuel is absent and has a lot of perks."
Shortly after Stirk began agitating about speeding motorists on Foster Avenue, he arranged a mid-2012 meeting with the mayor’s office and presented his proposals. He said that less than a month later he was discharged from his $150,000-a-year job.
"She got me fired," Stirk charged. "That’s nonsense," Laurino retorted.
On June 10, in a blistering letter to the association board, Stirk resigned as advertising secretary, ripping Laurino as the "main obstacle" to ward improvements. He said that because he identified the alderman’s "shortcomings," which he listed as "shutting out public input, withholding information" and being "inaccessible," "any effort with my name attached to it will be systematically ignored or denied by the alderman."
"My views of her performance have given her the excuse to say that any action undertaken by the NMIA is politically motivated and therefore is in question based on our 501c3 status," the letter states.
"Isn’t that incredible?" Stirk said. "We criticize her and we’re being ‘political’?"
Message to Laurino: Not to worry. Instead of running for alderman in 2015, Stirk said that he is moving out of state this year.
The non-entry of the acerbic and irascible Stirk transforms the upcoming aldermanic contest from a street fight to a cakewalk. There will be no dialogue on ward issues, and there will be no credible anti-Laurino candidate. It will be another Laurino coronation.
Already in the race is Joe Laiacona, who got 34.1 percent of the vote in the 2010 Democratic primary for state representative against Deb Mell. Still pondering whether to run are Mary Hunter, of the Hollywood Park-North Park area, who got a dismal 23.6 percent of the vote against Laurino in 2011, and Robertson, a Stirk ally who filed petitions to run in 2011 but was knocked off the ballot.
At one time the 39th Ward was centered on Albany Park, around Lawrence and Kedzie avenues, and it had a sizable Jewish population in the area’s multitudinous apartment buildings, most having migrated from the West Side. That was in the 1960s, and the alderman was Democrat Patrick Shapiro. Shapiro was elected a judge in 1964, and in 1965 his bright, ambitious and hard-working ward secretary, 55-year-old Tony Laurino, won the seat.
Laurino was born and raised in Vito Marzullo’s Italian-centric West Side 25th Ward, and he spent his entire adult life on some city payroll; before working for Shapiro and moving into the 39th Ward, Laurino was a license inspector for the water department.
Laurino benefited from the ward’s demographic change, as Jews and Protestants moved out and Catholics moved in. More critically, Laurino understood that constituents do not care what an alderman thinks or with party he is affiliated with. They only care what he does, specifically for them, so Laurino became the legendary "Alley Alderman." No problem was too minor to fix, and every request and complaint was handled expeditiously.
"We carry on that tradition today," Marge Laurino said. "Whenever anybody calls with a problem, we ask if there are any other problems, and we address them, too. We provide great constituent service." To which Stirk sourly responds: "Not to everybody."
While taking care of ward business, Tony Laurino, who became the ward’s Democratic committeeman in 1965, also took care of family business. His son Bill Laurino was anointed as a state representative in 1970, and he kept his job as a division superintendent of the city Department of Streets and Sanitation. In the 1980s Marge Laurino became his chief of staff (formerly ward secretary). In the 1970s, Laurino gained the chairmanship of the City Council Traffic Committee and packed the payroll with relatives and precinct captains. The 39th Ward delivered solid Democratic margins every election.
Everybody liked Tony, except the feds. The U.S. Attorney’s Office investigated the Traffic Committee’s operations and discovered that Laurino’s wife, a daughter, a stepdaughter and a son-in-law all got paid but didn’t show up for work. That’s "ghost payrolling," and in 1995 everybody was indicted and convicted. Laurino was indicted in 1995, but he died before his trial.
Did that produce any political earthquake in the 39th Ward? The Geiger counter didn’t budge. Mayor Rich Daley appointed Marge Laurino to her father’s job in 1994, and in 1995 she faced a severe challenge from Tony Fornelli, a protege of former congressman Frank Annunzio. In a turnout of 9,830, Laurino placed first in the general election with 45.1 percent of the vote (4,351 votes), to 22.1 percent (2,170 votes) for Fornelli. Laurino trounced Fornelli in the runoff 6,882-4,982 in a turnout of 11,869, getting 57.9 percent of the vote.
gainst two foes in 1999, Laurino won with 7,296 votes (61.4 percent of the total), in a turnout of 11,890. Laurino was unopposed in 2003 and got 7,131 votes. She got 6,275 votes (79.3 percent) in 2007 in a turnout of 7,913. Against Hunter in 2011, Laurino won 7,735-2,391, with 76.4 percent of the vote in a turnout of 10,127.
Each Chicago ward has a population of roughly 53,000, and the 39th Ward has 28,490 registered voters. Laurino averaged 7,064 votes in each of the past five elections, giving her a wardwide base of 24.7 percent of the registered vote — hardly intimidating — but her "Sweet Margie" persona and easy wins make her appear invincible.
The 2011 ward remap stripped the 39th Ward of most of its Albany Park Hispanic-majority precincts, pushing it farther west. The ward is now a triangle, running south of Devon Avenue, west of Kedzie Avenue and east of Elston Avenue. New precincts in Forest Glen, Old Edgebrook, Indian Woods and Norwood Park (at Devon-Nagle) were added.
Laurino’s installation as president pro tempore of the City Council certainly enhances that perception. She also runs the Legislative Reference Bureau, which helps aldermen draft legislation — something of a rarity. Laurino, age 62, said that she’s the sixth most senior alderman.
Laurino, formerly chairman of the Pedestrian and Traffic Committee, as was her father, dismisses Stirk’s assertions about Foster Avenue, where speeding cars between Cicero Avenue and Pulaski Road, near Gompers Park, have long been a problem. She said many "different tools" have been used by the police and the city, including red light/speed cameras, upgraded signals and pedestrian stings. "We must create a different drivers’ mentality," she said.
"She’s been alderman for 20 years, and the problem persists," Stirk said. "Traffic flow is not being managed."
Stirk said that aircraft noise is "affecting the quality of life" in the ward. The Federal Aviation Administration authorized six new east-west runways at O’Hare Airport, a project hatched in 2001 and begun in 2005, with landing patterns along Lawrence Avenue and Devon Avenue. "That affects Mayfair during the day and Sauganash and Hollywood Park all day," Stirk said. "The older, noisier cargo planes are landing all night long" in the Devon-Thorndale corridor. He said that the anti-noise group called Fair Allocation in Runways "is seeking a redistribution in patterns, with some night flights along Lawrence."
"I blame the (U.S.) Department of Aviation and the FAA," Laurino said, adding that the runway expansion plan "was not clearly stated to residents." She said a second tower in operation overnight, expanded home soundproofing and new aircraft technology would help. "I am working with (U.S. Representative) Mike Quigley to solve this problem," Laurino said.
In her 2014 "State of the Ward" addresses to neighborhood associations, Laurino cited several accomplishments, including a new Albany Park Library, streetscaping along Pulaski, a $50 million diversion tunnel to alleviate home flooding and numerous new commercial ventures. "We had two once-in-a-century floods in three years," she said.
What is the ward’s major problem? "Potholes," responded Laurino, who is spending 95 percent of her annual $1.3 million discretionary "menu" funds on side-street repairs.
My prediction: You can’t beat somebody with nobody. With Stirk moving out of the ward, Laurino will skate to another term.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.