Sposato makes decision to run in new 38th Ward
by RUSS STEWART
To Nick Sposato’s detractors, his political success is attributable to sheer, blind, dumb luck. He’s derided as the 36th Ward’s "accidental alderman," destined to serve only one term.
In fact, the Rahm Emanuel-dominated City Council redrew ward boundaries in 2011, put 45 percent of Sposato’s ward in the new 38th Ward and took pains to ensure that Sposato’s Galewood precinct was in the new two-thirds Hispanic-majority 36th Ward.
To Sposato’s admirers, his appeal is predicated on his sincerity, honesty, conscientiousness and "regular guy" persona. "I’m on the job 24/7," said Sposato, a Chicago firefighter who has been on leave since his 2011 election. "I don’t pretend to be the ward boss," he added, in reference to his predecessors. "My constituents don’t want a boss. They don’t want to beg. They just want an alderman who solves their problems."
On Aug. 5 Sposato announced that he will be running for re-election in 2015 in the new 38th Ward, having bought a home in the Lawrence-Cumberland area. Alderman Tim Cullerton (38th) announced his retirement in late July.
In the now-incumbentless 36th Ward, Sposato has endorsed Gilbert Villegas, who will take on the Berrios-Suarez machine’s candidate, 26-year-old Omar Aquino.
The alderman’s detractors and admirers are both correct. Sposato has been both lucky and skilful. Consider:
In 2007 the obscure firefighter waged a lonely and quixotic challenge to the entrenched and powerful 36th Ward Banks-DeLeo machine. Bill Banks had been the alderman since 1983 and was the ward Democratic committeeman, and Jim DeLeo was an influential state senator. Together, they had more than $1 million in their campaign accounts and five or more patronage workers in each of the ward’s precincts. Banks was the chairman of the council’s Zoning Committee, and he raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from developers and their lawyers.
During the campaign, Sposato was repeatedly threatened and vilified. It got so bad, he once joked, that he "looked under (his) car every morning."
As expected, Sposato was crushed, getting a meager 23.8 percent of the vote and losing the aldermanic post to Banks 8,315-2,599. Banks won every one of the ward’s 55 precincts, and Sposato topped 40 percent in only two. That kind of a showing is a career ender, not a jump starter.
However, both Banks and DeLeo then retired. Rumors of a federal investigation had been swirling for years, although no wrongdoing by either Banks or DeLeo was ever publicly alleged. After 26 years in Springfield, DeLeo, who rarely had any opposition, retired in 2010, and after 27 years in the City Council and at the peak of his power, Banks resigned in late 2010. The new alderman, who was appointed by Mayor Rich Daley at the behest of Banks, was John Rice, who was then on the city payroll as Banks’ chief of staff but who actually was his driver, shuttling the alderman from his home to his ward office to City Hall to his law office to dinner to his home.
"There were ‘ward services,’ at a price," Sposato said of the Banks regime. "You had to show up at their ward office on a Monday night, wait several hours, and then beg them to solve your city-related problem. They wanted to know what you would do for them — donate, work a precinct or put up a yard sign. If you paid the ‘price,’ they fixed the problem."
Rice was the kind of guy voters instinctively dislike: the type who wants the job for the trappings of power and to feed his ego, not to advance an agenda or to serve his constituents. His appointment gave Sposato an opening — and a lucky break.
With both Banks and DeLeo (and their money) gone, the 36th Ward machine sputtered in 2011. The number of precinct workers was steadily dwindling. Home owners were angered by spot zoning, which placed two- and three-unit buildings amid single-family homes. The ward seemed out of control, and voters were thoroughly ready to cleanse themselves of Banks and his cohorts.
Five candidates filed to run against Rice in 2011, Sposato, Tom Motzny, Bruce Randazzo, Jodi Biancalana and Brian Murphy. Motzny was a city cop, Randazzo was a city worker, and Biancalana had run a strong prior race for county commissioner against Republican Pete Silvestri, an Elmwood Park ally of the Banks-DeLeo machine. Sposato was the best known, and his political skills were evident. Instead of squabbling among themselves to be the premier anti-Rice/anti-Banks candidate, Sposato networked and made sure they all collaborated. Their goal was to force Rice into a runoff, and to do that they each had to plumb votes from their bases, attack Rice, and get more than 50 percent of the vote among them. They pledged that they would all back whoever finished second and made the runoff.
hey barely, but spectacularly, succeeded. In a turnout of 14,052, Rice got 6,756 votes (48.1 percent of the total cast), just 271 votes short of an outright win. Sposato finished second with 3,373 votes (24.0 percent of the total).
For the Rice-Sposato runoff, the other candidates kept their word. They all supported Sposato, but a palpable political shift had occurred. It was evident that the Banks machine was not unbeatable. For voters, "change" was no longer illusory. Sposato defeated Rice in the runoff, with the turnout down to 10,074, getting 5,651 votes (56.1 percent of the total cast), to 4,423 for Rice. Incredibly, Rice’s vote declined by 2,333 votes from the general election to the runoff. Sposato won 41 of the ward’s 55 precincts. The rejection of the Banks machine was complete. Sposato won Banks’ post as committeeman in 2012, when the incumbent retired.
As an alderman under the Emanuel Administration, Sposato has been sort of an odd duck. He is part of the "Progressive Coalition," consisting of a paltry eight of 50 aldermen, but he is not a liberal. Over the past 4 years, Sposato has opposed the mayor on school closings, the ward remap, expanding red-light camera ticketing, the e-cigarette tax, marijuana legalization, expanding the aldermanic inspector general’s powers, and the 2013 city budget.
Sposato has consistently called for the hiring of more police officers. Aldermen earn $108,000, and they get an automatic annual 2 percent cost-of-living increase. Sposato has refused to accept the pay raise.
Naturally, Sposato got his just reward: oblivion. As an "outsider," Sposato’s ward, which consisted of Galewood, Montclare and parts of the Cumberland corridor, was disemboweled, with parts going into the 38th, 29th and 37th wards. The new 36th Ward has a finger that included Sposato’s Galewood residence, and another finger included the home of state Representative Luis Arroyo (D-30), who was viewed as the likely new 36th Ward alderman.
Sposato got another knock on the head in 2013. A "son swap" deal was cut between Arroyo and Joe Berrios, the county assessor, county Democratic chairman and 31st Ward Democratic committeeman. Berrios and his ally, Alderman Ray Suarez (31st), were deemed the most powerful political players in the North Side Puerto Rican community. In exchange for ceding the 36th Ward in 2015 to Aquino, who is a cousin of Toni Berrios, Luis Arroyo Jr. was slated for county commissioner in the 8th District and incumbent Eddie Reyes was dumped. Arroyo beat Reyes in the March primary, but state Representative Toni Berrios (D-39), Joe Berrios’ daughter, was upset by Will Guzzardi.
Suddenly the Berrios-Suarez machine looked quite fragile, and Arroyo Sr. may or may not exert himself on behalf of Aquino. "If I’m elected alderman, I’ll resign as (36th Ward) committeeman and recommend that Arroyo be appointed," Sposato said.
"It’s a whole new ballgame," Sposato said. "Clout and patronage hiring is over. An alderman or committeeman cannot recommend anybody for any city job, nor recommend any existing employee for any promotion. That sparks an immediate investigation."
The city’s pension problem is causing an exodus of senior aldermen, Sposato said. Going or gone in recent years are Daley, Banks, Cullerton, Dick Mell (33rd), Gene Schulter (47th), Pat Levar (45th) and Brian Doherty (41st). "The (pension) budget hole is deep, the solution painful and expensive, and the problem began 30 years ago," Sposato said, pledging to vote against raising property taxes to cover the mandated $550 million pension contribution due by the end of 2014.
So how does an alderman get re-elected? "It’s all about service," Sposato said. He said that he is spending almost all of his $1.3 million discretionary "menu" funds on pothole and street repairs. "I’m accessible," Sposato said. "I’ve had dozens of town hall events. I send out a weekly e-mail newsletter."
A final bit of luck was Cullerton’s retirement. Had Cullerton run in 2015, Emanuel as well as the unions (especially the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) would have poured $300,000 into the 38th Ward to beat Sposato. There will be no "Cullerton Clan" contender, and the most formidable candidate will be real estate agent Tom Carravette, who got 39.6 percent of the vote against Cullerton in the 2011 runoff
In the new 36th Ward, Villegas, a 43-year-old Marine Corps veteran who runs a consulting firm, has Sposato’s endorsement. He is disdainful of Aquino: "We don’t need an alderman who needs on-the-job-training," he said, and he promises to be "independent" of the mayor.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.