Aldermanic challengers make service the issue

Russ Stewart Chicago Political Analysis


The operative five-letter word in the upcoming Chicago aldermanic election is serve, as in under-serve, mis-serve, non-serve, servitude, servile, serviceable and constituent service.

The last day for filing aldermanic nominating petitions was Nov. 24, and the nonpartisan primary election will be held on Feb. 24. Here’s the early outlook in Northwest Side wards.

33rd Ward: Is the vaunted "Mell Machine" still serviceable? Longtime Alderman Dick Mell resigned in 2013, after serving 38 years, and he prevailed on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to appoint his daughter, state Representative Deb Mell, as his successor. The elder Mell remains as the ward Democratic committeeman.

The 2015 aldermanic contest, in which Deb Mell will seek her first full term, will put the "Apple Tree Syndrome" to the test. You know the old proverb: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In the 33rd Ward, it fell from the Mell tree and kept rolling. Whereas Dick Mell is a gregarious, deal-making, social animal, Deb Mell is the antithesis — reserved, serious and private. Whereas Dick Mell lived and breathed politics, his daughter is focused on policy. Whereas he promised everybody everything (like jobs), but gave those who were disappointed a big grin when he failed to deliver, she hasn’t the vaguest clue about how Chicago politics is played.

Whereas Dick Mell used to have annual $75-a-ticket fund-raisers at the White Eagle in Niles, drawing 700 people, Deb Mell has fashionable soirees in the Loop, which draw a limited crowd. Whereas Dick Mell thrived in his increasingly Hispanic ward by getting Hispanics on the city or county payroll and then making them work precincts, his daughter finds the whole process distasteful. After all, her father made her a state legislator and an alderman, it is his job to keep her there, and as Illinois’ first lesbian state representative and Chicago’s first lesbian alderman, she can’t conceive how anybody could not vote for her. That would be politically incorrect.

When Deb Mell failed to re-register when she moved to a new condominium in 2010, it was her father who bailed her out. Dick Mell hired election attorneys, appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, and kept her on the ballot. When the City Council remapped the wards in 2011, Mell made sure that he added a chunk of white voters from Albany Park (formerly in the 39th Ward) and shifted some Hispanics into the 35th Ward. The ward now follows the contours of the Chicago River from Foster Avenue to Diversey Avenue, stretching west to Kimball Avenue. The ward is 25 percent new.

The question for 2015: Can Mell keep his daughter in the City Council? Three candidates have filed, Tim Meegan, Tyler Solorio and Annisa Wanat. Meegan, a teacher at Roosevelt High School and a member of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, is the most formidable, boasting the Chicago Teachers Union endorsement. He can expect substantial union money.

The outlook: Mell is not cut out to be an alderman. She’s not the type to trudge through precincts, make false promises or command precinct captains. That’s her father’s job, and if he doesn’t now do his job with aplomb, she’ll be out of a job. The alderman is a slight favorite, but a runoff could be dicey.

41st Ward: If Alderman Mary O’Connor were any more low key, she’d be subterranean. Having won by 250 votes in the 2011 runoff, O’Connor is anything but bombastic. In the council she is a servile member of "Team Emanuel," making not a squeak. Her re-election campaign is being run by the mayor’s top consultant.

She is focused on constituent services, and she boasts of the "remarkable revitalization" of Norwood Park and the $100 million spent by the Emanuel Administration to expand overcrowded schools and replace playground equipment.

However, O’Connor’s two opponents, firefighter Anthony Napolitano and hardware store owner Joe Lomanto, claim that the ward is being under-served and that O’Connor is mis-serving her constituents. It is undisputed that 16th District police officers have been redeployed to high-crime areas at times. That means that many of the beats in the 41st Ward (Edison Park, Norwood Park, Oriole Park) and 45th Ward (Gladstone Park, Jefferson Park, Portage Park) are unpatroled at times, and response time lags.

O’Connor’s critics also allege that the ward pays disproportionately high property taxes but gets minimal city services. O’Connor thinks otherwise.

It’s long been a rule of thumb in city politics that the safer the alderman is, as in fostering a perception of unbeatability, the fewer opponents he or she will draw. O’Connor’s predecessor, Brian Doherty, who served from 1991 to 2011, also was low key, but he never drew more than two opponents in four elections, and he always got 70 percent-plus of the vote, even though he didn’t spend much money. The last 41st Ward incumbent alderman who faced a crunch was Roman Pucinski in 1991.

Pucinski faced seven opponents, and it was clear that after 18 years he had worn out his welcome. Pucinski finished first in the municipal election with 42 percent of the vote, and Doherty was second with 31 percent. Doherty won the runoff with 54 percent of the vote.

Interestingly, the candidate who could have been most problematic for O’Connor is not running. That is Cary Capparelli, son of longtime Democratic state representative Ralph Capparelli, who served in the Illinois House from 1970 to 2004. The younger Capparelli ran for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner in 2014. Among nine candidates, with three elected, he finished sixth; all Democrats won. But in the 41st Ward, the elder Capparelli’s base, he finished third. With a varied career as a race car driver and vintner, Capparelli’s problem was that three Italian-surnamed men would split the anti-O’Connor vote, not enabling him to beat an incumbent Irish-surnamed woman.

The outlook: O’Connor’s fund-raising has been notably lackadaisical. She had 53,890 on hand as of Sept. 30, but the mayor’s Chicago Forward political action committee will plow $300,000 into the race, and she will win without a runoff. However, O’Connor’s "shelf life" is limited. Some self-funding millionaire or city cop or firefighter will surely defeat her.

Just kidding. The residents of the 41st Ward are content in their passivity. An outspoken, aggressive, combative alderman? That disappeared with Pucinski. The residents just want the alderman to get their garbage picked up and to keep their property taxes low. O’Connor will win easily.

39th Ward: Is it possible that voters can be held in servitude? Does servitude mean keeping the same politicians or family in power for decades, if not centuries? Or is that royalty a gift of the gods?

Forest Glen Community Club past president Robert Murphy is campaigning on the mis-service theme, namely, that 50 years of one family in power is too many. Tony Laurino, who once was a precinct captain in Vito Marzullo’s West Side ward, moved to the Northwest Side in the late 1950s, became Alderman Philip Shapiro’s top staffer, and was elected alderman himself in 1964 when Shapiro became a judge. After Laurino’s indictment, he handed off the job to his top staffer, his daughter Marge Laurino, in 1994. Murphy rips Laurino as a "rubber stamp" for Emanuel. It remains to be seen whether Murphy’s negativity will resonate, since the alderman’s amiability and ubiquitous presence in the ward makes her hard to dislike.

However, the 2011 remap removed a large portion of Albany Park, with a sizable Hispanic vote, adding parts of the 45th Ward (Forest Glen) and the 41st Ward (near Nagle and Devon). Republican Bruce Rauner came close to carrying the ward on Nov. 4.

Also filing were Mary Hunter, who got 24 percent of the vote in 2011, Joe Laiacona, who ran against Deb Mell in 2010, and Ali Gadelhak. The outlook: Facing three opponents, Laurino won’t win with her 76 percentage of 2011, but she will win.

38th Ward: Incumbent Nick Sposato has two problems. First, his 36th Ward was dismembered in the remap, with about 20 of his Galewood-Montclare precincts put into the new, Hispanic-majority 36th Ward, so Sposato moved into the new 38th Ward. An epic battle between Sposato and Alderman Tim Cullerton, of the "Cullerton Dynasty," was expected, but Cullerton retired. Nine candidates filed, and a runoff is assured.

In the top tier of candidates are Heather Sattler, the daughter of Cullerton’s former chief of staff, and 2011 runoff loser Tom Caravette, who got 39.6 percent of the vote. The second tier consists of police officer Mike Keeney, retired military officer Carmen Hernandez, former 41st Ward aldermanic candidate Jerry Paszek, John Cianci and Mike Duda. The presumption was that Sattler would inherit the support of the ward’s Cullerton machine, but it has virtually evaporated. Most of Sattler’s petition signatures were gathered by her family and her mother’s friends.

Sposato’s second problem is that he has multiple sclerosis, which will make door-to-door campaigning difficult. However, Sposato, a firefighter on leave, has been an implacable foe of the Emanuel Administration, and the public sector unions, especially the Service Employees International Union, will spend $300,000-plus to re-elect him. The mayor’s PAC will lavishly fund Sattler.

The outlook: A Sposato-Sattler runoff is a certainty, but if Sposato tops 40 percent of the vote in the primary, he’ll be a lock in the April 7 runoff.

45th Ward: As discussed in last week’s analysis, incumbent John Arena, who is an outspoken Emanuel critic, will be in a runoff. The question is, against whom? He has three opponents: Chicago police lieutenant John Garrido, who lost the 2011 runoff by 30 votes, "45th Ward Mom" Michelle Baert and state official Mike Diaz. The latter two are pro-Emanuel, and Garrido is non-Emanuel. The unions will flood the ward with cash to re-elect Arena. Will the mayor’s PAC do likewise, and for whom? Expect everybody to blast Arena as a mis- or non-serving alderman, especially on economic development issues. An Arena-Garrido runoff is likely.

50th Ward: After 38 tempestuous years with Berny Stone as the alderman, his successor, Debra Silverstein, has learned the ropes quickly, to wit, avoid controversy, deliver city services, and keep the West Rogers Park Jewish voting base content. Silverstein faces four foes, but she will be re-elected easily.

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