‘Apocalypse Now’ for Berrios in elections


by RUSS STEWART

For Joe Berrios, the 2015 city elections were an "Apocalypse Now" moment. In 2014, despite spending close to $750,000, his daughter Toni Berrios lost renomination for state representative. This year, despite spending close to $750,695 (with cash on hand of $1,540,672 as of April 1), Berrios and his allies lost aldermanic races that they were supposed to win in the North Side 31st and 36th wards. Berrios also intervened in the 1st Ward race but failed to defeat the incumbent, and sometime ally Ray Colon lost in the 35th Ward.

Poor image combined with poor judgment is to blame. Berrios stuck with Rahm Emanuel in the runoff, working against Chuy Garcia, who had an outside shot at being the city’s first Hispanic mayor.

Suffice it to say that Berrios, the county assessor, county Democratic Party chairman and 31st Ward Democratic committeeman, has had a very, very bad year, and it will persist. In 2016 he will be challenged for ward committeeman. If he loses, he will be ineligible to remain as the county chairman, and if he is not the chairman, his odds of being slated for assessor in 2018 and being re-elected are negligible.

Berrios’ plight can be summarized in three words: me, myself and I.

Berrios’ propensity for putting his kids, siblings and other relatives on his public payroll or for getting relatives on other city or county payrolls by trading jobs with other office holders is legendary. It’s a lot easier than getting people to work precincts and much, much easier than getting voters to swallow his Me-First, I’ll-do-whatever-I-want, Nepotism-Now-and-Forever philosophy.

Berrios’ debacle produced collateral damage in the 30th and 26th wards. Aldermen Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Roberto Maldonado (26th), both Berrios allies who backed Emanuel, find their empires in jeopardy. The North Side is heavily Puerto Rican but divided into two factions, the insiders led by Berrios, who are older and more conservative, and the outsiders, who are younger and more liberal. As of now, the outsiders are surging.

31st Ward (Belmont-Cragin, Avondale, Humboldt Park): "It was a seismic shift," Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st) said of 24-year Alderman Ray Suarez’s 79-vote defeat by Milly Santiago, a Spanish-language television broadcaster, on April 7. "He (Berrios) lost his own alderman in his own ward," Moreno said, adding that he "failed to elect" his godson, Omar Aquino, in the adjacent, newly created 36th Ward. "That’s a repudiation," Moreno said.

Asked what happened and what does it portend for Berrios’ future, Manuel Galvan, the longtime press spokesman for Berrios and Suarez, replied, "I won’t talk to you. You make things up." But here are some facts which are not "made up."

Berrios, age 63, has been a player in the ward since the 1970s, when he was a precinct captain for Tom Keane’s Democratic machine and had a job as a clerk at the old Board of Tax Appeals. In 1982, as the Puerto Rican population grew, he became Illinois’ first Hispanic state representative. When Keane was convicted of mail fraud in connection with real estate deals in 1976, he handed off the alderman’s job to his wife and the committeeman’s post to Ed Nedza, who was convicted of extortion in 1987 and who gave the party post to Berrios. In 1983 the Keane-Nedza clique anointed Miguel Santiago, the city’s first elected Hispanic alderman, and he joined the "Vrdolyak 29."

In 1987 the ward’s voters — by then three-fourths Hispanic — rebelled. Disgusted with nepotism, cronyism and corruption, they elected pro-Harold Washington attorney Ray Figueroa as alderman and went 56 percent-44 percent for Washington in the 1987 primary over Jane Byrne. Figueroa ran against Berrios for Democratic committeeman in 1988 and solidly beat him.

Berrios kept his Board of Tax Appeals job while serving as a legislator. That’s called "double dipping." When Berrios’ boss, Commissioner Harry Semrow, died in November of 1987 on the cusp of the filing deadline, Democratic bosses hurriedly got Berrios slated, passed his petitions, and got him on the ballot. It was the proverbial "golden parachute." Berrios won the countywide primary 54 percent-46 percent, even while he was losing the committeemanship. When Berrios was booted upstairs, Santiago was recycled and handed Berrios’ House seat, which he kept for 10 years, and his wife was made a judge. Berrios got a second job as Santiago’s aide. After Santiago was ousted in 1998, Berrios became a lobbyist, representing the video poker industry.

Figueroa retired in 1991, and he became a judge in 1994. In 1991 Figueroa backed Gloria Chevere against Berrios ally Ray Suarez, who won with 64 percent of the vote, and he abdicated the committeemanship to Berrios, leaving him unopposed in 1992.

At the renamed Board of Review, which handles residential and commercial property tax appeals, Berrios became a money-raising machine. His campaign account rarely fell below $1 million, and he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in his ward account and his daughter’s account. When Berrios was running for assessor after 22 years as a Board of Review commissioner, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in January of 2010 that he "shamelessly rakes in political contributions from the lawyers who appear before the board" and that he has "an inexcusable disregard for blatant conflicts of interest." Running against his old foe Figueroa, then retired as judge, the Sun-Times called Berrios a "miserable candidate" and endorsed Figueroa.

Nevertheless, amid accusations of favoritism and nepotism, as Berrios allegedly got 22 of his family members on some payroll, including his sister, his son and his daughter, voters just yawned. Berrios won the 2010 primary with 38.2 percent of the vote in a three-candidate race, and he won the election with 60.2 percent of the vote in a four-candidate race. According to media sources, Berrios had raised $3 million from 2000 to 2010. Money counts.

Berrios had no opposition in 2014. He will in 2018. Moreno and state Senator Ira Silverstein (D-8) are angling to run, as are others, but in a crowded primary, Berrios could win.

Berrios’ base and aura of invincibility have crumbled. After April 7 he has become the proverbial toothless tiger.

In 2012 unknown 26-year-old North Carolina transplant Will Guzzardi challenged Toni Berrios in the Democratic primary and lost with 49.2 percent of the vote. Guzzardi never stopped campaigning, constantly knocking on doors. In 2014, the Berrios machine remained complacent. Guzzardi was that "nice young man," while Toni Berrios never defined herself or gave voters a reason to vote for her. Guzzardi won 5,316-3,484 (with 60.4 percent of the vote), and Berrios won her father’s ward by just 1,459-1,236. Something’s happening here.

However, instead of circling the wagons, Joe Berrios remained the arrogant power broker, raising money and cutting deals. As of Dec. 31, 2014, Berrios had $752,475 in his county campaign account and $502,540 in his ward account, while Suarez had $1,307,009. That should have deterred 2015 opposition.

36th Ward: Given citywide Hispanic population growth, Latinos demanded a new North Side Hispanic-majority ward. They got one. The 2011 City Council remap cannibalized Alderman Nick Sposato’s 36th Ward, creating a C-shaped monstrosity extending from Addison and Long west to Harlem and east to Fullerton and Kostner north of Grand, including parts of Belmont Terrace, Schorsch Village and Hermosa Park. It takes in parts of the 31st, 36th, 37th, 38th and 29th wards. State Representative Luis Arroyo (D-3), a Berrios ally, coveted the seat, but Berrios had other plans.

Berrios brokered a "son swap" deal by which Arroyo’s son, Luis Jr., would get Eddie Reyes’s Cook County Board seat and Omar Aquino, the son of Suarez’s best buddy, would get the aldermanic seat. However, according to insiders, Suarez began berating the elder Arroyo, claiming that he wasn’t doing enough to elect Aquino and that he was backing someone against him in the 31st Ward. Arroyo then recruited Santiago to run in the 31st Ward and Gil Villegas to run in the 36th Ward. He made alliances with Sposato, Moreno and Guzzardi, he got popular U.S. Representative Luis Guttierez (D-4) to endorse both his candidates, he built a precinct organization of epic proportions with allies such as Moreno sending workers, and he jumped on Garcia’s bandwagon. Arroyo now reigns

The anti-Emanuel Service Employees International Union, representing city workers, and the Chicago Teachers Union didn’t get involved. It was basically Berrios’ (and Suarez’) money versus Arroyo’s manpower. The message was "change," but voters understood the drift: Get rid of Berrios. "He is so despised," one Arroyo ally said.

The voters responded. On Feb. 24, Suarez got 2,778 votes (48.0 percent of the total) to 2,145 for Santiago, in a turnout of 5,785. On April 7 Santiago won 21 precincts and triumphed 4,218-4,139, getting 50.5 percent of the vote. Garcia won the ward 5,265-3,192, with 62.3 percent of the vote. The pro-Emanuel Suarez increased his vote by 1,361, and Santiago increased hers by 2,073. How can two guys with a combined $2,562,024 blow an election with only 8,357 voters? Don’t hire those guys to manage your portfolio. Santiago will take out Berrios as committeeman in 2016.

Ward, Aquino proved to be a lightweight, getting 2,118 votes (35.6 percent of the total) in a turnout of 5,954; Villegas got 1,944 votes (32.7 percent). In the runoff, Garcia won the ward 4,847-3,551, with 57.7 percent of the vote, and Villegas easily dispatched Aquino 4,594-3,656 (with 55.7 percent of the vote), in a turnout of 8,250. Arroyo will be elected committeeman in 2016.

But Joe Berrios need not worry. All is well in "Fantasyland." As his spokesman averred: I made this all up.

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


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