‘Swords of Damocles’ avoided by Sposato

by RUSS STEWART

When Nick Sposato was elected alderman of the 36th Ward in 2011, in a major upset of the Banks-DeLeo machine, he had multiple "Swords of Damocles" hanging over his head. In ancient Greek mythology, Damocles was seated at a feast under a sword hanging by a single hair, so as to understand the perils of being a ruler.

Amazingly, that hair is still intact, and Sposato is still alderman — albeit from a newly created ward. His saga is the stuff of legends. "I Love My Alderman" is the mantra.

First, the 36th Ward, centered on Galewood, Montclare, Belmont Heights (around Harlem and North avenues), and up the Cumberland Avenue corridor to Montrose Avenue, was under the thumb of Bill Banks, who was elected alderman in 1983 and who was the chairman of the powerful Zoning Committee when he resigned in 2009. Banks and his ally, state Senator Jim DeLeo, ruled unchallenged during the 1990s and 2000s through a combination of financial, physical and psychological intimidation.

The two of them usually hauled in about $1 million annually in campaign donations. Developers and zoning lawyers found $100 tickets to Banks’ annual fund-raisers irresistible, and DeLeo was the go-to guy in Springfield for the gambling, restaurant and liquor industries. In addition, Banks, despite the Shakman decree and the evaporation of city patronage, could still field five or six workers in every precinct, and he could count on his Elmwood Park allies to furnish more if needed. Finally, it wasn’t smart to cross the Banks/DeLeo machine.

There would be consequences.

In 2007 Sposato, a Chicago firefighter, filed to run for alderman. "I wanted to give voters a choice," Sposato said. "They stayed in power because voters didn’t have any choice." Banks was unopposed in four of the six aldermanic elections from 1983 to 2003 and in all six of the elections for Democratic committeeman from 1984 to 2004. After being elected state senator unopposed in 1992, DeLeo never had an opponent in five subsequent primaries or elections.

"It wasn’t that they were doing a good job," Sposato said. "It was that everybody was afraid to challenge them." Banks tried to knock Sposato off the ballot and failed.

As expected, Sposato was crushed in the election, receiving 23.8 percent of the vote in his woefully underfunded and unorganized campaign. Sposato spent $40,000 ($25,000 from himself) and had about 20 workers, while Banks spent $300,000 and had about 200 workers. Banks won 8,315-2,599 (with 76.2 percent of the vote). In any other ward, Sposato’s loss would be a humiliation; instead, it was an epiphany, as Banks’ steamroller malfunctioned. Even though Banks won all 55 of the ward’s precincts, 2,599 people had the audacity to vote against him. After Sposato’s loss, the sun still shined, Sposato still had his firefighter job, and the Banks/DeLeo machine began to implode.

Banks had 16,192 votes in 1983, 12,012 votes in 1995, 13,534 votes in 1999 and 8,291 votes in 2003. The trajectory was clear: his base was crumbling. In a ward with a population of 55,000 and with 28,000 registered voters, only 29 percent of them voted for Banks.

After resigning in 2009, Banks prevailed on Mayor Rich Daley to appoint his chief of staff John Rice (who was really his driver) as his successor, and DeLeo retired in 2010. In 2011 five anti-Rice candidates filed for alderman, including Sposato. Rahm Emanuel’s money machine (and the public sector unions) poured funds into adjacent wards, but Banks and Rice ran an old-fashioned campaign, with workers going door to door and ordering voters to vote for Rice, and they didn’t do any negative mailings. That was a big mistake.

As Banks-backed Emanuel won the ward with 50.1 percent of the vote (7,182 votes) in the municipal election, Rice got 48.1 percent (6,756 votes), 426 fewer than Emanuel, while Sposato got 3,373 votes (24.0 percent) and the rest of the anti-Rice field got 3,923 votes. Rice got 1,559 fewer votes than Banks did in 2007, and the anti-Banks vote nearly tripled, from 2,599 to 7,296. A Rice-Sposato runoff ensued, and the four losers endorsed Sposato.

Nothing in politics is more pernicious that failing to win when you’re supposed to win. Rice was supposed to win outright. Ward voters, heretofore resigned to the status quo, suddenly became emboldened. We can get rid of these guys, they thought, and they did. Despite five to eight workers in every precinct and tons of mailings, Rice was resoundingly rejected. Sposato won 5,651-4,423 (with 56.1 percent of the vote), while Rice got 2,333 fewer votes than in the municipal election, and Sposato won 41 of 55 precincts. It was miraculous.

Second, immediately after winning, Sposato was placed atop the City Council’s "Squish List." He had no clout. He was the "accidental alderman," a one-termer, and he beat Banks, an insider, so when ward boundaries were redrawn in mid-2011 to create two new Hispanic-majority wards, a South Side black ward and a Northwest Side white ward had to go. Sposato’s was gone, chopped up among three wards: 45 percent was merged into the 38th Ward, where Tim Cullerton was the alderman, 20 percent (11 precencts in Galewood-Montclare) was merged into the black-majority 29th Ward, and 35 percent (including Sposato’s home precinct) was merged into the new Hispanic-majority 36th Ward, where Joe Berrios would pick the next alderman.

"I had no input (into the remap process)," Sposato said. "Nobody asked my opinion. They just told me, ‘This is the new map.’ It was just like the old 36th Ward."

Under the law, after a remap, an incumbent can run in any new ward which contains a part of his old ward. Realistically, Sposato’s only option was to move into that portion of the 36th Ward that became part of the new 38th Ward and take on Cullerton, who was wired into the trade unions and who always voted with Emanuel. He moved into the new ward in 2014.

However, therein lay a huge tactical and ethical problem, Sposato was elected to serve the 36th Ward, as it existed in 2011, through 2015. Since 45 percent of his ward was now in the 38th Ward, 55 percent of his constituents couldn’t vote for him again. "I had to serve those who elected me," he said.

Third, Sposato had been diagnosed with early-stage multiple sclerosis, which is a progressive loss of muscular coordination for which there is no cure. He could no longer walk precincts, as he did in 2011. The sword was about to fall.

However, it didn’t. Cullerton announced his retirement just weeks before Sposato announced he was running in the 38th Ward. The unions — particularly the Service Employees International Union, the collective bargainer for city employees, and the Chicago Teachers Union, plus the police and firefighters unions — quickly coalesced behind Sposato, who differed with the Emanuel Administration on such matters as the school strike, school and library closings, privatization, police hires, charter schools, an elected school board, City Council ethics and pension reform. On the minimum wage, Sposato sought $15 an hour, not $13 an hour.

The "Cullerton Clan," which had a stranglehold on the aldermanic seat since 1935, was bereft of possible candidates. There were no more Cullertons to run. They settled on Heather Sattler, the daughter of Cullerton’s former chief of staff. Seven candidates filed, including Sposato, Sattler, Tom Caravette (who lost the 2011 runoff to Cullerton 4,761-3,119, getting 39.6 percent of the vote), Jerry Paszek, Mike Duda, Carmen Hernandez and Belinda Cadiz. A runoff seemingly was assured. Nobody would get 50 percent of the vote.

However, Sposato thought he could win. He ran an astute, multi-faceted primary campaign. First, he became the "robophone" candidate. He was on his iPod 24/7. He returned every call, whether to his cell number (which he freely gave out) or to his office’s land line, within an hour, even on weekends. Instead of walking, he was talking, and people were astounded. The goal was to solidify his base in the old 36th Ward precincts. Second, Sposato ran a "no negativity" campaign, with nary an ill word about any foe. Every mailing was positive. As in 2011, he didn’t want to alienate the anti-Cullerton, anti-Emanuel field. Third, the SEIU weighed in with expenditures of about $150,000, funding 12 mailings at $5,000 each, all of which stressed the alderman’s firefighter background and hyped "public safety." The SEIU mailers effectively introduced Sposato to voters in the 24 old 38th and 45th ward precincts and reinforced his support in the 17 old 36th Ward precincts. Fourth, Sposato raised and spent another $200,000, with eight positive mailings. Fifth, through his contacts and union sources, Sposato built a fabulous "ground game," with multiple workers in every precinct identifying pro-Sposato voters.

His opponents lacked both funding and infrastructure. Caravette and Hernandez raised no money, and Sattler raised barely $40,000.

It was a blowout for Sposato. Turnout on Feb. 24 was 11,183, and Sposato led the field with 5,992 votes (53.6 percent of the total cast), to 4,825 for the six others, with Sattler getting 16.1 percent. Sposato’s vote in the 17 old 36th Ward precincts was 3,667, an amazing 71.7 percent of the 5,111 votes cast. In the 24 old 38th and 45th ward precincts, Sposato got 38.2 percent of the vote. "I Love My Alderman" eradicated the "Swords of Damocles" and also eradicated the "Cullerton Clan."

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

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