Self-preservation in committeeman races


It’s a job nobody really wants, but it’s also a job nobody wants anybody else to have.

I’m talking about the unpaid post of Democratic ward committeeman in Chicago’s 50 wards and, to a lesser extent, in the 30 suburban townships. About 40 years ago, before the Shakman decree ended the patronage system, being a Democratic committeeman was akin to being a Good Humor Man: lots of good jobs and favors to disperse, and a regular flow of graft.

No longer. There are no patronage jobs and no graft, and the "favors" are city services parceled out by the alderman or obtained by dialing 311. Now they’re called "constituent services."

Nevertheless, no astute alderman wants someone else as the ward Democratic committeeman, for one reason — self-preservation. It’s tough enough getting re-elected every 4 years without having a permanent intra-ward rival who is always ready to criticize and undermine the alderman and who can spend years building an organization of "anti-alderman" dissidents.

The March 15, 2016, primary election will feature nasty contests, which will have spillover effects in 2018 and 2019. Two caveats: First, the committeemen who were elected in 2012 were from the wards that were created after the 2001 redistricting. Some of them can run in the new wards, if any part of the old ward is in the new ward. Second, the turnout in Democratic committeeman contests is half or less than in aldermanic contests.

In the 31st Ward, long under the thumb of Joe Berrios, the Berrios machine has collapsed. Berrios is the county assessor, the county Democratic Party chairman and the ward’s Democratic committeeman. His daughter Toni lost her Illinois House seat in 2014. Insurgent Milly Santiago, a Spanish-language television broadcaster, beat 24-year Alderman Ray Suarez in the April runoff election, and she will run against Berrios for committeeman in 2016. If she defeats him, he will lose his party chairmanship, and if he loses his chairmanship, he will not be slated for assessor in 2018. The 2016 election will be a political life-or-death experience for Berrios.

Don’t write Berrios’ eulogy yet. Santiago topped Suarez in the April 7 runoff 4,218-4,139, getting 50.5 percent of the vote in a turnout of 8,357. Of the ward’s 21,792 registered voters, 38.3 percent voted in the runoff. The presumption is that a Santiago vote was an anti-Berrios vote and that a Suarez vote was a pro-Berrios vote. Suarez lost "because we supported Emanuel," Berrios said. Chuy Garcia won the ward 5,265-3,192 (with 62.3 percent of the vote). Berrios contends that the Santiago vote was anti-Rahm Emanuel, not anti-Berrios. In 2012 Berrios was re-elected 2,617-1,669, in a turnout of 4,286. In 2014 Toni Berrios won the 31st Ward 2,678-1,445, in a turnout of 4,123. In the 2010 primary for assessor, Berrios got 2,093 votes in his ward (65.7 percent of the total), in a turnout of 3,185.

So let’s do the math: The average pro-Berrios vote was 3,156, the average turnout was 6,305, and the average anti-Berrios vote was 3,149. If the 2016 turnout is under 6,000, Berrios will win.

In the 38th Ward, long the fiefdom of the "Cullerton Clan," the usual suspects are emerging as Patti Jo Cullerton, the current committeeman, leaves her post. Alderman Nick Sposato, whose 36th Ward was merged with the 38th Ward in order to ensure his defeat in this year’s election, won a solid Feb. 24 victory over six opponents with 53.6 percent of the vote. He is the 36th Ward committeeman, and he said that he intends to run for that post in the 38th Ward. However, so do state Representative Rob Martwick (D-19), who moved into the 38th Ward from Norridge in 2013, and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Cynthia Santos, who moved into the ward from the 39th Ward and who previously resided in Joe Kotlarz’ old 35th Ward.

Martwick, whose father Robert Martwick is the Norwood Park Township Democratic committeeman, said he would like to run for committeeman. "I’d work for unity, not dissension," Martwick said. "I’ll run as the consensus candidate if everybody (meaning Sposato and Santos) agrees."

Sposato, being disagreeable, said "Martwick is with Berrios," noting that Martwick endorsed Omar Aquino in the recent 36th Ward runoff against Gil Villegas, infuriating anti-Berrios state Representative Luis Arroyo, a Sposato ally who is set to take Sposato’s place as 36th Ward committeeman and who likely will be opposed by Aquino. Sposato grasps reality: If Martwick is the committeeman, he’ll spend 3 years plotting to beat Sposato in 2019. If Sposato is the committeeman, he protects himself.

Martwick said that Sposato had a bad experience in the old 36th Ward, dealing with Bill Banks and John Rice. Now it’s the "Age of Aquarius." Trust me, Martwick says.

The 38th Ward contains 41 precincts, including 17 from the old 36th Ward, where Sposato is much beloved and where Martwick and Santos are unknown. Sposato got 71.7 percent of the vote in those precincts on Feb. 24. There are 28 38th Ward precincts in Martwick’s House district, with 37 in the 45th Ward and six in Norridge. Of the four times that Martwick was on the ballot in 2012 and 2014, he was unopposed in three elections. He got 56.9 percent of the vote in the 2012 primary. "He’s totally unknown," one politician said.

Santos, who is of Greek heritage, always had significant support from Hispanic voters who thought she was Hispanic, but there are few Hispanics in the new 38th Ward.

Sposato will win 60-40. If Martwick and Santos run, they’d each get 20 percent of the vote. Expect Martwick to fold.

In the 35th Ward, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is on a fast track to Congress. The unctuous U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4) is closely aligned with Emanuel, whom he endorsed over Garcia. "He (Gutierrez) is just absolutely detested by Hispanic voters," both Puerto Ricans on the North Side and Mexican-Americans on the South Side, said Noe Favela, who was involved in the Garcia and Santiago campaigns. Ramirez-Rosa, age 26, is gay, and he demolished Alderman Rey Colon with 67.3 percent of the vote. Colon lost the committeemanship to Nancy Schiavone in 2012, and Schiavone lost a race for state representative in 2014. Ramirez-Rosa will trounce her in 2016. In the white liberal areas, a quarter of the ward, a gay candidate trumps a woman, while elsewhere a Hispanic candidate trumps a white woman.

In addition, Ramirez-Rosa is smart. His parents are Puerto Rican (Ramirez) and Mexican (Rosa), so he hyphenated his surname, appealing to all Hispanic voters. It’s sort of like running in a white ethnic area as Madigan-Lipinski or O’Connor-Annunzio. He was an aide to Gutierrez for 2 years, so he’s not going run against him in 2016 or 2018, but after he’s re-elected in 2019, he’ll be ready for Washington.

In the 30th Ward, Alderman Ariel Reboyras bumbled and stumbled to a fourth term. Emanuel, whom Reboyras endorsed, lost the ward to Garcia 4,423-3,067 (with 40.9 percent of the vote). Reboyras, who is of Central American heritage, was unopposed on Feb. 24 and got 4,119 votes. He won’t have that luxury in 2019. Favela is running against him for committeeman, and a plethora of candidates will surface in 2019.

In the 41st Ward, the operative phrase is "I’d rather not quit if I don’t have to." When it comes to knowing when to quit, the difference between athletes and politicians is elemental. The body tells the athlete, and the voters tell the politician.

On April 7, voters sent a message to first-term Alderman Mary O’Connor. Anthony Napolitano defeated O’Connor 9,702-9,087, getting 51.6 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 615 votes. The turnout for the runoff was 18,789. Now O’Connor is responding, beat me. "She’s committed to the community," state Senator John Mulroe (D-10) said of his ally. "She’s going to run for re-election (as committeeman)" in 2016. One candidate has emerged from Napolitano’s organization: Andy DiVito, a retired city Aviation Department worker who ran Garcia’s ward campaign. Emanuel won the ward 12,007-6,766, with 64.0 percent of the vote.

You can’t beat somebody (O’Connor), however discredited, with nobody (DiVito). Of course, that’s why O’Connor was so complacent in her 2015 re-election bid. Who was Napolitano? Who was Joe Lomanto? They were nobodies. The presumption was that an Irish-surnamed woman would easily beat two Italian-surnamed men, but Napolitano, a firefighter, struck a spark, and almost a hundred first responders and their families and city workers were swarming through the ward, led by Brian Doherty, O’Connor’s predecessor. The "enthusiasm factor" was critical, and since O’Connor was seen as Emanuel’s lapdog, the public sector unions spent some money on Napolitano, but the trades unions and Emanuel’s political action committee funded O’Connor.

O’Connor ran for committeeman in 2008, getting 5,744 votes (45.5 percent of the total) in a turnout of 12,613 and defeating Ralph Capparelli. Using that as a springboard, O’Connor ran for alderman in 2011, when Doherty retired, against 10 candidates and finished first in the municipal election with 30.5 percent of the vote. In the runoff, against Doherty’s aide Maurita Gavin, O’Connor won 7,354-7,104, with 50.9 percent of the vote in a turnout of 14,458. She was unopposed for committeeman in 2012, getting 4,072 votes.

So let’s do the math. The average turnout for alderman is 19,407, and the average O’Connor vote is 8,220. The average turnout for committeeman is 8,342, and the average O’Connor vote is 4,908. If turnout in 2016 is under 9,000, O’Connor will win.

Unlike for alderman, there is no runoff for committeeman. Only Napolitano can beat her, but he won’t waste his time and money and risk defeat. But why worry? O’Connor was the committeeman for 7 years, and she couldn’t get re-elected. Why would she do better in a 2019 rematch?

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