Democrats’ slatemakers learn to ‘Just Say Yes’


For decades, "Just Say No" has been the mantra of drug counselors, sexual abstinence advocates and date-rape theorists. "No Means No." Does anybody subscribe to the notion of "Just Say Yes"?

Well, the Cook County Democratic Party does. Its members’ mantra is "Just Say Aye," as was aptly demonstrated at the Democrats’ slatemaking session on Aug. 18 and 19, where 80 elected Democratic committeemen — 50 from Chicago’s wards and 30 from the county’s suburban townships — did their duty, shouted "aye" when instructed, fulfilled all expectations, wasted two days of their lives, and went home with their egos in a sling.

"It wasn’t democratic, it was dictatorial," 36th Ward Committeeman Nick Sposato said. "The committeemen were never given any choice. They were simply told who was chosen."

Democratic committeemen have negligible power. They control no patronage jobs. They are unpaid. Their only enduring "perk" was that they voted to endorse party candidates at slatemaking sessions, be they countywide, citywide or in congressional and legislative districts or judicial subcircuits, and, of course, they could slate themselves, as needed. Not anymore. They have been neutered.

Input is over. The bosses reign supreme, and those committeeman/bosses include Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (who chaired the Slatemaking Committee), county Assessor Joe Berrios, Aldermen Ed Burke, Pat O’Connor and Dick Mell, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, and state Senators Don Harmon and John Cullerton. All others are irrelevant. They decide whom the Slatemaking Committee picks, and the committee dictates whom the committeemen endorse.

Technically, every committeeman has a weighted vote at slatemaking, which is the number of Democratic votes cast in his or her ward or township in the most recent Democratic primary, which was in 2014. In that primary, 182,283 Democratic ballots were cast in Chicago and 103,445 were cast in the suburbs. Hence, to be endorsed, any aspirant needs 142,861 weighted votes, but why bother? Preckwinkle ran the slatemaking like it was the Politburo: Show up. Sit down. Shut up. Vote "aye." Go home, and throw those useless weighted votes in the nearest trash receptacle.

Since the Democrats control every countywide office, slatemaking is tantamount to election. The offices on the 2016 countywide ballot are state’s attorney, recorder of deeds, clerk of the Circuit Court, four Metropolitan Water Reclamation District seats (three for 6-year terms and one for a vacant 2-year term), 2nd District Board of Review commissioner, two Appellate Court justices (with three alternates) and eight Circuit Court judgeships (with five alternates), plus U.S. senator. That’s a total of potential 26 slated candidates, of whom 23 were anointed by voice vote, not an actual weighted vote. Two offices, senator and state’s attorney, got a "no recommendation" by voice vote, and only on one office, the 2-year water district seat, did the assembled committeemen have to rouse themselves, loosen their vocal cords and actually cast a vote. Here’s the dialogue, in rough:

Preckwinkle: "The committee recommends candidate X for endorsement for office Y."

Some Committeeman: "I second."

Preckwinkle: "Are there any motions?"

Some Committeeman: "I move the question."

Preckwinkle: "So moved. The chair calls for a vote. Indicate your preference."

Chorus of "ayes," or at least no "nays."

Preckwinkle: "The ‘ayes’ have it, and X is endorsed for Y."

Wasn’t that easy? That’s "participatory democracy" in action. A wonder to behold. There are 285,000 Democratic voters in Chicago and Cook County, and a couple dozen decide who gets the party imprimatur.

The clear takeaway from the slating: Black committeemen, led by Preckwinkle, have an absolute veto, no one gets slated or re-slated without their consent, and any office held by an African American will remain so forevermore.

Toni Preckwinkle proved that she’s in control of the black politicians, and the white committeemen (Madigan, Burke, et al.) conceded to her on the 2016 slatings or non-slatings in exchange for their control of the 2018 slating for sheriff, when Ed Burke Jr. will replace beleaguered incumbent Tom Dart.

A glowing press release was issued by Berrios, the party chairman. The "open primary" for U.S. senator — the most formidable candidates being U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-8) and Chicago Urban League chief executive officer Andrea Zopp — was occasioned by the fact that "none of the five candidates" who addressed the slatemakers "were able to garner sufficient votes for support." How do they know that? There was no weighted vote taken. The fix/veto was in.

Preckwinkle vetoed an endorsement of Duckworth because black committeemen want a slate in the March 15 primary which includes Zopp for senator and other black candidates for countywide office. Preckwinkle also vetoed an endorsement of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez because Preckwinkle’s black chief of staff, Kim Foxx, is running against her. The white committeemen are more than willing to let Preckwinkle do the heavy lifting. Getting rid of Alvarez is everybody’s goal. With no endorsement, each committeeman can decide whom to endorse, which means that the black committeemen can opt for Zopp and Foxx.

The Berrios press release trumpets that "ours is an extremely diverse ticket, drawing from the suburbs and Chicago, and individuals from various ethnicities." In fact, of the six slated countywide candidates, five are women and three are black. Six of the 10 slated judicial candidates are women. Add the candidacies of Duckworth and Zopp for senator and Alvarez and Foxx for state’s attorney, and "diversity" becomes almost farcical. "There was no diversity," Sposato said. "Almost every candidate is a woman or is black or Hispanic or Asian. White men need not apply."

The dumping of Alvarez is noteworthy. Four candidates sought slating: Alvarez, Foxx, county Commissioner John Fritchey and Donna More, a white attorney. The "no endorsement" was by voice vote, so it was impossible to discern who backed whom. The rap on Alvarez is twofold. First, she micro-manages her office and does not afford courtroom assistants any discretion with regard to pleas, sentencing and bond reductions. Second, her zeal to be a "tough prosecutor" has resulted in a backlog of pending cases, which means that prisoners remain longer in County Jail, and that costs the county money which it can ill afford. In fact, a sizable number of non-bondable inmates are housed in other county’s jails.

Because courtroom prosecutors need a supervisor’s consent for any plea, cases are routinely continued, and a case which could be resolved in two months takes a year. Because bonds are high, minorities get put into County Jail and remain there. Then there is the matter of hiring. Alvarez hires many women, straight out of prestigious law schools. Committeemen and politicians have no input.

In her statement to the slatemakers, Alvarez insisted that she has "been the most innovative state’s attorney in the history of Cook County." She probably also has been the most expensive and definitely the least liked. The outlook: Expect the white leaders to strong-arm white committeemen to back Foxx. Alvarez has no political base, and she has only about $300,000 in campaign funds. More is an affluent litigator from a large Loop law firm, ands she promises to self-fund; her television ads will be critical of Alvarez. Fritchey is wired politically, having been a state representative for 14 years, but he is not part of the inner circle. Foxx is favored.

Duckworth will win the Senate primary easily. She is well known and well funded, and she has the support of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, but Preckwinkle understands black politics, and she wants Zopp to dump lots of money into the predominantly black wards and townships and on black radio stations. That will increase black turnout, which helps Foxx.

The only contested vote was for the 2-year Metropolitan Water Reclamation District vacancy, which was an embarrassment to Berrios. Incumbents Mariyana Spyropoulos, who is white, and Barbara McGowan, who is black, were slated, along with 2014 loser Josina Morita, who is Asian. Four candidates sought the short term: former alderman Ray Suarez, from Berrios’ ward, Todd Stroger, who lost for county board president to Preckwinkle in 2010, Tom Greenhaw, a self-professed "Green" from Evanston who is backed by U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky’s (D-9) organization and water district Commissioner Debra Shore, and Velda Morales Bavino, a Latina activist.

When the weighted vote was cast, Greenhaw finished first and the black committeemen supported Stroger. Suarez was third. In a runoff between the top two, Greenhaw was endorsed, with the vote along racial lines. Stroger, who never could take no for an answer, is going to run in the primary anyway. The outlook: There will be two primaries, one nominee for the 2-year term and three nominees for the 6-year terms. In a one-on-one against Greenhaw, the party and the media would unite against Stroger, but in a crowded field, with black committeemen supporting him, he could edge out Morita.

Black incumbents Dorothy Brown and Karen Yarbrough were endorsed unopposed for clerk of court and recorder.

For the Appellate Court, two women were slated, one black. The three alternates were two black men and one Hispanic man. For the Circuit Court, where eight candidates were slated, three white men sneaked in, along with four women, one black and one Hispanic.

"It was a waste of every committeeman’s time," Sposato said of the slatemaking.

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