Men not sure losers in only a few county races
by RUSS STEWART
For more than two decades, since the legendary 1992 "Year of the Woman," Democratic primaries for Cook County office, including the obscure Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and even more obscure judicial contests, have been a "No Man’s Land."
There was a 1990s basketball-themed movie titled "White Men Can’t Jump." When it comes to winning a countywide nomination, white men can’t win when opposed by a woman, and black men fare little better.
The year 2016 looms as an aberration. A few white men may win, if only because there are too many women — and in the clerk of court race, too many black women — on the ballot.
With filing concluded and the media transfixed by the Chicago Police Department’s "crisis," already dubbed "Fallen Star" by the Sun-Times, it seems a safe conclusion that black voter turnout will surge, with black candidates as the beneficiaries. However, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a "Black Tuesday" on March 15, even though a black candidate is on the ballot for every office and a "Soul Slate" will be pushed in every black ward and township.
In the contest for clerk of the Circuit Court, the controversial and much-investigated 16-year incumbent, Dorothy Brown, was slated and then unslated after the feds indicted a staffer with ties to her husband, and she was replaced by Alderman Michelle Harris (8th), a South Side ally of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Also running are two other black candidates, former alderman Shirley Coleman and Tio Hardiman, who got 30 percent of the vote in the 2014 primary election against Governor Pat Quinn.
The fifth contender and the sole white candidate is lawyer Jacob Meister, who is developing surprising support among white Democratic committeemen. Meister could be 2016’s "Man of the Year."
Harris suffers from a "rub-off" effect. The clerk’s office, which handles the county’s legal filings and courtroom operations, has been run too ineptly for too long, under Brown and a string of her predecessors, including Aurie Pucinski, Morgan Finley and Matt Danaher. Brown has advanced the office from the 1980s to the 1990s, with carbon paper readily available in courtrooms to hand-write orders and no Xerox machines. Electronic filing of pleadings is still limited to certain divisions, and online access to case files is restricted to a chronology, not a view of actual documents.
If Harris replaces Brown, it will be the same old same old. The 2,300 employees will languish in a time warp, although Harris, unlike Brown, may not pressure them for campaign contributions. Reform the office? Not a chance under Harris. Remember, she comes from the 8th Ward, which bequeathed Cook County both John Stroger and Todd Stroger. It is the only ward where nurses at Stroger Hospital (formerly Cook County Hospital) are on call 24/7: When not working at the hospital, they multi-task by working precincts. Harris was the ward sanitation superintendent, then John Stroger’s county board aide, then Todd Stroger’s successor as alderman and committeeman. Just who we need to run the court system.
Brown has no money. As of Oct. 1, she had $36,985 in campaign funds on hand, but she will not go quietly into the night. She submitted close to 30,000 nominating petition signatures, of which more than half were defective, but she’s still on the ballot, and she will get 15 to 20 percent of the vote, nearly all coming from the black base. Harris had $229,940 on hand, and she is relying on her fellow committeemen to deliver. She needs 75 to 80 percent of the black vote and half the white and Hispanic vote. Coleman and Hardiman are inconsequential, but they will amass a combined 5 to 8 percent of the vote.
Meister is in the right place at the right time. He can plausibly promise "reform" and "competency" without eliciting giggles. If he gets media endorsements, if the black vote is fractured, and if turnout in the suburbs and the predominantly white wards is as high as it was in 2012, Meister can win with 35 to 38 percent of the vote. Voters are weary of the same old you know what. Harris has "loser" written all over her. Only a Herculean effort by Preckwinkle can save her.
In the primary for Cook County state’s attorney, the only question is who replaces incumbent Anita Alvarez, Kim Foxx or Donna More. Bet on More.
Alvarez, who has been in office since 2008, faces an insurmountable task. She must persuade voters that she is not doing an incompetent job or that Foxx and More would do a more incompetent job. An unending series of botched prosecutions or non-prosecutions have made Alvarez unelectable. Her tough "law and order" appeal has been unmasked as a fraud, and she is tainted as a tool of the police and the politicians.
However, Foxx, Preckwinkle’s former chief of staff, must be careful. Trumpeting "law and disorder" will resonate in the black community and will spark higher turnout, but it will be racially polarizing. Will Foxx be a black state’s attorney or a state’s attorney who is black? There is a big difference. By focusing on the anti-Alvarez black/minority vote, she estranges white voters.
Once it becomes apparent that Alvarez is fading and that Foxx could win, More will surge. She can self-fund, and she had $101,474 on hand as of Oct. 1, but her credentials are flimsy. More was an assistant state’s attorney under Rich Daley, then a federal prosecutor, and she has been an attorney and lobbyist for the Illinois Gaming Board for the past 20 years. She’s about as "inside" as an "insider" can be. Can More promise to be tough on crime? That’s not credible, but she could vaguely promise to reform the office, eliminating political and police favoritism. That’s doable.
The Alvarez-Foxx-More primary is a referendum on the incumbent. "I’m not as incompetent as you think I am" is not a winning slogan. The Preckwinkle-Foxx machine is worth 35 to 40 percent of the vote, as a lot of committeemen, such as Joe Berrios (31st), will back her, but white powerhouses like Ed Burke (14th) and Mike Madigan (13th) are with Alvarez. The party chose to have an "open" primary, which means that Alvarez was not slated. Given her recent spate of negativity, and her fund-raising deficiencies, she will hard put to get 33 to 35 percent of the vote, but if Fox and More split the rest evenly, Alvarez has a path.
My early prediction: Non-black voters will be repulsed by Foxx and flock to More, who will win 41-37 percent, with 22 percent to Alvarez.
In the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District contest, the mantra is that "nobody knows nothing about nobody." That’s a triple negative, but it succinctly reflects the fact that voters know virtually nothing about the qualifications of the candidates and really don’t care. Yet they utilize the services of the water district every time their flush their toilet, as it’s the district’s task to process and cleanse solid and effluent waste and send it down the Mississippi River. With a $1.2 billion annual budget and 2,000 employees, the water district performs the vital function of rewarding contractors who donate copiously to the county Democratic Party and their endorsed candidates. The district is the Democrats’ "breadbasket."
Hence, the nine part-time water district commissioner jobs, with three elected every 2 years to 6-year terms, are prized possessions. All are Democrats. Each earns $70,000 annually, has a car and a staff and attends 22 3-hour meetings a year (which comes out to about $1,060 per hour), and they are perpetually obsessed with the art of self-advancement. Each commissioner lusts to be the board’s president, vice president or Finance Committee chairman, which means a bigger office, bigger staff and a salary kick . . . and some visibility. Some commissioners, such Jerry Cosentino in 1978, Pucinski in 1988 and Patrick Daley Thompson in 2015, went on to higher office, but district president Terry O’Brien got an anemic 23 percent of the vote when, as the only white candidate, he lost to Preckwinkle for county board president in 2010. The current water district board president, Mariyana Spyropoulos, hankers to run for Chicago mayor in 2019, but she might get ousted in the 2016 primary, like predecessors Nick Melas and Tom Fuller.
Such factors as slating, ballot position, ethnicity (positively meaning an Irish surname or negatively a European ethnic surname) and gender are decisive. Usually, when the field of contenders is 10 or more, either the slate wins or the first or last candidate on the ballot wins. When the field is smaller, gender and ballot position prevail. Incumbents Spyropoulos and Frank Avila won because they ran more than once and had excellent ballot position when they won.
There are 14 candidates in this year’s election, 10 for the three 6-year terms and four to fill the Thompson vacancy’s 2-year term. The top ballot position for the regular term went to the nonslated Kevin McDevitt, a retired 25-year water district motor vehicle dispatch supervisor. The next three are the all-woman slate of Spyropoulos, black incumbent Barbara McGowan (who is the board vice president) and 2014 loser Josina Morita, a Japanese American. Next are black former water district commissioner Pat Horton, Cary Capparelli, the son of former Northwest Side state representative Ralph Capparelli, who ran for the board in 2014 as a Republican but who has since come to his senses, and Joe Cook, a water district attorney. The outlook: McDevitt is a cinch, the slate not quite.
For the 2-year term, in a field of four men, the slated Tom Greenhaw is favored.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.