Union might determines victory in water district
by RUSS STEWART
There are two kinds of people in Cook County, those who flush a toilet, take a shower, use a dishwasher or fill a sewer and those who get enriched therefrom. Getting rid of household, human and industrial waste is not very glamorous, but it is very profitable.
Here’s a multiple choice question: What do you get when you mix "Greens," Greeks, Asians, liberals, gays, North Shore liberals, operating engineers, Mike Madigan, opportunistic Democratic committeemen and $500,000?
(a) A posh and trendy bar and eatery on Rush Street where the fare is overpriced and the staff is overpaid. (b) A lot of mutually hostile people. (c) A big, fat, environmentally conscious, well catered wedding. (d) A bunch of people who are ever-so-eager to oversee the treatment of liquid effluent and the processing of solid waste, as long as they’re well paid and it doesn’t take too much time. (e) The competitors in the March 15 Democratic primary to nominate four obscure Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioners.
If you answered (a) or (c), stop reading right now.
Second question: What happens when environmentalism confronts political reality? The unions, Greeks, Asians and speaker win, and the "Greens," liberals and gays lose.
"Nobody knows what we do, or really cares," Kevin McDevitt said of the water district’s function and operations. McDevitt recently retired as a motor vehicle dispatch supervisor, and he was trounced in the primary for water district commissioner. "When I was campaigning, people would ask me if I could reduce their water bill," he said.
McDevitt is right. The in-product, Lake Michigan water, is provided by the City of Chicago for its residents and sold to suburban municipalities through a vast piping network. The out-product ends up in a vast sewer network. The water district-treated effluent is dumped into the Sanitary and Ship Canal and wends its way south to the Mississippi River and eventually through New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico. The solid waste ends up in huge processing plants, where it is mixed, dried and eventually dumped in farmers’ fields. There also is the issue of flood water drainage. The "Deep Tunnel," built over several decades to collect rainwater runoff and alleviate flooding, has cost $3 billion to date.
Someone has to do that sanitizing work, and about 5 to 8 percent of every Cook County taxpayers’ property tax bill reflects the cost, which is $2.9 billion annually, including pensions. The district employs 1,700 people, all covered by civil service, of whom roughly 700 are unionized, most of whom are operating engineers employed in the various treatment plants, with a smattering of in-house laborers and electricians. The remainder are highly paid bureaucrats and attorneys, along with nine elected commissioners (all Democrats) who serve 6-year terms, are paid $60,000 annually, have a staff and a car, attend two meetings per month, and vote on the budget allocations. The 2016 budget is $1.21 billion.
Therein lies the water district’s raison d’etre — the $1 billion paid annually to well connected construction contractors who, predictably, deposit a share of their profits in the campaign committees of well connected Democratic politicians. That’s why those nine commissioners matter. The district’s president and Finance Committee chairman matter. That’s why the unions and Madigan spent more than $500,000 to nominate the nonslated Marty Durkan, a business agent of Local 150 of the Operating Engineers, for the 2-year term, and that’s why the slate of president Mariyana Spyropoulos, who is Greek, vice president Barbara McGowan, who is black, and second-time candidate Josina Morita, who is Japanese Asian, won easily for the three 6-year terms.
This is how it works: Incumbents and slated candidates hit on the contractors for donations. They promptly respond lavishly. Then Democratic committeemen, especially in the West Side and South Side predominantly black wards, hit on the water district candidates for donations, which the slate lavishly provides. Spyropoulos, with her Greek base, raised $155,000 and borrowed $359,000, most from her family. Morita tapped into the Japanese-American base, to which the Democrats eagerly cater, raised and spent more than $300,000 during 2014-16. McGowan raised and spent $22,369, almost all of it coming from outside the black community. Local 150 collects a ton of union dues, which go to favored water district aspirants.
In effect, it’s "Shakedown City." Money trickles down. "I had (Democratic) committeemen calling me repeatedly for money," McDevitt, who raised a meager $20,000, said. "I lost because they outspent me, made deals with committeemen and had TV, radio and billboard advertising."
"I ran well in the suburbs, but not in (Chicago’s) black wards," McDevitt said. For the slate, it was money well spent.
In other countywide races, being slated was counterproductive. Not for the water district. The Spyropoulos-McGowan-Morita team faced McDevitt, water district attorney Joe Cook and Cary Capparelli, the son of a former state representative. "It was the year of the women," McDevitt said. He was first on the ballot, a perch which normally ensures victory, especially with an Irish surname. In the 2014 election turnout was 33 percent; this year it was closer to 50 percent. A lot of non-regular, irregular and usually unconcerned people got motivated, with Bernie Sanders getting more than 500,000 votes in Cook County. The Democratic turnout was nearly 1.1 million. The bulk of Sanders voters went against slated candidates, such as Anita Alvarez and Michelle Harris, but voted for female candidates for judge and the water district.
McGowan finished first. An Irish surname, plus her gender and black base, made her unbeatable. The drop-off from president to commissioner was more than 500,000. Normally getting 200,000 was enough to win a water district spot, McDevitt said. He got 303,170 votes, finishing fifth, to 321,814 for Cook. The Spyropoulos/McGowan/Morita slate got 423,313, 517,239 and 388,766 votes, respectively. In a non-presidential year like 2014, Morita likely would have lost.
Election to the 2-year term was occasioned by the resignation of Commissioner Patrick Daley Thompson, the nephew and grandson of former Chicago mayors, who is rapidly climbing the political ladder and who now is the 11th Ward alderman. Being a water district commissioner, if only for 3 years, gave him credibility for the move up. To fill the balance of Thompson’s term, the Democrats slated Tom Greenhaw, a youthful "Green" protege of district Commissioner Debra Shore, who lusts for Spyropoulos’ job. Shore is part of the Evanston-based North Shore political machine of U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky’s (D-9). Greenhaw faced Durkan and Andrew Seo, a water district employee.
The great fallacy about the district is that it is some kind of environmental protector. In reality, it doesn’t prevent environmental degradation. Instead, it just diverts it. Greenhaw, the party’s token leftist, should have won, but three men and no women ran. The slam on Greenhaw was that he would be a puppet of Shore, and Shore was going to "privatize" the operating engineers’ jobs. No proof of that intent was ever submitted, but Local 150 wanted to make sure that Shore didn’t have the five votes to displace Spyropoulos as president.
Durkan’s campaign was classic Madigan subterfuge and lies. Madigan, as the state Democratic Party chairman, sent out five joint Harris-Durkan mailings, at $20,000 a pop, to Democratic and woman-only households. The unions kicked in Durkan’s share. The fliers proclaimed that Durkan would protect water quality in Cook County, unlike the situation in Flint, Mich., and that Republican Governor Bruce Rauner somehow was going to make every gulp of tap water a life-threatening event. The water district does not supply water, it gets rid of polluted water, and voters, in their infinite stupidity, bought this drivel.
Durkan raised and spent $264,101, with loans of $180,561, and outside sources dumped in another $200,000 in in-kind donations. Greenhaw ran well along the Lakefront and the North Shore, but he spent only $26,912. Durkan got a third of the vote in the black-majority wards, carried the white-majority wards, and won the suburbs 124,415-124,280. Clearly, the party did not step up for Greenhaw. Durkan, who lives in the 41st Ward, will be Local 150’s guardian, and he will be one of the slated candidates in 2018, along with incumbents Shore and Kari Steele, who is black. Durkan got 334,416 votes, to 296,262 for Greenhaw and 236,956 for Seo.
Now the fun begins. The subtexts to the 2016 primary were stopping Shore or ousting Spyropoulos, who harbors far-fetched 2019 Chicago mayoral ambitions. According to water district sources, commissioners Cynthia Santos and Shore covet the president’s job, which means they need four commissioners besides themselves to prevail. Santos is the district’s reigning renegade, having won as a nonslated candidate in 1996, 2008 and 2014; McGowan is allied with her. Had any of the men won the 6-year primary, they would have backed Santos, who has a Hispanic-sounding name who but is Greek. Shore is allied with Morita, but Greenhaw’s defeat dooms her. Steele is allied with Spyropoulos, and she wants McGowan’s post.
Incumbents Frank Avila, the Finance Committee chair, and Tim Bradford, an African American from the south suburbs, will stick with Spyropoulos. That makes Durkan the kingmaker, which, in actuality, makes Local 150 the kingmaker. Durkan will opt for Spyropoulos. There will be no privatization of any district job, and that $1 billion will keep flowing to contractors and trades unions.
In Cook County politics, you get what you pay for.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.