Teachers’ unions score big victory with Aquino




by RUSS STEWART

Hell hath no fury like a union scorned, as Angelica Alfaro discovered to her chagrin in the Democratic primary for state senator in the 2nd District. A charter school advocate elected to the Illinois Senate? Not over our metaphorical and collective dead bodies, roared the Chicago Teachers’ Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

They poured money and manpower into the district, hanging the "R&R" — meaning Rahm and Rauner — label around Alfaro’s neck. Multiple mailings proclaimed her a "Rauner Democrat," supportive of his agenda in Springfield, and a "Rahm Democrat" who would close more public schools. The unions disproved Abraham Lincoln’s shopworn maxim: You can fool all of the people all of the time.

So clout-heavy were the teachers’ unions that even the perpetually squabbling Hispanic politicians in the North Side Chicago district temporarily shelved their rivalries and animosities and exerted a maximum and nearly frenetic effort to beat Alfaro, an official with the Noble charter school network, and nominate Omar Aquino, who won 21,459-19,068 with 52.9 percent of the vote.

The unions’ power is so pervasive that the 36th Ward’s new Democratic boss, state Representative Luis Arroyo (D-3), who fought a bitter 2015 race to defeat Joe Berrios-backed Aquino for alderman, carrying his ward 4,594-3,656 for Gil Villegas, who got 56.7 percent of the vote, switched gears and delivered a 4,663-2,381 2016 majority in his ward for Aquino over Alfaro for state senator.

The 2nd District opening occurred because of the ineptitude and complacency of state Senator Willie Delgado (D-2), a longtime political fixture in the Puerto Rican-majority area, which takes in all or parts of 10 wards. Getting on the ballot is a no brainer. It takes a minimum of 1,000 valid signatures on Illinois Senate nominating petitions, 2,000 just to have a safe buffer, and 3,000 maximum. With Delgado’s connections, how could he bungle it? He did. Delgado is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He could have snapped his fingers, and the CTU and the IFT would have sent scores of flunkies into the district to get signatures. He didn’t.

Delgado, in his infinite nonwisdom, filed barely more than 1,000 signatures on the first day. Alfaro also filed on the first day. Rumors circulated that Alfaro’s volunteers and lawyers were combing through Chicago Board of Elections registration records and that a challenge was imminent. If Delgado were knocked off the ballot for insufficient valid signatures, Alfaro would win unopposed, so Delgado had three options. Plan A was to hire the best election lawyers that money could buy and hope for the best. Plan B was to circulate and file another set of petitions, as he was still within the 7-day filing window, and withdraw his pending petitions. Plan C was to get someone else on the ballot, which was Aquino, who filed on the last day, in late November of 2015, with sufficient signatures.

By Christmas, Delgado, facing the humiliation of being tossed off the ballot, withdrew, but Plan C gave the unions a fallback option. It would be an Aquino-Alfaro battle, not a Delgado-Alfaro battle. They still had a chance to beat those pesky and nefarious charter-schoolers, and they did. Alfaro raised $207,786, plus $60,000 from the Stand for Children political action committee, and Aquino raised $137,654, got a $75,000 loan from his father, and had $242,289 left over from 2015; the unions pumped in another $175,000.

Delgado was a state representative from 1998 to 2006, and he was promoted to state senator in 2006 when his mentor, long-time incumbent Miguel del Valle, resigned. Del Valle ran for mayor in 2011, getting 9.3 percent of the vote, and he was the leader of the area’s Hispanic "progressives," who constantly warred with the "regulars," led by county assessor Berrios, Arroyo and Aldermen Ray Suarez (31st), Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Roberto Maldonado (26th). The regulars invariably won contests for alderman and Democratic committeeman, but the progressives scored notable victories in state legislative races, electing del Valle, Delgado and state Senator Iris Martinez (D-20) and beating Toni Berrios in 2014.

Demographic changes reflected in the 2010 census mandated that Chicago create two new Hispanic-majority wards, one each on the North Side and the South Side. The City Council’s 2011 remap occurred late in the year, which meant that the 2001 ward boundaries remained in place for the 2011 aldermanic and 2012 committeeman contests. The remappers dismembered Alderman Nick Sposato’s Galewood-Montclare-Cumberland corridor ward and created a new "orphan" 36th Ward, with castoff Hispanic precincts from the predominantly black 29th and 37th wards, some of Berrios’ 31st Ward (where Aquino lived), Sposato’s Montclare and south Portage Park from the 38th Ward.

The new ward was anything but "compact and contiguous," as is legally required. It meanders around the Northwest Side, taking in parts of Portage Park, Belmont-Cragin, Dunning and Hermosa Park and all of Montclare. It is 66 percent Hispanic and 28 percent white. It was carefully crafted to include both Arroyo’s and Sposato’s Montclare residences. Sposato later moved to a different part of his ward, and he won the 38th Ward seat in 2015.

No sooner had the lines been drawn than deals were afoot. Who would get the 36th Ward? Initially it was thought that Arroyo, a onetime bricklayer and a state representative since 2006, would grab it. There never was any doubt that he would be Democratic committeeman, but then the 31st Ward — meaning Berrios, the committeeman, and Suarez, the alderman — decided that they wanted the 36th Ward seat for 27-year-old Omar Aquino, the son of Suarez’s best buddy, Willie Aquino Sr., whose qualifications included brief stints as a staffer for state Representative Toni Berrios and U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth. So a deal was cut — the notorious "son swap." Arroyo’s son, Luis Jr., was to be slated for 8th District county commissioner in 2014, and incumbent Edwin Reyes was dumped, in exchange for Luis Sr. not running for 36th Ward alderman, allowing Aquino’s son, Omar, to get the job in 2015. Arroyo beat Reyes 8,084-6,560 (with 55.2 percent of the vote) in the 2014 primary, carrying the 31st, 36th and 26th wards.

Can you believe the arrogance of these guys? They exchange offices like Christmas presents.

However, as soon as Luis Jr. prevailed, Luis Sr. put on his thinking cap and realized that having two 31st Ward aldermen was not a bright idea, so the deal was undone. Arroyo and his ally, Sposato, recruited Gil Villegas, a Steinmetz High School Local School Council member, the executive director of the state Capital Development Board and a construction trade consultant, for alderman. Omar Aquino filed anyway. It was supposed to be a "battle of titans," but it ended up an Arroyo rout. Villegas won, carrying 21 of the ward’s 30 precincts.

Villegas said that people in the ward "felt abandoned," saying that Aldermen Suarez, Emma Mitts (37th) and Deborah Graham (29th) "stopped providing services" in the part of their old ward now in the 36th Ward. "Only Sposato and (Alderman Tim) Cullerton did their job," he said. However, the key factor in Villegas’s success was Arroyo’s recruitment of Telemundo TV broadcaster Milly Santiago to run against Suarez in the adjacent 31st Ward. Instead of the Berrios/Suarez machine flooding the 36th Ward with money and manpower, they had to keep it and them in the 31st Ward. That meant a level playing field. Villegas spent $198,505, to $300,000-plus for Aquino. Arroyo’s ground game prevailed. In the 31st Ward, pent-up Berrios/Suarez animosity gave Santiago a 79-vote upset win, despite being outspent 40-1. Arroyo, not Berrios, is now "El Hombre Grande."

Charter schools are based on the quaint capitalistic notion that you get what you pay for. If you want your kid to be educated, not babysat, if you want your kid to graduate from high school and go to college, not be a dropout or a street gang member, don’t send the kid to the Chicago Public Schools, at least not in the 2nd District. The unions’ attitude is "Just Say No," as in no competition and no alternatives. Noble’s Web site boasts that 90 percent of its graduates enroll in college.

Chicago has 130 charter schools, and both the governor and the mayor have been supportive. The Democrats in Springfield have not. The Chicago school system has a $1 billion 2016 budget deficit, and the Chicago Board of Education wants a property tax hike. "I represent the people of the 36th Ward, not the CPS and not the unions," Villegas said. He opposed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2016 budget, which he said was "sprung at the last minute and loaded with new taxes, fees and hires."

The March 15 Aquino-Alfaro contest was decided by both deception and dollars. One of Rauner’s political action committees, "Illinois Go," run by Greg Goldner, made heavy "independent expenditures" on Alfaro’s behalf. That made her a "Rauner Democrat" and made the race a proxy fight between Rauner and the CTU. Aquino’s deluge of union-paid mailings ripped her as "not good for Illinois" and hyped Aquino as someone who would "stand up" to Rauner. Emanuel’s unpopularity, having lost every area ward to Jesus Garcia in 2015, also was made to be a drag on Alfaro.

The committeemen fell into line behind Aquino, who won Arroyo’s ward 4,663-2,381, Berrios’ by 1,186-851 and Maldonado’s by 5,000-4,427 and who lost Reboyras’ by 1,613-1,604.

When the Chicago’s unions demand, the politicians comply. They blocked Alfaro — just barely.

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

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