Lang dominant figure in north suburban politics
by RUSS STEWART
In north suburban Niles, Skokie and Lincolnwood, the outcome of the April 4 municipal election will not be much different from the 1990s, the 1970s or even in the 1950s. This is not a status quo election. It’s status quo ante, meaning “the way things were before”.
All three villages lie in Niles Township, where state Representative Lou Lang (D-16) is the benevolent boss, due to the fact that he is Democratic township committeeman and has $1,095,981 in his legislative campaign account, plus another $160,358 invested. Every quarter he dumps $10,000 to $20,000 into the township party account.
Quite astutely, Lang, age 67, is not a control freak. His Springfield job is secure. He was unopposed in 2014 and 2016. All the township offices are controlled by Lang, under the guise of the Caucus Party. There is hardly a whiff of Republicanism anywhere, as the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump 2016 vote in the township was 32,816-13,007, with Clinton getting 68.8 percent of the vote. Clinton won Skokie’s 44 precincts with 70 percent of the vote, Niles’ 24 precincts 7,875-5,585 (with 58.5 percent) and Lincolnwood’s 11 precincts 2,587-1.523 (with 62.9 percent). The township’s Republican Party is a joke, with only $729 in campaign funds on hand as of Jan. 1.
Lang’s only frustration is his inability to have upward mobility in Springfield, where he is a deputy majority leader and where there is a glass ceiling named Mike Madigan. Lang has been waiting for two decades to be the speaker of the Illinois House, and he may have to wait another decade. Of the $394,028 Lang spent in 2016, $249,000 went to other Democratic House candidates. The status quo in Niles Township will continue until he is out of politics.
When it comes to municipal officials in the township’s largest villages — Skokie (where Lang resides), Niles, Lincolnwood and Morton Grove — Lang has two criteria, that the mayor or any clerk, trustee or alderman not be a Republican and that the Democratic or Democratic-friendly mayors be content with their municipal chores, have no burning ambition to go to Springfield, and be disinclined to meddle in local party affairs.
In Jerry Turry of Lincolnwood, George Van Dusen of Skokie and Andy Przybylo of Niles, Lang has exactly the kind of mayors that he wants. All are competent, popular and unambitious, and each will easily win re-election in April. Turry and Przybylo have nuisance opponents, and Van Dusen is unopposed. All of them are fiscally conservative. “It’s all about delivering the best services at the lowest cost” and keeping “crime under control,” Przybylo said of his job. Economic development, meaning job creation and increased sales tax revenue, is the goal of each mayor. Such matters as “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants are irrelevant.
Municipal elections are nonpartisan but basically insiders versus outsiders under the auspices of misnomer party names. Other than Morton Grove, which is a revolving door between Action Party Republicans and Caucus Party Democrats (and which will be analyzed in next week’s article), Lincolnwood, Skokie and Niles are remarkably sedentary. Change is a dirty word. It’s the same old, same old.
In Lincolnwood, the insiders, known alternately as the Alliance Party or the Administration Party, have been in charge since 1931, a total of 86 years. The village was founded in 1911 as Tessville, changed to its present name in 1936, and was a gambling and drinking mecca during Prohibition in the 1920s. It encompasses 2.7 square miles, generally north of Devon Avenue to Jarvis Avenue between Cicero Avenue and McCormick Boulevard, and as of the 2010 census it had an upscale population of 12,590, of whom 69.3 percent were white and 29.1 percent were Asian.
Henry Proesel, the son of a German immigrant who helped found the village, was the mayor from 1931 to 1977, an astounding 46 years. In virtually every quadrennial election, Proesel, his party and his trustees were unopposed. Lincolnwood had an oligarchy, an entity governed by a few people, and voters loved it. After Proesel retired, he was succeeded by John Porcelli from 1977 to 1985 and by Frank Chulay from 1985 to 1993. Chulay’s inept reign was mired in controversy, with liberal Democrats led by Lydia Cohan scenting a takeover opportunity. It was “Lincolnwood Loonies” time, with every board meeting a circus. The insiders dumped Chulay in 1993, backed Lincolnwood Library Board President Madeleine Grant, who beat both Chulay and Cohan, and all returned to normalcy. Grant retired in 2000 and was replaced by Trustee Peter Moy, who won in 2001 and retired in 2005, and he was replaced by Trustee Jerry Turry — both insiders.
Turry, a former teacher and administrator at Niles West High School, announced his retirement in 2013, and Georgia Talaganis and Moy jumped into the race. Neither was acceptable to the Alliance Party insiders, so Turry unretired, ran as an independent, and won 857-776-564, with Talaganis second and with Turry getting 39.0 percent of the vote. Turry is running for a fourth term, and he touts his accomplishments, including a new 270-unit senior living center and new businesses and upgrades in police equipment, but the Purple Hotel site at Lincoln and Touhy avenues remains vacant (and the source of a dispute over tax increment financing district funds) and the Lincolnwood Town Center is stagnating, as are most malls. Because Lincolnwood outsources paramedic services, its pension indebtedness is low and police are 88 percent funded. The budget increased from $30 million in 2005 to $36 million in 2016.
Trustee Barry Bass is challenging Turry, and he talks about the problems enveloping Lincolnwood, including “economic blight,” “crumbling streets,” “catering to special interests,” “rampant crime,” “selectively enforced laws for those who pay to play,” a police station which closes at 5 p.m., a “3 percent decline in home values,” a “$3.6 million deficit” and the Alliance Party “stranglehold” buttressed by “rubber stamp” trustees. Nobody’s listening.
Also, nobody’s uttering a word about the Shores Gallery gun shop and new shooting range, which precipitated a firestorm a few years ago. Turry will win 2-1, as Lincolnwood voters adhere to the old proverb, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
In Skokie, a town with a census population of 64,784, Al Smith’s legend lives on. In the early 1960s Smith was one of the founders of the Caucus Party, which was an insider bipartisan deal by which Niles Township politicians divvied the various offices, thereby avoiding expensive and strenuous contests, with Smith getting the Skokie mayoralty. Smith acquired international fame in the 1970s when he refused to issue a permit for a neo-Nazi march in a village which was then 40 percent Jewish. The case went to federal court, but the group eventually marched elsewhere. Smith had a longstanding nonaggression pact with Cal Sutker, the township Democratic committeeman. He resigned in 1988 and passed along the job to Jacqueline Gorrell, the city’s first Jewish mayor, who served until 1999, when she quit and passed along the job to George Van Dusen, who was then a trustee and the longtime district aide to U.S. Representative Sid Yates, who served in Washington for 48 years.
Van Dusen said he has “kept the property tax levy frozen for 20 years” and “balanced every budget,” attracted $15 million in investment to the Old Orchard shopping center, which he said is “100 percent occupied,” got a new Target, and built new row houses. He said the village has become “very diverse” with 50 languages spoken by people from 90 countries, with 25 percent Asians, 10 to 15 percent Indians and Pakistanis, 8 to 10 percent Mexicans, and about 25 to 30 percent Jewish.
What’s not diverse is the political leadership, which is still predominantly Jewish with ties dating back to the “House of Sutker” from the 1970s.
In Niles, the legacy of “Prince” Nick Blase has faded. Elected as a part-time mayor in 1961, Blase touted Niles receiving the All-America City Award, had a very prosperous law practice, delivered superb services and low taxes, was easily re-elected 11 times, and generally took care of business. Niles is bisected by Harlem Avenue, with six precincts to the east in Niles Township and 18 precincts to the west in Maine Township. Blase was the Maine Township Democratic committeeman for a while and he ran for Congress in 1972, but he never dabbled in Niles Township politics.
The feds stumbled into Blase’s business and indicted him in 2006 on charges of getting $420,000 in kickbacks from an insurance agency to which he steered the village’s businesses. He pleaded guilty in 2010 and got a year in jail. His successor was Trustee Bob Callero, part of the insider bunch that ran Niles, who won with 48.9 percent of the vote in 2009. Clearly, there was no anti-Blase stigma.
Przybylo was to Blase what Lang is to Madigan — a mayor in waiting. Callero quit in 2013, and Przybylo, a longtime trustee and the part owner of the White Eagle banquet hall, won 2,770-1,604 over Chris Hanusiak. The city is 83 percent white, and it has a large first- and second-generation Polish population among its 29,803 residents recorded in 2010. Przybylo, who recently retired from his job at the Cook County Board of Zoning Appeals, said he is creating a “new Niles” and that he has “got a lot done,” including the $600,000 acquisition and reconstruction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa replica at the YMCA on Touhy Avenue, which will be a park with retail shops. “It will be a social center,” Przybylo said. The village also is redeveloping the 2.5-acre Grainger property, is buying cheaper water from Evanston and has the police and fire pensions 47 percent funded.
Przybylo will easily win a second term.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.