Arena’s political aim may shift in county clerk race


This column contains some good news and some bad news about Alderman John Arena (45th). But more on that later.

The good news is that Arena is likely not going to be replacing Democratic County Clerk David Orr in 2018. It is believed that Arena has been eyeing the post.

According to published reports, Orr intends to seek re-election, even though in the past there has been speculation that he would be retiring at the end of his term. Whether or not Orr runs, Arena is likely going to remain as alderman for some indefinite time, and the bad news is that he is going to remain as alderman for some indefinite time.

Blame it all on John Fritchey and Jesse White. But for those two, the 45th Ward could be Arena-less, the 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. situation could go away and everybody could live happily ever after. Or maybe not.

Fritchey, a county commissioner from the Wicker Park area, got the idea that several million in tax dollars could be saved by merging two paper-shuffling county offices: The Recorder of Deeds, which memorializes real estate transactions, mortgages, liens and collects revenue stamps, and the County Clerk, which memorializes births, deaths, marriages, issues requisite certificates, and oversees suburban elections in Cook County. Why not let one office, and one elected official, do it all? Fritchey’s idea passed the county board, and was approved by the voters, with the Recorder of Deeds becoming extinct in 2020.

But, for the Democrats, that creates a delicate political, gender and racial problem. The Recorder is a black woman, Karen Yarbrough, and the Clerk is a white man, David Orr. Yarbrough is an ally of Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, the most powerful woman in county politics, and is a protege of Speaker Mike Madigan, with whom she served in Springfield. In June, Yarbrough, who was elected to a 4-year term as Recorder in 2016, announced she was running for Orr’s job in 2018. She didn’t announce whether she was going to keep her current job after she is slated in August, nominated and elected to the clerk’s $105,000-a year post – but, well, this is Cook County, and multi-tasking does occasionally occur.

Yarbrough is from west suburban Proviso Township, centered in Maywood, Bellwood, Hillside, Berkeley, Broadview, Forest Park and Westchester. This used to be, at least until the 1980s, an ethnic enclave dominated by Italian-Americans. Now it’s almost entirely black, with an exploding Hispanic population to the north in Melrose Park, Northlake and Franklin Park. Yarbrough’s base is in Maywood, where her husband was mayor, and she ousted Gene Moore, her predecessor as both state representative and Recorder, as township Democratic committeeman in 2006, and then as Recorder in 2012.

But – and there are a lot of "buts" in this column – Jesse White, at Madigan’s behest, foiled everybody’s best-laid plans. The deal, or expectation, was that White was going to retire as Illinois Secretary of State in 2018, after 20 years, that Yarbrough would be slated for White’s job, and that Alderman Walter Burnett (27th), White’s protege from White’s near West Side ward, where White is Democratic committeeman, would then get appointed to replace her as Recorder, a job White held from 1992 to 1998.

But then the Recorder’s office got abolished in 2016 and White insisted that Burnett get his state job. A contentious Democratic primary between Yarbrough – backed by Preckwinkle and Madigan – and Burnett loomed, thereby splitting the Chicago/Cook County black vote, and a white Downstate guy, either state Treasurer Mike Frerichs, from Champaign-Urbana, or some state legislator, was sure to run, and, with a divided black field, could win.

The Secretary of State’s office employs more than 2,000 people, has jurisdiction over the issuance of all driver’s licenses and corporations, and is critically important to the Illinois Democratic Party, of which Madigan is chairman. First, it provides well-paying jobs in Downstate areas, and those payrollers work for Madigan’s legislative candidates. Second, it provides perks, such as vanity license plates, which Madigan and other connected Democrats can bestow upon buddies, cronies and donors. And third, the office administers license renewal examinations to aging baby-boomers, a cause of great anxiety to them, which White and his employees can soothe. Madigan likely did not want to lose the office, so he pressured White, who turned age 83 in 2017, to renounce his retirement and run for re-election in 2018.

White is extraordinarily well-known, well-liked, runs his office efficiently, and is unbeatable. Madigan and the Democrats want to focus in 2018 on beating Governor Bruce Rauner and electing J.B. Pritzker, and not spend $15 million to keep White’s job. So White is running again. But make no mistake: His successor, if a Democrat, will be black.

In local politics, it is understood that an elected office is often filled according to racial lines, with few changes for decades in some instances.

At present, African American leaders have occupied the offices of county board president since 1994, state’s attorney office since 2016, the recorder’s office since 1988, the clerk of court since 2000, and the office of Chicago city treasurer.

Among other offices, Hispanics rule the county assessor and the Chicago city clerk’s office. Joe Berrios, an ally of Preckwinkle and Madigan, is an assessor of dubious competence and probity, but he cannot be dumped. Nevertheless, he will have a tough 2018 primary from Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, from the 1st Ward. Moreno is Mexican-American, and will campaign as a "reformer," while Berrios is Puerto Rican. Inasmuch as Berrios has $1,097,225 on-hand, most from grateful attorneys who get assessment reductions for their equally grateful clients, it will be interesting to see where "progressives" like Arena fit in.

The only white guys left standing, if Orr doesn’t run, will be Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, and Tom Dart, the county sheriff. Two white women, both of Greek ancestry, occupy the posts of county treasurer and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District president.

Orr, age 72, was briefly Chicago’s acting mayor after Harold Washington’s 1987 death, and was the Rogers Park 49th Ward alderman from 1979 to 1990. While in the council, Orr was part of the anti-Vrdolyak "Washington 21." Orr has been clerk since 1990.

For thousands of ward residents, less than a majority, whom Arena joyfully characterized on social media as "knuckle-draggers" because of their support of Donald Trump in 2016, the alderman is reviled and disdained. For other thousands, more than a majority, Arena is beloved and celebrated.

Arena is the kind of guy for whom the world is black and white. He is intolerant of the intolerant, which is essentially anybody who disagrees with him. He was at the Loop "Sanctuary City" rally in early June, supporting undocumented immigrants and opposing deportation. He wants to colonize his ward, supporting large density increases and pledging to bring at least 50 Chicago Housing Authority rental units into the ward by 2019. These dense developments are mostly in Jefferson Park, where he doesn’t live, and not in Portage Park, where he does live. When Alderman Ray Lopez (15th), from the Southwest Side, proclaimed that opponents of the Northwest Hwy. project in the 45th Ward had "racist tendencies," Arena didn’t disagree.

Nevertheless, Arena is politically impregnable. He won his legendary first election in 2011 over John Garrido by 30 votes, and was re-elected in 2015, again over Garrido, by 1,225 votes. The 45th Ward went 67 percent for Hillary Clinton over Trump last November, with the precincts in Portage Park going 3 to 1 or better for Clinton. Arena panders to and pampers his political base, so much so that Garrido, who is among the most outspoken opponents of the 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. project, which will have 20 CHA-subsidized units and 60 below-market "affordable" units (out of 100), is disinclined to run in 2019.

"At this time," said Garrido, a police lieutenant in the 16th District, "I don’t expect to be a candidate" in 2019. "Voters (in the ward) had a chance to elect me twice, and didn’t," he added.

Democrats in Cook County, to coin a pun, live and die by quotas. Arena has demonstrated that he is a tried-and-true Bernie Sanders leftist-socialist. He endorsed Sanders over Clinton in the 2016 primary.

Had Arena gone on to greater greatness as clerk, there were some potential aldermanic successors, such as Anna Sobor, former president of the Old Irving Park Association, or Arena’s chief-of-staff, Owen Brugh. But all that’s academic now. A 2018 countywide run would have been a win-win situation for Arena, as it would have elevated his name recognition and energized his base, preparatory to 2019. But it is not to be. The 45th Ward is stuck with Arena.

As an aside, I encountered Arena recently at the Jefferson Park CTA station, and Arena, being pleasantly polite, told me that he never reads this column, or ever buys a Nadig newspaper. Hey, nobody is perfect.

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