Norwood Park Township a paradise for politicians
by RUSS STEWART
If Chicago politicians believed in the Tooth Fairy, they would insert their extracted molars under their pillows and wish that Chicago was like the Norwood Park Township, which includes northwest suburban Harwood Heights and Norridge – a place where well-paid elected officials are so plentiful as to constitute a plague.
Well, maybe not. A better analogy might be an enduring termite infestation. It’s the Land of Milk and Honey, where the ratio of elected officials to voters makes Chicago look positively stingy.
In Chicago, with 50 elected aldermen and three citywide officials (mayor, clerk and treasurer), and a citywide total of 1,570,529 registered voters, that ratio is 29,632-to-one. Not good for ambitious politicians. In Norwood Park Township, counting 16 elected officeholders in Norridge and in Harwood Heights, and another 8 elected township-wide, including two on the Fire Board, and two aldermen in south Park Ridge, there are 26. With a registered voter pool of 16,542, the ratio is 636-to-one. That is good for ambitious politicians.
What is bad is that winning one of those well-paying suburban offices is a steppingstone to staying put. Former Norridge mayor Joe Sieb was in office for 46 years, from 1952 to 1998. When he died, he was making $60,000-a year. Former Harwood Heights mayor Ray Willas kept his job for 28 years from 1973 to 2001. Until 2000 he was making $70,000-a year, but then the trustees reduced it to $35,000. Retiring Democratic committeeman Robert Martwick, first elected in 1966, has been a major power in county Democratic politics, both as a partner in the Finkel Martwick law firm, which specializes in property tax assessment appeals, and as secretary of the county Democratic Party. And Bill Dammeier was Republican committeeman from 1964 to 1998. However, only one elected officeholder in the township or municipality has ever won an office beyond its boundaries, which are roughly Foster Avenue to Irving Park Road, between Cumberland and Narragansett avenues. And then that winner moved into Chicago.
Dammeier lost for state senator in 1978. Rob Martwick, the committeeman’s son, during stints as township trustee, earned $12,000, and as Norridge trustee, earned $18,000, lost bids for state senator in 1996 and county commissioner in 2002. He was elected 19th District state representative in 2012 while living in Norridge, but then moved to west Portage Park in Chicago’s 38th Ward, where he is now Democratic committeeman. Martwick, an avid multi-tasker, also works for his father’s law firm when not in Springfield. When in Springfield, Martwick votes often with Speaker Mike Madigan. Willas ran and lost for county commissioner, and Harwood Heights trustee Mark Dobrzycki ran and lost for state representative.
Norwood Park Township was originally just a portion Jefferson Township, which covers all of the present Northwest Side, north of Irving Park and west of Western Avenue, which then had negligible population but plenty of horses and cornfields. In the 1880s it detached itself from the city, and went into hibernation. Even into the 1940s, Harlem Avenue was still a country road, surrounded by prairie with numerous stables and farms. The two villages were not incorporated until the late 1940s, which was entirely due to the post-World War II housing crunch, with veterans returning, marrying, and looking for homes. The township exploded with new home construction, Harlem Avenue became a business mecca with the Harlem-Irving Plaza, and the horses and cornfields vanished. Up through the 1980s, it was drab, dreary and reliably Republican in state and federal elections. Continuity was demanded: Keep taxes low, services high, and let businesses prosper.
A huge blip occurred in the mid-1980s as an influx of Polish immigrants began buying modestly priced property in Norridge and Harwood Heights. However, that interest waned when they discovered that they could not "flip" their 1950s brick bungalows for a 20 percent profit after several years, and moved north into Park Ridge and beyond. The mid-2000 housing collapse ended that ploy. Nevertheless, Polish-Americans remain a sizeable portion of the township. And, because the area is stable and mostly has working-class origins, the population is getting older and older, and more and more conservative. Seniors are now 30 to 35 percent of the population.
The township now has a population of 26,385, spread in 17 precincts covering 3.5 square miles, with 15,522 registered voters. Harwood Heights’ population is 8,612, with 4,569 registered voters in 5 precincts, and Norridge’s population is 14,572, with 8,515 registered voters in 9 precincts. Another 2 precincts are located in the incorporated areas south of Interest 90, and one in Park Ridge between Devon and Higgins, west of Canfield. Their trend has been noticeably more Republican.
2014:"Shake Up Springfield" was Bruce Rauner’s 2014 mantra, and it worked. In the 2010 Quinn-Brady governor’s race, the Republican won the township 3,286-2,951. In 2014’s Quinn-Rauner race, the Republican won 3,839-2,759 . . . a Republican uptick.
2016: The Trump-Clinton presidential race was lopsidedly Democratic in the northwest county suburbs, with Hillary Clinton getting well above 60 percent in Maine Township (Park Ridge, Des Plaines), but it was markedly closer in Norwood Park Township, which she won 5,470-5,124 and Leyden Township, which she won 18,335-11,535. This Republican trend also manifested itself in the 20th District state representative contest between incumbent Mike McAuliffe (R) and Merry Marwig (D). In the 8 Norwood Park Township’s in the district, McAuliffe won 2,942-1,783, or 62.2 percent. Both local mayors, Arlene Jezierny in Harwood Heights and James Chmura in Norridge, both elected on a non-partisan basis, endorsed McAuliffe.
2017: Partly out of rage, and partly out of frustration, Madigan and his 13th Ward crew made a second hostile takeover attempt in Norridge. Given the fact that both villages had a boisterous commercial revenue stream from the Harlem Avenue corridor, minimal indebtedness, low property taxes, modest municipal expenditures, a small corps of outside lawyers, and political jobs galore, Madigan targeted Norridge for a hostile takeover in 2013, backing deputy Secretary of State Tom Benigno against Chmura. The result was surprising. Norridge voters resented what was happening, resented all the 13th Warders stumbling around in their 9 precincts, and elected Chmura, the city’s financial officer, 1,722-1,209.
Benigno came back in 2017, and got clobbered again, 1,747-1,155. Chmura is safe, as is Jezierny, who was unopposed after tempestuous elections in 2009 and 2013. Had Benigno won, he would surely be running for Democratic committeeman, intent on making the township Chicago’s 51st Ward.
The looming departure of the elder Martwick threatens to transform the township into the Land of Trump and Rauner, with Republican ascendants. For most of the last half-century, Martwick and Dammeier had a non-aggression pact, with both eschewing involvement in municipal contests, and then dividing the 15 township jobs, with the bulk going to Democrats picked by the elder Martwick. Dammeier got to be supervisor, earning $40,000), and then assessor, earning paying $30,000, plus one or two more Republicans got a plum. The other spots – clerk, collector, highway commissioner, and three or four of the four trustees – went to Martwick’s loyalists. The illusion of comity and non-partisanship was maintained because in each election they ran under a euphemistic moniker like "Good Government Party," which changed every four years . . . never as a Democrat or Republican.
That changed in 1998, when John Beniaris ousted Dammeier as Republican committeeman, and in 2001 fielded an official "Republican" slate, not running under some moniker, with himself for supervisor. Martwick’s candidate, Rocco Secco, beat him, with Democrats sweeping almost all township offices, aborting a Republican takeover. Rather than dig in for the long haul, Beniaris promptly quit as committeeman, and it was back to politics-as-usual, with Martwick in charge.
That began to change in 2009, when Jezierny ousted incumbent Harwood Heights mayor Peggy Fuller, an ambitious and outspoken liberal Democrat, who beat Republican-leaning Norb Pabich in 2005, after Pabich succeeded Willas in 2001. When she began her regime, she had a 5-1 majority among the trustees, with Jezierny the sole antagonist. By 2009, after years of bickering, Fuller retired and the trustees flipped to 5-1 pro-Jezierny, and in 2015 Dobrzycki got beat, giving the mayor a 6-0 majority. Successes like attracting a Mariano’s have made Jezierny unbeatable.
In Norridge, after mayors Earl Fields and Ron Oppedisano between 1998 and 2013, Chmura is in total control. Economic development producing commercial tax revenue has been his goal, and voters are pleased. They resoundingly rejected Benigno’s assertions to the contrary.
In 2017’s township elections, Democrats won ten of the 11 posts on the ballot, and Martwick’s ally Tom Lupo won the supervisor’s job. But voters are catching on to the scam. A whole bunch of people are being paid a whole bunch of money to "govern" the township’s unincorporated areas, with the highway commissioner paid more than $50,000 to maintain a few miles of roads. And the Fire Board members, paid $2,000-a year, control who is appointed fire chief.
Change is coming. Harwood Heights Trustee Mike Gadzinski, the Republican committeeman, resigned both posts in 2016 after it was revealed that he lived in Chicago. The appointed successor is Anthony Beckman, a Norridge police officer who lives in Harwood Heights. There will be a Democratic primary between the Martwick-backed Frank Avino, a Fire Protection Board member, and plumbing contractor Dan Donnelly. The good old days are over.