2018 MWRD contests bring chaos-as-usual
by RUSS STEWART
We have all seen those jewelry store commercials on television that state that "every kiss begins with . . . . " For Cook County residents, it can be similarly said that every flush ends up at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD).
The function of the MWRD is waste disposal. About 1.5 billion gallons of waste are annually dumped into sewers, processed, and then sent southward into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, and tons of solid waste are dumped into sewers, dried, and sold to Downstate farmers as fertilizer. And second, it provides some nice jobs for some clout-worthy politicians, who make $70,000-a year as a part-time commissioner, attend 22 3-hour meetings, receive a free car, office and help from two staffers, and essentially just ratify the directives of the MWRD’s general superintendent. The district, with a budget of $1.21 billion and 2,000 employees, also provides lots of construction to contractors who donate heavily to the Democratic Party and/or Democratic candidates.
And, every 2 years, it provides some political entertainment and 2018 is no exception.
There will be four commissioner spots on the ballot – three for 6-year terms and one for a 2-year term – and possibly one for the unexpired term of Tim Bradford, who died on Dec. 2, two days before the 2018 nominating petition filing period closed.
Bradford’s death has created a huge legal and political problem. Bradford was a clout-heavy Democrat from black-majority south suburban Rich Township, the area east of Chicago Heights to the Indiana border, where he was also the township supervisor. He was last elected in 2014, and his term expires in 2020. So the Democrats’ problem is not to replace him on the 2018 ballot, as he was not a 2018 candidate who inconveniently died, but rather to somehow declare a vacancy and get his job on the March 20, 2018 ballot for the existing 2-year vacancy. Otherwise, his successor, under state law, will be appointed by Governor Bruce Rauner. That would mean two appointed Republican commissioners out of 9, and Democrats don’t want that to happen.
According to Democratic sources, a special "slate making" session has been tentatively scheduled for the first week of January. But there are serious legal impediments. State statutes mandate a 90-day nominating petition circulatory period, with a minimum of 8,200 signatures required to get a spot on the 2018 Democratic primary ballot.
It is commonplace in countywide judicial races for insider judges to resign during the latter part of the circulatory period, and then have a "vacancy" declared and the filing deadline extended for a week or two. That gives the party time to get their slated "alternates" the requisite 5,000 signatures and a ballot spot, usually with opposition. That happened this year, with three getting on the ballot. But with Bradford’s passing, the issue is that he was not on the ballot, and it would take an act of the Democratic-controlled state legislature to declare a "vacancy," open a new 90-day circulatory period, and set a "special" primary and election, which could be coterminous with the Nov. 2018 balloting. They could even mandate that there be no countywide primary, which would cost well over $100,000, and instead let the parties pick their candidates.
There is a precedent. When Republican state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka died in late 2014, after being re-elected to a new term, but before the commencement of that term, the Madigan-run legislature passed a bill to require a "special" 2016 election to fill the remainder of the term, which Democrat Susana Mendoza won. Prior law would have given the governor the right to appoint a 4-year successor.
If there is a "slate making" in January for an opening that doesn’t now exist, then it will be a tip-off that Springfield will find the ways and means to get Bradford’s vacancy on the Nov. 2018 ballot. Local 150 of the Operating Engineers, which is the collective bargaining unit of the MWRD’s non-bureaucratic employees, is pushing Joe Cook, who lost a 2016 bid.
The more mundane matter is the March primary, where the much-reviled Todd Stroger is seeking the 2-year vacancy, and is opposed by the slated Kim Neely Dubuclet, a black South Side state representative and protege of the equally-reviled county board president Toni Preckwinkle. For the three 6-year terms, slated incumbents Debra Shore, Kari Steele and Marty Durkan face five opponents – former Board of Review commissioner Robert Shaw, who is a perennial candidate, most recently having run for assessor in 2010; attorney Marcelino Garcia, who is backed and funded by the 36th Ward Democratic Organization headed by state representative Luis Arroyo (D-3); and independents Elizabeth Joyce, Rene Avila and Toni Williams.
Quite literally, in MWRD balloting, nobody (meaning voters) knows anything about anybody (meaning candidates). Hence, ballot position (first or last), gender, ethnicity, name familiarity (like Aurie Pucinski back in the 1990s), slating and/or special interest endorsements (like Local 150) are determinative. In primaries since the mid-1990s, female names have been consistently triumphant. The 2018 slated candidates are Shore, a self-proclaimed "environmentalist" out of the Evanston-based political organization of "progressive" U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-9); Steele, a South Sider and Preckwinkle protege whose father was 6th Ward alderman and is currently an Appellate Court justice; and Durkan, who lives in the Northwest Side 41st Ward, and was formerly the business agent for Local 150. In 2016’s primary, Durkan upset the slated candidate for the 2-year term. Women invariably beat men in MWRD races, but Irish-surnamed men invariably beat non-Irish surnamed men, as did Durkan.
For the 2-year term, Stroger starts out with enormous – and highly negative – name recognition. In the 2010 primary, when he faced Preckwinkle, Clerk of Court Dorothy Brown and MWRD president Terry O’Brien, the only white in the race, Stroger got 41 percent in his home 8th Ward, and won a plurality in 3 of 18 other black-majority wards, but still finished with only 13 percent countywide. With white city and suburban committeemen backing the slated Dubuclet, and Stroger’s reputation still floating somewhere down the Mississippi River, it is hard to visualize a Stroger win. But then the MWRD just handles waste disposal, so you can’t really impose any sales taxes on it.
Arroyo, who had $207,729 on-hand as of Sept. 30, is building a political operation, and wants to get his hands on some MWRD jobs.
The outlook: Voters who on March 20 want "change" will have adequate opportunities in the board president and/or assessor’s races, dumping either Preckwinkle or Joe Berrios. Their problem with the MWRD is that they don’t know who to dump. But, in the Dubuclet-Stroger contest, they know who not to nominate, or, perhaps perversely, to send a thumb-my-nose message. Expect Shore-Steele-Durkan-Dubuclet slate to win.
4TH CONGRSSIONAL DISTRICT: The initial consensus, after incumbent Luis Gutierrez’s snap retirement during the filing period, is that county commissioner and 2017 mayoral loser Jesus "Chuy" Garcia is unbeatable. But a flock of candidates filed for the seat, including aldermen Proco Joe Moreno (1st), Raymond Lopez (15h) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th). It is presumed that the vote will be geographical, with Garcia, a South Side Mexican-American, backed by his base and the North Side Puerto Ricans from the Gutierrez-Berrios-Arroyo operation, favored. But there is a darkhorse in the race: Sol Flores, executive director of La Costa Norte, a North Side homeless shelter, and the only woman running. Flores is an ally of recently appointed city clerk Anna Valencia, a South Side Mexican-American who is laying the base for her 2019 election campaign.
"Garcia will win," said political consultant Frank Avila. "He’s just too well-known." But Flores could finish a strong second.
7TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT: Why did Commissioner Richard Boykin, after years of blistering jibes at Preckwinkle, and overt opposition to the soda tax, fold his potential 2018 primary against Preckwinkle? One reason was that he would have to forfeit his board seat. But the second is that his mentor, U.S. Representative Danny Davis (D-7), is poised to "do a Lipinski."
Back in 2004, the Southwest Side/Southwest suburban’s Bill Lipinski, congressman since 1982 and 23rd Ward committeeman since 1975 (and alderman 1975-82), decided he wanted to hand off his job to his kid, Daniel Lipinski, a college professor at the University of Tennessee. There was no way Lipinski junior was going to win a primary. So Lipinski senior ran and won his 2004 primary, resigned his nomination in late August, just before the replacement deadline, and he and his fellow committeemen put the kid on the ballot for congressman – where he has remained to this day.
Had Davis, first elected in 1996, retired as expected in 2017, a brutal primary would have ensued, with the likely winner being Alderman Walter Burnett (27th), a protege of Secretary of State Jesse White, and not Boykin. The quid pro quo for giving Preckwinkle a pass will be Davis’s nomination resignation in the summer of 2018, and Boykin’s selection as candidate for the seat.