Arena’s political legacy is a resounding rejection
Analysis & Opinoin by RUSS STEWART
The word "resounding" is an adjective that defines an event as thoroughgoing, complete and reverberating, and a verb that defines an event as celebrated, loud and echoing.
The defeat of two-term 45th Ward Alderman John Arena on Feb. 26 certainly qualifies as being astoundingly resounding, and a source of much happiness and celebration in some parts of the ward, and a resounding sadness in others. Arena’s complacency precipitated a 7,570-5,382 defeat by Jim Gardiner, a 2,188-vote margin in a 14,858 turnout (not including the 7 votes for a write-in candidate). Arena received 3,106 fewer votes than in the 2015 runoff, when he defeated John Garrido 8,488-7,263.
But more astoundingly resounding, Arena won only 15 of the ward’s 48 precincts against Gardiner, down from 30 in 2015 against Garrido. Equally echoing was the fact that Arena received less than 30 percent in 20 precincts, and less than 20 percent in six of those. In 2015, Arena received more than 70 percent in four precincts, 60-69 percent in ten, and 50-59 percent in 16. This year’s numbers were two, one and five, respectively, finishing under 50 percent in 40 precincts.
Considering the fact that Arena’s 2015 base was 8,488 and that he got 5,382 votes in 2019, that meant 3,106 of his base, or 36.6 percent, deserted him. The total 2019 anti-Arena base, consisting of votes for Gardiner, Marilyn Morales (1,353) and Bob Bank (553) was 9,476, or 63.8 percent of the vote cast. Overall, the anti-Arena vote base was up 2,223 and the pro-Arena vote was down 2,106, meaning a turnaround of 5,212 votes in 4 years. THAT is astounding, as is the fact that an incumbent alderman got an anemic 36.2 percent despite spending $198,447 in 2019’s first quarter and having near-universal name recognition. People have heard of Arena, for good or ill.
According to final tabulations, Arena was the second worst-beaten Chicago alderman in the 2019 primary, the third-worst being the 49th Ward’s Joe Moore, a 28-year incumbent who lost his Rogers Park ward 7,820-4,514, getting 36.6 percent.
Alderman Toni Foulkes in the 16th Ward was defeated by Stephanie Coleman, getting only 31.48 percent in the primary election.
So how did Arena, who had expectations of being an alderman-for-life, come to such an end? As an old lyric says, let me count the reasons – and they are personal, political and ideological.
(1) Arrogance and intolerance. A public officeholder may be a visionary or a seat-warmer. If visionary, one must have a philosophy of governance and persuade the public that that vision is and/or should be their vision. Witness Governor J.B. Pritzker’s "Fair Tax," which he is selling to the public with a massive media buy.
Arena never tried to be persuasive. His philosophy, which essentially was to desegregate the Northwest Side by building more affordable housing and having more density was self-serving: More low-income residents presumably equate to more liberal – and presumably more pro-Arena – votes.
Arena’s politically correct approach was derogatory and denigrating, not persuasive. He was right and you were wrong and if you disagreed then you were stupid – and, by extension maybe even racist. Voters resented that attitude, especially his insistence on the 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. project, with a mix of 75 affordable, CHA and market-rate units. Most grammar schools in the ward are already at least 40 percent minority, almost all Hispanic, and critics predicted overcrowding in Jefferson Park schools.
Another echoing act was when he began monitoring Web sites and Facebook postings of police officers that opposed "5150," and then reported them to COPA and other agencies for an internal investigation. Arena crossed the line. It is politically unwise to mess with one’s livelihood or property values. Arena did both, oblivious of certain pushback – which was swift and devastating. Arena claimed he didn’t want people who make "racially-charged comments" to be on the city’s pay roll.
The ward is divided into three areas: Gladstone Park, north of Bryn Mawr, where Gardiner won every precinct. Jefferson Park, in the central zone south to Montrose, where Gardiner won 11 of 13 precincts. And in the south, Arena’s Portage Park base, between Montrose and Addison, where won 5 of 21 precincts. Even Arena’s base abandoned him.
Another faux pas was Arena’s meddling with local chambers of commerce, one of which lost its city subsidy a year after refusing to give him control over its board of directors.
(2) Complacency and ineptitude: The consensus up to and throughout 2018 was that Arena would win handily in 2019, due to the expectation that the public sector unions, would pump $450,000-600,000 into the race, as they did in 2011 and 2015. "He will win without a runoff," said one SEIU operative. With Garrido taking a 2019 pass, the opposing field was viewed as desultory and incapable of aggregating a majority, and forcing a runoff. Besides, the unions were dumping about $3 million into Toni Preckwinkle’s campaign, and didn’t want to waste it on Arena. At worst, they figured, they could always bail him out in the runoff.
But red flags were surfacing by January. Gardiner "had picked up over ten percent," said the union operative, and was "pushing into 30 percent." Go negative and go quick on Gardiner was the game plan, as they thought they had a silver bullet. Gardiner, a firefighter and part-time CPS substitute teacher, had a problem with his former girlfriend who had sought an order of protection against him. There was no verbal and physical abuse alleged, and according to Gardiner, the matter was resolved, with a no contact agreement, which has since expired. At a forum in February, Gardiner said, "To be very clear, this was a civil mater in its entirety."
But the potential for serious damage existed and Arena’s camp knew it. In the week prior to Feb. 26, pro-Arena robo-calls flooded the ward on this issue, and a deluge of mailers awaited in the runoff. Just as SEIU demonized Garrido as a "Bush Republican" and worse, they were ready to do a number on Gardiner. But then Arena lost.
According to final tallies, Gardiner got 7,570 votes out of 14,858 cast, or 50.05 percent. (Again excluding the 7 write-in votes). He needed 7,430 votes to win outright and avoid a runoff with Arena. He got 140 more votes than he needed. In fact, Gardiner had raised $128,400 during the Jan. 1-March 31 period, but spent only $80,118, meaning he held back $66,940 for a nasty runoff. Conversely, Arena lost because (1) he unwisely spent his money. Of $198,447 spent, $51,103 went to out-of-state political consultants -30,500 to GBA Strategies and $20,603 to Progressive Solutions. He had five mailers, at about $15,000 each. And (2) he had a minimal precinct presence. Voter hostility was palpable, and Arena’s door-to-door campaigning was listless, spotty and mostly in the south end.
Gardiner, however, was relentless. He said that he knocked on the door of 20,000 of the ward’s 25,000 households "at least three times" from August through February, even the residences of unregistered voters, and campaigned in Arena’s base of Portage Park and Old Irving Park. "People knew me," he said, because he had "mentored" many of their children in school and during neighborhood activities. He is pleased by the fact that he carried his home 44th precinct, in Gladstone Park, by 332-56, getting a resounding 80.2 percent. "Neighbors know neighbors," he added.
What gave Gardiner credibility were his union endorsements and contributions, which amounted to transfers-in of $62,450. He got backing from FOP, police sergeants, and Firefighters’ Local 2, as well as a slew of trade unions representing plumbers, carpenters, painters, operating engineers, electricians, teamsters, pipe fitters, and iron, sheet metal, insulation and bridge workers. Arena got endorsements from the public sector unions, with $25,000 from CTU (teachers), $40,000 from SEIU, $15,000 from AFSCME, each wanting to have an alderman in their pocket, plus $3,000 from food workers, $4,000 from Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd), who was unopposed, and $2,500 from his local ally, state Representative Robert Martwick (D-19).
"I am proud to be alderman of all of the 45th Ward," Gardiner told me, inferring that the former alderman was not proud to be alderman of those who disagreed with him and his agenda. Having won by 30 votes in 2011 and 1,225 votes in 2015, Arena should have known he was in a precarious position, and needed to pacify, not offend any more voters. Feb. 26 was a referendum on him, and he lost resoundingly.
(3) Ideology and Bernie Sanders: Arena was a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic convention, and the Vermont socialist won the ward 7,457-5,989 in the primary. Arena expected that Sanders’ ideological vote was automatically his vote. But he forgot that Donald Trump got 6,587 votes in 2016, Laquan McDonald-tainted Anita Alvarez won the ward 5,406-5,204 over Kim Foxx in 2016, and Bruce Rauner got 5,679 votes in 2018.
There is a considerable conservative, Republican and pro-police base. The "5150" situation was the tipping point, and created a solid anti-Arena base, well over 60 percent.
The ward’s next major battle will be for Democratic committeeman in the March 2020 primary. Arena told me in March that he will seek re-election, and may run for delegate again. Gardiner told me that he wants "closure," to "finish the job" of eradicating Arena-ism from the 45th Ward, and will decide by the end of June whether to run for committeeman. That is a lose-lose situation for Gardiner. Voters don’t want a politician as alderman, and a large turnout would give Arena 45 percent-plus, and maybe a win.
Gardiner should want to keep Arena around for 2023. If Gardiner does his job well, Arena would get under 30 percent in 40 precincts.