Arena appointment prompts major 45th ward push back
Analysis & Opinion by RUSS STEWART
It is said that no good deed goes unpunished. That being the case, then it is logical that no bad deed goes unrewarded.
There many 45th Ward voters, like about 63.8 percent of them, who on Feb. 26 thought and continue to think that John Arena’s tenure as alderman was an unending succession of bad deeds which should not be rewarded. They are incensed that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has bestowed upon Arena a golden parachute: A $123,996-a year job as a deputy commissioner in the city’s Planning and Development department.
"He (Arena) goes from working 70 hours a week as an alderman," said an alderman who wanted to stay anonymous, "to working 40 hours a week as a city bureaucrat, and getting paid $14,000 more."
"That’s a reward," the alderman said. "He’s working less and earning more." Added the alderman: "A lot of people are very angry" about his appointment.
Some in political circles have even wondered how Lindsey LaPointe plans to make a run to keep her state rep job, considering she is an Arena protege from Portage Park and owes her appointment to Arena. She replaced Rob Martwick, also the 38th Ward Democratic committeeman, who became state senator because of the weighted-votes delivered by Arena, currently the 45th Ward Democratic committeeman. Martwick then later reciprocated and delivered his weighted-votes for LaPointe to fill his own vacancy.
In the news, Alderman Jim Gardiner made headlines when he questioned Arena’s appointment.
The mayor publicly disrespected Gardiner’s protests, calling Arena a "smart, able person," and adding that she is "…not gonna have somebody who defeated somebody…dictate to me" whether that somebody "gets hired," despite a hiring freeze."
That came as a revelation to 45th Ward residents who endured Arena from 2011 to 2019, but Lightfoot’s misconception is excusable and understandable, as she did not live in the ward, or perhaps followed what kind of shenanigans the former alderman was up to.
That mayor’s quote also caused a former Arena communications director to Tweet that she wondered "how a firefighter feels about getting burned so badly," referring to Gardiner, who was a firefighter when elected, and doesn’t take kindly to getting "burned" whether physically or figuratively.
But being "dissed" by a mayor who may be dumping a huge property tax increase on city homeowners if the state doesn’t help may not be a BAD THING for Gardiner, and antagonizing several aldermen may not in the long run be a GOOD THING for Lightfoot. By putting Arena on the payroll, she keeps his political career on life-support, which means a rematch against Gardiner in 2023, and guarantees that Arena gets his requisite 10 years on a city job and gets a city pension. Taxpayers will be overjoyed.
The relevant question is whether he will run for re-election as committeeman on March 17. Gardiner is definitely running for the job, and a 2020 Arena defeat would definitely crimp Arena’s comeback plans. "Progressives" are circulating petitions for state’s attorney Kim Foxx and court clerk candidate Mike Cabonargi, but I’m told not Arena’s. Both attended Arena’s annual barbeque. It takes a minimum of 800 signatures to run for committeeman, which Arena could get before the December filing deadline. The early expectation is that Gardiner will be unopposed. Arena’s petition sightings have been rare, if at all.
But is Arena electable anymore? To anything?
Editor’s note: Parts of the following analysis have appeared in a June 12 column.
The defeat of Arena as alderman certainly qualifies as being 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 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.
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.
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, 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? Or maybe he came out on top?
(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.
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. 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.
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.
(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 unions, would pump $450,000-600,000 into the race, as they did in 2011 and 2015. With John 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.
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.
"I am proud to be alderman of all of the 45th Ward," Gardiner told me a few months ago, 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.
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. 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.
My prediction: Arena may be deemed by many to be misguided but, as Lightfoot averred, he is "smart." If he runs for committeeman next year, he will prove Lightfoot wrong.