Analysis and opinion by Russ Stewart: Early preview of 45th Ward aldermanic race in 2015
By Russ Stewert
In the Northwest Side 45th Ward, “cognitive dissonance” reigns supreme. The condition involves conflicting and contradictory information and trends, leading to confusion.
Is or is not Alderman John Arena, the winner by a bounteous 30-vote margin in 2011, an anomaly? Arena got 50.1 percent of the 12,136 ballots cast in the 2011 runoff. In a ward with 31,559 registered voters, Arena’s 6,083 votes were 19.2 percent of the total voter pool.
“I’m the first new-style alderman in this ward in 25 years,” Arena said, adding that his predecessor, Pat Levar, had been the plodding pro-Daley, pro-machine, pro-status quo alderman since 1987. In effect, like his self-described hero, Barack Obama, Arena ran in 2011 as the proverbial “hope and vigor and change” candidate.
Like Obama, Arena argues that he needs his full term to “turn around” the ward, and he realizes that the 2015 election will be a referendum on his tenure. “I expect to be held accountable, and I expect to win,” he said.
Arena said that his polling shows him with a 60 percent approval rating, and he won the 2012 ward Democratic committeeman’s race with a solid 73.3 percent of the vote in a turnout of 5,106, although his showing of 3,740 votes was barely 60 percent of his 2011 aldermanic vote total.
Nevertheless, by every conventional yardstick, Arena should be very, very worried.
First, he has failed to entrench himself, create an aura of inevitability, and discourage 2015 opposition. Of course, for a 30-vote victor, that isn’t easy. Already sniffing the wind and positioning themselves for 2015 are John Garrido, the Chicago police lieutenant whom Arena, thanks largely to more than $250,000 in negative mailings and cable television ads funded by the public sector Service Employees International Union, beat in the runoff.
Garrido is now a 16th Police District watch commander, a member of the Hitch School Local School Council and the Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce, and he maintains a law practice. He has kept himself visible and his network energized, kept himself distant from the Republicans, and has been busy suing SEIU and Arena for libel.
Rumors are swirling that Garrido won’t run because the aldermanic salary would mean a pay cut. When Garrido ran for Cook County Board president in 2010 as a Republican, he was reassigned to a South Side police district; now he’s back to his neighborhood. “I’m keeping my options open,” he said.
A second credible candidate is Beaubien LSC and PTO member Michelle Baert, whose close ties with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and other trade unions will enable her to raise $100,000, according to her spokesman. A big booster is IBEW Local 134 business manager Terry Allen, who is the brother of former 38th Ward alderman (and now judge) Tom Allen.
“We’re involved in a discovery period,” the spokesman said, with a decision to be made by the end of July. “She is a mother of three, a philanthropist, has worked to help children with disabilities and special needs, and is involved in the community. She has a pro-labor record, opposed (Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s) Infrastructure Trust, and supports the building trades.” The trust was set up to raise capital from the private sector that would be used for public projects.
Then there are the usual suspects: Pat Levar Jr., the former alderman’s son, who has a comfy job with the Chicago Park District, Terry Boyke, Levar’s former top aide, who quit and then got creamed in the 2007 aldermanic race, and Marina Faz-Huppert, a food service union official who was Levar’s ill-conceived pick for his successor, getting barely 20 percent of the vote.
The point is that a lot of politically ambitious people see Arena as eminently beatable.
Second, the best way to discourage opposition is to become a fund-raising tiger. Arena was quick out of the box in 2011. His campaign committee raised $114,340 in the first quarter of the year, part of the election cycle, but then, despite incumbency and a multitude of local and Loop fund-raisers, his take diminished, averaging about $21,000 a quarter — solid numbers but not intimidating. From April 1, 2011, to March 31, 2013, Arena raised $174,190, and he had $7,619 on hand as of March 31.
Compared to aldermanic behemoths like Ed Burke, Dick Mell, Pat O’Connor and Brendan O’Reilly, that’s a pittance, but compared to his potential 2015 foes, that’s humungous. Garrido had no cash on hand, and he still carried a debt of $47,699 from the 2011 campaign (payable to him and his father). Former alderman Levar’s campaign committee is dormant, and Baert has filed no reports.
Third, there’s the “misery index.” In the 1980 Reagan-Carter presidential debate, Reagan famously Americans, “Are you better off now than you were 4 years ago?” Arena was scathingly critical of Levar’s stewardship, citing a plethora of vacant storefronts and businesses. According to one former Arena supporter, Arena’s tenure has “been just more of the same . . . stagnation, no significant change, no innovation, no business recruitment . . . He spends all his time promoting himself . . . He wants a lifetime sinecure, just like Levar.” The observer also noted that Arena is now the ward committeeman.
Arena forcefully rejects that notion. “We’ve brought a new energy and set a new tone,” he said, arguing that he he’s an “ambassador” and that he and his staff seek to “partner” with business and the city to make the 45th Ward “a destination.” “Pat never figured it out, never tried,” Arena said. “Under him, the ward stagnated.”
Arena lists a litany of “accomplishments,” including more than $1.5 million spent from the ward’s tax increment financing districts, six new restaurants around the Six Corners shopping district, new senior housing, a Mariano’s store on Elston Avenue, a new Chase Bank, a proposed redevelopment of the Bank of America building, 4901 W. Irving Park Road, the move to the area of the National Veterans Art Museum, the Filament Theater Ensemble and the “Chicago Fringe Festival,” the landmarking and blocking of the Portage Theater as a church, the beautification of “numerous” business facades, and a bunch of cultural events, including creation of the Arts Alive/45 organization and a renamed “Jeff Fest.”
Is the 45th Ward better than it was in 2011? That’s debatable.
Fourth, there is “Emanuel estrangement.” To his credit, Arena has not been a mayoral stooge. He opposed the mayor’s revenue-raising speed camera program, the “wheel tax” hike, the 2013 budget and cuts in mental health and public health spending, and he supported hiring 1,000, rather than 500, new police officers. He also opposed Emanuel’s Terminal 5 O’Hare contract and the Infrastructure Trust. “The ‘trust me’ mentality is not good for Chicago,” Arena said, adding that he wants “accountability” from the mayor. “If I don’t get it, I won’t vote for it,” he said.
Arena said that Emanuel has an “incredible mind” and that “he’s doing a good job in certain areas.” However, he said, aldermen must “evaluate every proposal” by the mayor.
Has the SEIU gotten its money’s worth from Arena? They helped elect him, and they have expended more than $150,000 in attorney fees to defend Garrido’s lawsuit. Emanuel’s comportment during the Chicago Teachers Union strike and his city pension “reforms” do not promote optimism. Will the public sector unions oppose Emanuel in 2015, and if so, will they fund aldermen such as Arena?
Fifth, there’s expansion of one’s political base. In the 2011 runoff, Arena, from Portage Park, won 33 of 53 ward precincts, almost all in or around Portage Park.
“Six Corners’ cultural events and opposition to Emanuel ‘cut it’ in the south but have no impact in the north,” the Arena critic said. The 45th Ward is sort of like New York City, with Portage Park resembling liberal and elitist Manhattan and the rest of the ward being the equivalent of conservative Queens and Staten Island.
Arena, for example, has an “arts liaison,” in addition to an “economic development” staffer, on his payroll. Who is more effective, and how many other wards have an “arts liaison”?
Arena has used the social media to his benefit, e-mailing an online newsletter every week and, he said, attending “over 100” functions in the ward since 2011. However, he has not solidified himself outside Portage Park.
“Inside Portage Park, Arena’s (anti-Emanuel) stance is very popular, but I question whether that resonates elsewhere,” the critic said.
Sixth, there is the ambiance. The former Gateway Chevrolet building is still shuttered. Numerous storefronts along Milwaukee Avenue are empty. The bike store issue still impedes development of Lawrence Avenue east of Milwaukee Avenue. Arena contends that more than 650 residents participated in his vote on how to spend the ward’s discretionary funds.
The bottom line: “Activity” may not necessarily be competence. There is no doubt that Arena has been an “active” alderman, but has he been “effective”? If both Garrido and Baert run in 2015, along with the other “suspects,” a runoff is assured. Arena surely will make the runoff, but he has not come anywhere close to ensuring his re-election.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.