Why exactly did Ald. John Arena lose in 45th Ward?
Political Analysis and Opinion by RUSS STEWART
There is a joyous place where people laugh, where children shout on the playgrounds and champagne bottles are still being popped. That joyous place is Chicago’s 45th Ward. Because that is where voters booted Alderman John Arena out of office.
45TH WARD: When 63.77 percent of the ward’s electorate votes to oust an 8-year alderman, it is quite understandable that Arena would not be appreciative of my pithy poetic parables.
“I am still the alderman” for 2 more months, he said in an interview. “I am still the (Democratic ward) committeeman” until 2020, and he intends to seek re-election. “I still have an organization,” although it seems to have been MIA on Feb. 26.
“I will be involved” in the 2020 presidential contest, running as a 5th District delegate, as he did in 2016 when he supported Bernie Sanders. And, he added emphatically, “I have not foreclosed” a comeback aldermanic bid in 2023 when “(Gardiner) will be held accountable.”
Never let it be said that Arena does not know how not to be gracious. Did he congratulate Gardiner? Wish him well? Say he learned some lesson from his defeat? Not the soon-to-be ex-alderman. That’s not Arena’s style. Instead he sent a text to his former challenger John Garrido and called him a “cuck.” Look it up.
The unofficial Feb. 26 results pegged Arena at 5,370 votes, or 36.23 percent, to firefighter Gardiner’s 7,554, or 50.96 percent, with 1,349 for Marilyn Morales and 550 for Bob Bank. Gardiner cleared 50 percent and avoided a runoff. There are certain comparative measurements: The ward has roughly 54,000 occupants, so about 10 percent of them voted FOR Arena. The ward has 35,102 registered voters, so 15.2 percent voted FOR Arena. The ward had a primary turnout of 14,823, and 36.23 voted FOR Arena. But the operative number is the registered voters: 9,470 specifically voted against him, and 20,279 didn’t vote, creating a non- and anti-Arena base of about 29,000 voters. In the 2015 runoff Arena won 34 of 48 precincts. On Feb. 26, it was 15 of 48.
“It was the politics of fear that beat me,” Arena said, and it “drove turnout.” What he really means is that all those misguided non-progressive folks in the ward’s north end, in Gladstone Park and Jefferson Park, many of whom are not too keen on “affordable housing,” happened to vote in greater numbers than all those progressives in the south end, in Portage Park, who want “affordable housing” to be built somewhere – for some preferably in Jefferson Park.
And Arena definitely failed to be cognizant of the fleetingness of his majority, as he won by 30 votes in 2011, then by 1,225 votes in 2015, but then lost by 2,184 votes in 2019. “I got about the same number” of votes as in 2015, he said.
But why did the anti-Arena base increase? Here’s some numbers: In the 2011 Arena-Garrido runoff, the result was 6,083-6,053, and that was after SEIU spent over $500.000 smearing John Garrido as a Republican. Turnout was 18,879. In the 2015 primary, where turnout was 13,008. Arena topped Garrido and Michelle Baert 5,914-5,164-1,726. And then beat Garrido 8,488-7,263 in the runoff, in a turnout of 15,751, again with an infusion of public sector union money.
Arena blames the “absolutism” of his anti-affordable housing adversaries for his demise. “They would not compromise,” he said, referring to the 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. project. “I lowered the number” of affordable units, he said. But it was Arena who was the absolutist, who promised to desegregate the Northwest Side, and refused to comprehend that maybe some people who could afford to live in the 45th Ward, who pay a mortgage and high property taxes, or who pay high rents, might resent that their tax dollars are subsidizing people who can’t afford to live in the 45th Ward. Those concerns are not necessarily rooted in racism, as some have said.
“It will happen,” promised Arena of his citywide and wardwide affordable housing goals, which he said couldn’t be rescinded by Gardiner. “The next mayor,” he said, whether Toni Preckwinkle or Lori Lightfoot, “will make sure it (affordable housing) happens.” What will also happen is that Gardiner will take on Arena for Democratic committeeman in next March’s primary, in which a lot of Portage Park progressives will be voting for president. Arena’s 2020 defeat is not a foregone conclusion. But if Gardiner wins, Arena is DOA for 2023.
Arena’s priority is to find a job. He needs 2 more years on the city payroll to vest his pension. At age 53, he is not going to go back to being a graphic designer. The next mayor will likely give him a $100,000-plus deputy commissioner job.
39TH WARD: Beware the destructive power of a gaffe, which is defined as a blunder or faux pas. The gaffe-and-gone rule especially applies in politics, as Robert Murphy will soon demonstrate when he loses the aldermanic runoff on April 2. Murphy never understood that his 4, 815 votes for alderman in 2015, and his 6,075 votes for Democratic committeeman in 2016 were anti-Laurino protest votes, cast against Alderman Margaret Laurino and her machine. Laurino retired. Nevertheless, Murphy entered the 2019 contest as the self-proclaimed “frontrunner,” expecting to finish in a field containing Samantha Nugent, Casey Smagala and Joe Duplechin.
My prediction was that Murphy would get 37 percent to the well-funded Nugent’s 35, with Smagala in the 20s and police officer Duplechin around 10 percent, precipitating a Murphy-Nugent runoff. Instead, in a 13,180 turnout, Murphy came in with 3,904 votes, just 29.56 percent, to Nugent’s 4,386 votes, which is 33.21 percent, and the hard-campaigning Smagala’s 3,632, or 27.50 percent. Smagala trailed Murphy by only 272 votes. Duplechin got 9.73 percent.
How does Murphy explain his showing to his progressive/reform base, which he thought was the ward’s emerging majority? In hindsight, Murphy miscalculated by becoming committeeman, becoming an insider, while Smagala was the millennial outsider and Nugent the fresh can-do Laurino-backed insider. In 2015 Murphy won 10 of the ward’s 45 precincts. On Feb. 26 he finished first in just 16 precincts. I think the Smagala and Duplechin vote will move to Nugent, and Murphy does no have the money to attack Nugent. Murphy won’t crack 40 percent.
(Murphy has said that the Smagala and Duplechin vote will go to him because constituents hate machine politics.)
41ST WARD: There are politicians who, after winning an office, are expected to move on to a higher office. If they try and fail, they are old news. That is Tim Heneghan’s fate after losing to Alderman Anthony Napolitano 12,473-5,283, garnering just 29.75 percent. Napolitano won all of the ward’s 47 precincts by 2-1 margins, and some with over 75 percent.
Heneghan is a protege of former Alderman Mary O’Connor, who Napolitano beat 9,702-9,087 in the 2015 runoff, a margin of 715 votes, winning 29 precincts. Heneghan told the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times editorial boards that he favored “affordable housing” in the ward, even though he previously opposed it. That got Heneghan the papers’ endorsement and the voters’ ire. Napolitano, who consistently opposed the Emanuel Administration on budget, tax and police reform matters will do likewise during his next term.
40TH WARD AND 33RD WARD: When a longtime alderman with a universally-known family name gets 40 percent or less in a re-election bid, it’s normally DOA in a runoff. Alderman Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s floor leader and acting finance chairman, alderman since 1983, got an embarrassing 4,422 on Feb. 26, leading a 5-candidate field, or 33 percent. In 2015, he got 5,601 votes in a 2-candidate field. The 2019 runner-up was Andre Vasquez, with 2,664 votes, or 20.1 percent.
Alderman Deb Mell (33rd) inherited her father’s set in 2013, which Dick Mell had held since 1975. In 2015 the alderman faced two opponents, and they got a combined 4,028 votes against her, or 49.8 percent. She got an embarrassing 4,507 votes on Feb. 26 in a 3-candidate field, finishing second to Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, who had 4,584 votes, or 41.9 percent. In 2015 Mell got 4,103 votes, so she had an up tick of 394 votes.
The path to victory for both incumbents will lie in the ideology of their opponents, who are both self-proclaimed “democratic socialists,” and promise to join Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s planned “Socialist Caucus” if elected. That may be doable, but only if O’Connor and Mell demonize and discredit their respective foes, creating fear that the socialists’ political agenda would interfere with their constituents’ need for ward housekeeping services. Expect the attacks to be ruthless. Of the two aldermen, O’Connor has the better chance.