One day late last summer, Tom Courtney came up with the preposterous notion of running for alderman of the 27th Ward.
He'd be a 37-year-old white guy running in a low-income, mostly black ward. He'd lived there only ten years and didn't know a lot of people.
But he had a plan. He'd eliminate all his opponents from the ballot for violating one ticky-tacky election rule or another. If it worked, he wouldn't even have to campaign.
"Don't blame the player—blame the game," says Courtney, who, not surprisingly, is a lawyer—he practices in south suburban Palos Heights. "I'm just using the rules that are there."
He wasn't the only 27th Ward candidate playing the election-law game. Alderman Walter Burnett Jr.—the four-term incumbent —was also at it.
To do their dirty work, they brought in the big boys in election law. Courtney hired James Nally, who has so many cases when does he sleep? Burnett hired Michael Kasper, best known for representing Rahm Emanuel in his successful fight to get on and stay on the mayoral ballot.
By December 15 five candidates had filed to run in the 27th: McKenzie Dyhr-Arnold, Gevonna Fassett, Victor Rowans, Courtney, and Burnett. Within a week all five had been challenged by Courtney and/or Burnett, who also challenged each other.
Courtney got off to a fast start. Dyhr-Arnold didn't show up for his hearing on Courtney's nominating-petition challenge, so the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners removed him from the ballot.
That was easy.
Then Courtney knocked Rowans off the ballot for owing $60 on a parking ticket.
As readers know from my February 3 column, it's now against state law to run for municipal office if you owe the municipality money. Rowans argued that he'd paid the ticket. But Nally countered that he hadn't paid it until after the filing date, and the law clearly states that you can't be in debt when you file.
Hearing examiner Barbara Goodman agreed and the election board concurred. That was that for Rowans.
But Courtney had a tougher time with Fassett. He said she didn't have enough valid signatures on her nominating petitions. But after a lengthy check of the signatures, a hearing examiner ruled that Fassett did.
That left the heavyweight showdown—Kasper versus Nally. Courtney alleged that Alderman Burnett owed an unspecified amount in building code fines on property he owned at 2902 W. Fulton and 2711 W. Maypole. Burnett argued that he didn't owe the city anything. Yes, he owned the building on Fulton—but the building code ticket had been written against a cement company. Burnett testified that he was unfamiliar with the cement company, had never hired it to do any work, and didn't know why it was issued a citation.
And since Nally—I mean, Courtney—couldn't prove otherwise, Kasper—I mean Burnett—won that round.
As to the property on Maypole, Burnett conceded that he'd listed it on his aldermanic economic disclosure statement as property he and his wife owned together. But that was a mistake—he didn't really own it. He owned 2709 W. Maypole and 2715-2725 W. Maypole, but not 2711.
To prove his point, he called a woman named Patricia Johnson, who testified that she, not Burnett, owned 2711 W. Maypole.
When the smoke cleared, Burnett was on the ballot, though Courtney said he might appeal. But if he does, the election will have come and gone by the time the litigation is settled.
"I don't think an ordinary candidate would have survived this challenge," says Courtney. "There's the election law and then there's the election law, if you know what I mean."
To which, Burnett counters, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
"Courtney won't give up," Burnett says. "I beat him with the hearing officer, then I beat him at the full board of elections, and then he took me to circuit court and I beat him there. And now he wants to take me to the appeals court. Apparently he just wants to win by kicking everyone off the ballot. It's easier than campaigning."
Burnett is one to talk about frivolous election-law challenges. One of his supporters challenged Courtney on the grounds that he referred to himself as Tom in his statement of candidacy and Thomas on one of his nominating petitions.
Hearing examiner Goodman ruled for Courtney on the grounds that Tom "is a common nickname for Thomas."
Burnett also used Kasper to go after Fassett for violating the one-year residency law that almost toppled Emanuel's campaign.
In Fassett's case, Burnett contended that she shouldn't be allowed to run because she hadn't resided in Chicago for a full year prior to the election. Using her Texas driver's license as evidence, Kasper argued that she was in fact a resident of the Longhorn State and not Chicago, where she was born and raised.
"He was doing to me what they were doing to Emanuel," says Fassett. "That's what they call irony."
But even Kasper can't win them all. Fassett admitted that, yes, she had been living in Texas. But she brought in witnesses to testify that she'd returned to Chicago in September 2009—a full year before she filed her petitions —to take care of her ailing parents. (Her father has since died.)
Goodman ruled in her favor, the board concurred, and Burnett opted not to appeal the case to the circuit court.
"I was born and raised in this city," says Fassett. "This is my hometown. And I look forward to running."
So now there's a three-way race—Burnett versus Courtney versus Fassett—in a ward that's a masterpiece of racial gerrymandering. In the late 80s and early 90s, white residents were starting to move into the communities just north of the Cabrini-Green housing complex. For the benefit of its Democratic committeeman, Jesse White, who today is Illinois's secretary of state, the 27th Ward's boundaries were redrawn to zigzag in and around Cabrini-Green, picking up black votes while shuffling white ones to adjacent wards. West of Cabrini-Green, the ward plunges south and shoots roughly between Washington and Van Buren streets to Pulaski.
Backed by White, Burnett has won every aldermanic election since 1995. He had a particularly easy time of it four years ago when he ran unopposed, having successfully knocked all his opponents ("I can't remember how many," he says) from the ballot for violating one election rule or another.
If I lived in the 27th, I'd probably vote for Fassett. Having already defeated the attempts of Nally and Kasper—two of the baddest boys on the block—to knock her off the ballot, she might be one of the few aldermen in the council with the guts to take on a real tough mayor, like, gulp, Rahm Emanuel.
On December 12, Alderman Eugene Schulter was very much a candidate for reelection in the 47th Ward and Tom O'Donnell, a longtime Schulter backer, was very much a supporter of that reelection campaign.
On December 8, Schulter filed nominating petitions containing hundreds of signatures, some gathered by O'Donnell. He'd raised more than $100,000 for his campaign.
But then the election went topsy-turvy. Schulter—who's been alderman since 1975—withdrew and endorsed O'Donnell, who filed his nominating petitions at the last minute.
Which left a lot of voters in the ward wondering, what the fu—!
Here's the story Schulter's telling.
As much as he wanted to hold on to his aldermanic seat, he wanted to be a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review even more. That's the three-person body that hears property tax appeals. "As you know, I've always been very interested in property tax issues," Schulter says.
A vacancy on the board opened in November, when commissioner Joe Berrios was elected Cook County assessor. The chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, Timothy Evans, would fill the vacancy, and Schulter figured he had a good shot, if for no other reason than that he and Evans had been on the City Council together back in the 70s and 80s, when Evans was alderman of the Fourth Ward.
But there was a problem. Schulter had endorsed Forrest Claypool's third-party candidacy against Berrios in November's assessor's race. And Berrios wasn't ready to forgive and forget. "Schulter didn't support me," Berrios told me. "And that's all I'll say."
So Schulter had a hard decision to make. He knew that because of the strong opposition from Berrios—who's also the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party—Evans might be hesitant to select him. He also knew he could make a more compelling case if he gave up his aldermanic seat—thus showing how much he wanted to be a commissioner on the board of review.
But if he gave up his seat he'd be conceding control of the ward to one of three outsiders—Matt Reichel, Tom Jacks, or Ameya Pawar—who were hammering away at him for having supported the parking meter leasing deal.
What's a ward boss to do?
On January 17 he withdrew from the aldermanic race, about a week before ballots would have been printed with his name on them.
Alas, on January 31 Evans chose Michael Cabonargi, a senior attorney and prosecutor with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, to fill the review board vacancy.
Schulter had rolled the dice and lost. Or as one north-side committeeman put it: "I've got to believe that he was led on. He put all his eggs in one basket and then they knocked that basket over."
But at least Schulter had his longtime ally, O'Donnell, in a position to replace him. "You can't tell me Schulter and O'Donnell didn't set this up," says Pawar. "Schulter gets Tom to run at the last minute so he can keep control of the ward. He runs this ward like it's his fiefdom."
Schulter says it didn't go down like that. "I really loved being alderman of the ward and I thought I'd done great things," says Schulter. "But I felt I would be a great commissioner of the board of review."
Did any party leaders tell you to give up your aldermanic seat?
"No. Some things in life are not certain. I felt if I were interested I'd have to give up the aldermanic seat."
It was, he said, one of the hardest decisions of his life: "The weekend before I withdrew I still wasn't certain. I sat down with my wife, with my family, and I tried to analyze the whole picture. It didn't work the way I wanted, but I think I made the right decision."
From the sound of it, Schulter is gearing up to run for the board of review in the 2012 Democratic primary. "I feel I would have been a great service to the board of review," he says. "I'd make sure that the high-powered attorneys would be stopped. The little people are getting screwed."
So did you tell O'Donnell to jump into the race at the last minute?
You didn't even talk to him about it?
"No, not at all. I was still wrestling with my decision when Tom ran. People knew I was going through this gut-wrenching process. I had nothing to do with Tom running the way he did."
O'Donnell—a Democratic Party loyalist who works as an aide to Cook County sheriff Tom Dart—concurs.
"I never talked to Gene about this," says O'Donnell. "I heard that Gene was looking at the board of review. And so I ran."
You filed your petitions thinking you might have to run against Schulter?
"I was coming close to that."
Tommy . . .
"At some point, Gene withdrew so it's a moot point."
Getting in the race wasn't as easy as it sounds. Tom Jacks filed an election board challenge against O'Donnell's candidacy on the grounds that it's against the rules to circulate petitions for a candidate you're running against.
But the hearing examiner—Mario Correa—ruled that although it's illegal for someone to circulate petitions for two candidates running in the same race, it's not illegal for one candidate to circulate petitions for his opponent.
"Helping a competing candidate get elected, while uncommon, is not prohibited," said Correa's ruling.
Furthermore, Correa noted that O'Donnell did not circulate petitions for himself. "I come from a large family," says O'Donnell. "I have a lot of people to help me circulate nominating petitions."
O'Donnell's lawyer in the case was James Nally—I told you he's a busy fellow. Jacks represented himself.
Schulter's thrown his heart and soul behind O'Donnell. He contributed $15,000 to O'Donnell's campaign and posed with O'Donnell for a flyer that says, "There is no one I would rather have represent me and my family in the City Council than Tom O'Donnell." O'Donnell posters have replaced Schulter posters in bars along Lincoln Avenue in North Center. The marching orders are out.
Full disclosure—I live in the ward and once voted for Tom O'Donnell.
Back in 1996 he was running for state representative against Larry McKeon and Luke Howe. (At the time the word on the street was that Mayor Daley threw O'Donnell—then working for Streets and Sanitation—into the race to siphon votes from Howe and guarantee McKeon's election. O'Donnell says it isn't true.) O'Donnell mailed out a flyer that showed him posing with a guy dressed up like Elvis. "Tom O'Donnell finds knocking on doors interesting," the flyer read. "He has met lawyers, doctors, teachers, retirees, and even the 'King'."
I loved that flyer so much I voted for him. OK, I also thought McKeon was a little too close to Daley, possibly not my greatest moment as a voter.
Anyway, O'Donnell's got a funny flyer in this election. It shows him walking his dog—green plastic bag in hand. "Every day I walk the dog and every day I have a bag," says O'Donnell. "I always pick up."
Of the other candidates in the race, Pawar is making an impressive showing at forums and debates by calling for an end to the city selling off its assets, a moratorium on new TIFs, and a full financial audit of the city's budget. Pawar works as a program assistant in the Office of Emergency Management at Northwestern University. Essentially, his job is to come up with plans that anticipate catastrophes like gas leaks, tornados, crazed gunmen, and so forth.
At the age of 30 he's developed a worldview in which life is a series of potential emergencies that can be met through smarter planning. He views the city's government—with its looming debt—as an emergency brought on by catastrophically bad management.
"In the aftermath of a disaster, you discover that everything's a direct result of preexisting conditions," Pawar says. "This is a financial disaster. We're coming up with gimmicks like TIFs and we're plugging the budget by selling off assets. It's like a pawn-shop government, selling the watch to fund the city."
He can go on like this for hours.
So voters in the 47th have an interesting choice: a bright young idealist with big ideas for reform or an amiable Democratic Party loyalist with clout and a funny doggy-bag flyer.
If I know the voters of the 47th Ward—and I've been living among them for a long, long time—the guy with the clout would win even without the flyer.
But go ahead, voters, prove me wrong.
On the coldest night of the year I trekked to a church in Lakeview to watch the great 32nd Ward aldermanic debate.
In particular I wanted to hear the three challengers talk about incumbent alderman Scott Waguespack and Mayor Daley's parking meter deal.
To refresh your memory—as if your memory needs to be refreshed—that's the deal where the mayor decided it was a good idea to lease the city's parking meters for $1.2 billion for 75 years to a consortium of investors put together by Morgan Stanley.
Under heavy pressure from Mayor Daley and the daily papers, both of which endorsed the proposal, the City Council rolled over, ratifying the lease agreement after only two days of debate by a vote of 40 to 5. Several aldermen confessed they hadn't even read the document.
Under the agreement, Morgan Stanley's consortium—including investors from the government of the emirate of Abu Dhabi—got to jack up the cost of parking and keep all the revenue for itself.
So now every time you feed those meters—and their cost has more than doubled in the last two years—you know that your money isn't going to the cash-starved city but instead to fat cats around the world.
And by the way, over the past two years the mayor has blown through almost all of the $1.2 billion while trying to patch together a budget that's still hundreds of millions in the red.
All in all, the parking meter deal wasn't Mayor Daley's finest idea. But as his apologists love to tell me—at least we're not Detroit.
Waguespack voted no—along with aldermen Leslie Hairston, Toni Preckwinkle, Rey Colon, and Billy Ocasio. And Waguespack actually took the time to read the proposal and write a report criticizing it—a radical display of aldermanic independence in a council of rubber stamps.
These days the deal is almost universally condemned. Some aldermen who voted for it—like Walter Burnett and Gene Schulter—say they wish they'd voted against it. I know of no aldermanic candidate who says he or she would have voted for it.
So I was curious about how the issue would play out in the 32nd, where Waguespack's opponents are David Pavlik, Bryan Lynch, and Brian Gorman.
They came up with a novel approach. They basically blamed the deal on Waguespack on the grounds that he didn't oppose it hard enough.
"He should have deferred and published it so we could have an extra 30 days to analyze it," said Pavlik, echoing the comments of the other challengers. "He could have done more—he should have done more."
Deferring and publishing is a parliamentary move in which any two aldermen can keep a matter from coming to a vote until the next meeting.
Keep in mind that Pavlik has close ties to 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell. His mother is a longtime aide to the alderman and he got a job in state government during the administration of Rod Blagojevich, who is—as we all know—Mell's son-in-law.
In fact it was Mell who argued during council debate that it didn't really matter if the aldermen only had a day or two to read the proposal.
"How many of us read the stuff we do get, OK?" Mell said. "I try to. I try to. I try to. But being realistic, being realistic, it's like getting your insurance policy. It's small print, OK?"
Give him credit for honesty.
But back to the debate. Gorman's a big, bright guy with an easygoing manner, sort of like a young Tim Russert. He was a campaign aide to Cook County commissioner John Fritchey in Fritchey's unsuccessful 2009 congressional run.
The proverbial word on the street is that Fritchey encouraged Gorman to run because of Fritchey's long-standing feud with Waguespack. (Fritchey and Gorman both deny that's why Gorman's in the race.) Why Waguespack and Fritchey—both basically cut from the same north-side liberal cloth—are feuding is best explained by a psychologist. Basically, Fritchey says Waguespack doesn't appreciate the help he got from Fritchey in his 2007 aldermanic campaign, and Waguespack says Fritchey wants too much credit for that victory.
For the last couple of years they've been bickering like an old married couple, and a nice young man like Gorman could walk into the middle of it and not know he's being used.
The third candidate is Brian Lynch, a lawyer who used to be a precinct worker for former alderman Ted Matlak, the incumbent Waguespack defeated four years ago.
Matlak was the last remnant of the powerful 32nd Ward Democratic Machine—run by the late congressman Dan Rostenkowski—that used to call the shots in Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park, and other near-northwest-side neighborhoods.
In 2007 Waguespack ousted Matlak after a monumental battle. And from his edgy tone and disposition in the debate—think of a young Jimmy Cagney—maybe Lynch hasn't gotten over it.
Give him credit for this—he got off the funniest line of the night. Asked why he'd attended a Catholic school, as opposed to a public one, he said: "My father was in the seminary. Obviously, he left. Otherwise I wouldn't be here."
Even Waguespack had to laugh at that one.
After the debate I asked Pavlik if he was serious about that defer-and-publish stuff.
"I would have voted against the deal," he told me.
And you would have moved to defer and publish?
Even with Mell voting for it?
"Yes. Just because my mother works for Mell doesn't mean we'll agree on everything."
After the debate, Waguespack said their assertions of independence were almost as funny as Lynch's wisecrack about the seminary.
"You have to go back in time to December 2008," he said. "The mayor was pushing hard for the deal. Both papers endorsed it. No one wanted to stand up. There were no votes to defer and publish. It was hard enough to find five people to vote no. Anyone who deferred and published would have been pummeled by Daley. Besides, we could only defer it for a meeting, which could have been called within 48 hours. For these guys to bring this up is comical."
It's funny how bold candidates are about standing up to Mayor Daley now that he's leaving office. We'll see how tough the winners are when the next tough guy—you know who—takes over.