News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Confuse-a-Candidate

In Chicago holding on to your office can be as simple as getting a good lawyer to mess with the other guy.

by

comment

For the past few months Bob Bank has been looking for votes as he challenges the incumbent in the March 16 election for Democratic committeeman of the 45th Ward, Thomas Lyons. In retrospect, Bank wonders if he should have spent more time challenging Lyons's lawyer, Tom Jaconetty, who's trying to get Bank removed from the ballot. "Jaconetty's tying me in knots with this case," he says. "It's classic machine tactics--he's trying to divert all my time and energy from campaigning against Lyons."

Lyons has been the political boss of the 45th, which encompasses parts of Portage Park and Jefferson Park, since 1968, and he's chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. He's a throwback to the days when committeemen ruled from back rooms. A corporate lawyer with a downtown practice, he rarely makes public appearances and almost never talks to the press (he didn't return calls for comment). He leaves most of the day-to-day coordination of ward services to his proteges--Alderman Pat Levar, ward superintendent Nicholas Slywczuk (the official who oversees garbage collection), and Terrence Boyke, Levar's top aide. It's not clear that Lyons is a full-time resident of the ward. As his political opponents never tire of pointing out, he owns a three-story house in Glencoe in addition to a ranch house in the ward. In the past he's called the Glencoe house a "vacation place."

As residential property taxes have risen and commercial streets such as Milwaukee Avenue have struggled to attract businesses, people who want to challenge either Lyons or Levar haven't had to look hard for issues. "They keep residents locked out of the development process," says Bank, echoing a common complaint among local residents. "We don't learn about zoning changes unless we read them in the legal notices in the papers." And challengers see potential support in the wealthy, independent-minded voters who've moved into the ward over the past decade.

Yet Lyons and Levar have stayed in power because they run a disciplined, well-financed organization. In last year's aldermanic election four candidates filed to run against Levar. Two were eventually knocked off the ballot after Jaconetty challenged their petitions. "The leading challenger was Pete Conway, who got about a third of the vote," says Bank. "That's pretty good for a first-time candidate. I wanted Pete to run for committeeman, because you have to build on your momentum."

But Conway declined to run, so into the race jumped Bank, a real estate salesman and longtime community activist who helped organize the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association. "The thought of Lyons going unchallenged just eats away at me," he says. "I figured we can't give them a pass."

Last November, Bank and his allies began circulating nominating petitions to get the 672 signatures he needed to make the ballot. "As soon as Lyons realized I was gathering signatures," says Bank, "he had his guys circulate petitions for another guy to run."

The name of the third candidate in the race is Ronald Pacelt, and Bank is sure Lyons is behind his candidacy. "All the clues are in the petitions," he says, pulling out copies of Lyons's and Pacelt's nominating petitions. "Look, the notary on the petitions for Pacelt and Lyons is Marilyn Bickel--she's Levar's chief of staff. They even have some of the same circulators, including Terrence Boyke, who also works for Levar."

Bank points to the box at the top of two petitions where candidates are supposed to write the district in which they're running. Both Pacelt's and Lyons's petitions say "forth-fifth" instead of 45th Ward. "It's the same typo--how's that for a coincidence," he says. "They were probably in such a hurry to get Pacelt on the ballot before the filing deadline that they took some of Lyons's leftover nominating sheets, taped Pacelt's name over Lyons's, and sent the same old clowns out to get signatures."

Bank and his main ally, community activist Ron Ernst, contend that Lyons wanted Pacelt in the race to confuse voters. "They know a certain number of voters are going to vote against the incumbent even if they don't know the challengers," says Ernst. "But if you have two challengers in the race, you'll cut down the number of votes the real challenger, in this case Bob, will get."

Then another obstacle appeared. On December 24 Slywczuk, Boyke, and a ward resident named William Paulson filed a challenge with the Board of Elections, asking that Bank be bounced from the ballot. Their lawyer was Jaconetty, who's made a name for himself as perhaps the sharpest of all the sharp election-law tacticians working on behalf of the party regulars, the entrenched incumbents whose loyalty to Mayor Daley is unswerving.

Jaconetty says he learned his trade from legendary alderman Thomas Keane, who used to run the 31st Ward Democratic organization. "I'm a neighborhood kid from Tom Keane's ward," he says. "I've always enjoyed working in politics. Joe [Berrios, the current 31st Ward committeeman] and I have been good friends for years."

Jaconetty is a busy fellow. He practices law part-time and works full-time as an adjudicator for the Cook County Board of Review, one of whose members is Berrios. "I listen to the requests for property tax relief," Jaconetty says, "and then make recommendations to the commissioners."

According to Jaconetty, it's not hard to use election law as a tool to knock off challengers. You merely search the opponent's nominating petitions for errors or inconsistencies, big or small--a typo will do. Then you pounce, filing an objection that cites case after case in which other hapless neophytes were removed from the ballot for similar mistakes.

In the early 1980s Jaconetty took his first election-law case, trying to knock off a challenger to Keane's successor as 31st Ward committeeman, Ed Nedza. "I didn't win that case," says Jaconetty. But he's won lots since then. And even when he loses he wins.

On hearing that Lyons was trying to knock off an opponent, a rival election-law lawyer said, "Let me guess who's the lawyer--Jaconetty, right? The master's up to his old tricks. He's gonna tie that poor guy up in all sorts of legal gobbledygook. He'll quote everything from the state election manual to the holy scriptures if he has to. If he loses the first round he'll appeal. And [Bank] will spend all of his time stuck in court instead of out on the street campaigning."

Party regulars tend to be more aggressive in challenging nominating petitions because they tend to have more money than their challengers. "Now that I think about it, we could have challenged Lyons for the 'forth-fifth' typo," says Ernst. "You know Lyons would have challenged us had we made the same mistake. We just don't have the money to play those games."

Ernst has no legal training, but in last year's 45th Ward aldermanic race he sued to have Levar removed from the ballot on the grounds that his nominating petitions weren't properly bound. Ernst's challenge--eventually known as the "shoelace case"--led to one of the election board's most entertaining hearings. As Ernst pointed out, when Levar's petitions were submitted they were held together by rubber bands, a violation of an election-code regulation that requires tighter fasteners. Jaconetty, representing Levar, called before the board several public officials who swore under oath that they'd seen Levar's petitions bound by a bright blue shoelace when the alderman was standing in line waiting to file. Jaconetty argued that at some point after Levar filed his petitions a clerk must have clipped off the shoelace. The board of elections dismissed Ernst's challenge, and Levar got to stay on the ballot. "At least I made them sweat a little," says Ernst.

Jaconetty's challenge filed against Bank alleges that Bank's petitions are invalid because nowhere on the petition does he refer to himself as "a Democrat seeking the Democratic Party position of Democratic Ward Committeeman."

"They're saying that I should be taken off the ballot because I never wrote those three words together--Democratic ward committeeman--even though my nominating petitions make it clear that I'm running for Democratic ward committeeman," Bank says. "Can you believe this stuff?"

Bank and Ernst countered in their brief that it would be redundant to write "Democratic" in the box indicating the office he's seeking, because another box at the top of the nominating petition asks for party affiliation. "In the section for office I wrote 'ward committeeman,'" Bank says, "under the section of district I wrote '45th Ward of the city of Chicago Cook County, state of Illinois,' and under the section for party I wrote 'Democrat.' It's obvious I'm running for Democratic committeeman of the 45th Ward, so give me a break already."

Yet at a January 19 hearing an election board officer decided against Bank, saying, "If I'm wrong, I welcome being wrong."

Bank appealed to the full three-person board of elections. On January 27 they voted two to one to overturn the officer's ruling. Bank says, "I figured, 'Good, it's over. Let's get on with the real campaign.'" But Jaconetty and his clients have appealed to the circuit court, forcing Bank to file yet another brief defending his position. A hearing is scheduled for February 19.

"I think I'll win," says Bank, "but knowing Jaconetty and Lyons, they'll probably take this as far as they can go."

From time to time reformers call for abolishing nominating requirements, meaning anyone could be on the ballot as long as they proved they lived in the district they wanted to represent. But such reforms are unlikely to happen, largely because incumbents will fight hard to keep the system as it is. "Right here is everything that's wrong with our political system in Chicago--the whole thing's set up to keep people from running," says Ernst. "Where's the democracy? But that's our system. If you want to change it you have to learn it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.

Add a comment