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Forty-Eighth Ward Follies

A state senator's sudden resignation sets off a scramble in Edgewater

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It looks like business as usual up in the 48th Ward. Just two weeks before the filing deadline for February's Democratic primary, state senator Carol Ronen resigned her seat, opening the way for a handpicked successor to assume her office.

A similar thing happened back in May, when Mike Volini, the ward's Democratic committeeman, stepped down to make way for none other than Ronen, who shares his Broadway Avenue office suite. As a matter of fact, several key elected officials in Edgewater—48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith and state reps Harry Osterman and Greg Harris—were ushered into office when their successors retired midterm. Ronen first gained her senate seat when she was appointed to replace Art Berman in 1999.

The latest reshuffle began on October 22, when Ronen sent out an e-mail announcing her resignation. "I am writing to let you know I have decided to step down from the state senate effective January 7, 2008," she wrote. "I am announcing this now so that anyone who wishes to run for the office will be able to file petitions for the February 5, 2008, primary election by the November 5th deadline."

Oh, that it were so easy. It takes 1,000 signatures to make the ballot for state senator. Any candidate interested would "have to hit the ground running as soon as Carol sends out her notice," says Chris Lawrence, an Edgewater independent.

One candidate did. Within a couple days of Ronen's announcement, political fund-raiser Heather Steans, scion of a prominent North Shore family, had her petition sheets printed and volunteers out gathering signatures. Ronen (who didn't return calls for comment) immediately endorsed her, as did Congressman Jan Schakowsky.

It was, says Lawrence, a classic setup. "It worked perfectly," he says. "Carol quits on the eve of the election when it's too late for independents to mount a campaign."

Steans swears up and down that Lawrence has it wrong. Yes, she and her husband, Leo Smith, have contributed thousands of dollars to Ronen over the years—they even hosted a $125-per-head fund-raiser for the senator in 2005. But she says she had no idea Ronen was stepping down until she saw the e-mail. "I knew she had been talking about retiring," Steans says. "But I didn't know she was going to do it now. It was a huge shock."

According to Steans, it's not her connections but her credentials that make her a natural successor to Ronen. She has a master's degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In addition to serving on several boards, among them WBEZ's, she's worked as director of economic development for the Civic Committee and held the post of budget director for Wisconsin's Department of Industry, Labor, and Human Relations. She expresses bafflement at accusations that some kind of fix was in. "But people will do what they're going to do," she says.

With just days to go before the filing deadline, Suzanne Elder, a local activist, also jumped into the race. "This senate seat belongs to us, the taxpayers," says Elder, who has a master's in public policy from the University of Chicago. "I don't think we should let Carol get away with this." An October 30 e-mail from her campaign recruiting volunteers for a last-minute petition drive urged residents to "stand up and tell the establishment that we don't want yet another hand-picked machine pol. ... The Democratic voters of the 7th District deserve better than anointing those who can afford to buy a political seat."

Local independents, including Lawrence, banded behind Elder. In just one week they gathered about 1,600 signatures, and on Monday, November 5, Elder drove to Springfield to file them. But the Edgewater regulars have another political tradition: the use of election law technicalities to throw candidates off the ballot. Mary Ann Smith ran unopposed in last February's aldermanic election because she knocked off three opponents—Lawrence among them.

Within five hours, according to the Illinois Board of Elections, attorney Michael Kasper was reviewing Elder's petitions. This is standard operating procedure, and there's no reason to suspect Steans of any nefariousness. But Kasper is house speaker Michael Madigan's favorite election lawyer, and he's been called on by Edgewater regulars before—in 2002, for example, when Osterman faced a challenge from a Green Party candidate. As Lawrence learned the hard way, Ronen, Smith, Osterman, and their allies know how the game is played.

Man With a Plan

By his own account, Mike Payne is an unemployed typewriter repairman who's crashing at his older sister's house while he looks for permanent digs. But he's come up with a transit plan for the notoriously underserved south side that's far more innovative than anything put forth by Mayor Daley or the CTA.

Payne proposes converting the Metra tracks running south and southeast from the Loop into a 22-mile, CTA-operated service called the Gray Line. Ideally it would provide round-the-clock service to dozens of south- and southeast-side neighborhoods, from the Loop to 93rd on one spur and to 111th on another. (The Red Line currently stops at 95th, and its planned extension to 130th is going nowhere despite $590 million in federal funds for the project.)

A railroad buff who used to build model trains in his basement as a child, Payne says the idea for the Gray Line came to him one day in the mid-90s, when he was sitting in traffic in South Shore, near the intersection of 71st and Jeffery. "It was a very congested Saturday at about one o'clock in the afternoon," he says. "The community was bustling, but the Metra commuter station on 71st was sitting abandoned. Nobody was using it. Two trains came in, one going north, the other going south. No one got on, no one got off. And I thought, what a ridiculous waste. This is an asset to our community—let's use it."

Not owning a typewriter himself, Payne rented one at Harold Washington Library and wrote up an application for the project, which he filed with the Chicago Area Transit Study, the metropolitan advisory group that officially oversees all capital transit works. Payne's Gray Line plan is the only proposal in CATS's files not submitted by an official state or city transit agency.

Payne grants that his plan is a long shot. Among other obstacles, it would require an operating agreement between the CTA and Metra, two outfits that are typically at each other's throats. The CTA, with its perpetual doomsday plans, isn't exactly flush. But "if it doesn't happen, it won't be because it's not a good or practical idea," he says. "It's because politically the politicians don't want it for whatever reason."

Over the years he's lobbied officials from Metra, the CTA, and the RTA. He's drawn some publicity for the project from time to time—Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch wrote him up in 2002. He's set up a Web site devoted to the project (community-2.webtv.net/GLRTS/GRAYLINECONVERSION). More recently he's tried a new tack, linking the Gray Line to the mayor's bid for the 2016 Olympics. The trains, he points out, could make stops at the proposed Olympic Village near McCormick Place and at Washington and Jackson parks, two major venues for the games as planned. "It makes all the sense in the world," Payne says. "We want to bring thousands of people to the south side, but right now we have no rapid transit to get them around."

I mention Payne's proposal not because I think it has much chance of succeeding but to highlight the dearth of ideas coming from city planners. We all know about the CTA's current problems. But its long-range planning has been even worse. Two recent major capital projects—the Pink Line and the underground superstation at Block 37—largely replicate existing service while leaving underserved areas untouched.

Payne's proposal at least has the potential to remedy this and help seed economic development in south-side neighborhoods. "You'd think they'd be interested if only because of the Olympics," says Payne. "I'll keep pushing, though." v

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

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