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The Untouchables

Its nickname, "The Incumbent Alderman Protection Act," tells you all you need to know about a proposed state law.



For the record, state rep Deb Mell wants everyone to know that she did not—repeat, did not—vote to advance the notorious House Bill 6000, widely known as the "Chicago incumbent aldermen protection act," even though her father, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, would be one of its beneficiaries.

Furthermore, she says she'll vote against the bill if it comes up before the full house. That ought to make for some interesting conversation at the next Mell family get-together.

The bill, introduced by state rep Joseph Lyons on February 10, would make it harder to run for alderman by increasing the number of nominating petition signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. It's already hard enough for independents to make the ballot, thanks to a thicket of bewildering rules and regulations. But just in case, Lyons wants to make it even harder.

To qualify now, aldermanic candidates need to gather signatures numbering 2 percent of the total votes cast in that ward's previous election. The figure obviously varies from ward to ward, but in most it works out to between 120 and 180 signatures. Lyons's bill would increase the threshold to 500.

You'd think state legislators would have more important things to do with their time than look for new ways to shield incumbents in Chicago—after all, the state is practically bankrupt. But on February 23 the house's Elections and Campaign Reform Committee approved Lyons's bill by a five-to-four party-line vote: all the Democrats voted for it, all the Republicans against.

After word of the committee vote spread, constituents called and e-mailed Mell, who's on the committee, for an explanation. She issued a statement saying she was actually opposed to the legislation—and that she hadn't voted for it.

Say what? Mell didn't return my call, but an aide explained that Mell had missed that committee meeting but a substitute legislator had cast a proxy vote for her. The sub happened to be Lyons and his aye happened to be the fifth vote needed to move the bill from the committee to the full house.

I suggested Mell might have been conveniently absent so that she could allow the bill to pass while telling her reform-minded constituents she was against it. But her aide told me Mell was genuinely ill—at home with a bad case of the flu.

And Steve Brown, house speaker Michael Madigan's longtime spokesman, told me it's common for legislators to fill in for one another on committee votes. "All it requires is a letter from the speaker to the clerk of the house designating a substitute," he said. "The speaker has the right to make a substitution. I don't know the details about this particular bill. My guess is that Joe Lyons said to the speaker, 'It's my bill, I'd like to vote on it.'"

Brown said Madigan currently has no position on the bill, which, like all legislation to come before the house, has no chance of passing if he doesn't want it to. "The speaker is considering the options and has the bill under review," says Brown.

It's too bad Mell wasn't around to share her thoughts when the bill came before the committee, because if anyone can appreciate the vagaries of election law, she can. In January her primary election opponent, Joe Laiacona, challenged the validity of her nominating petitions by noting that she'd listed an outdated address. But Mell was aided by the big legal guns Tom Jaconetty and Michael Kasper. Jaconetty is the chief election lawyer for Cook County Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios, and Kasper is Madigan's election law expert of choice. When he's not defending Madigan allies against challenges, Kasper's going after candidates who dare to run against them. The two lawyers successfully argued that Mell's mistake shouldn't disqualify her from the ballot.

Joseph Lyons is no stranger himself to the danger of disqualification. Some of his friends and supporters have come close to getting knocked off ballots. In 1990 his cousin and political mentor, Thomas Lyons, then the 45th Ward Democratic committeeman, was challenged on the grounds that he actually lived in Glencoe. The challenger "obtained a credit report in which Glencoe is listed as Lyons' principal residence and Milwaukee Avenue is reported as a former address," the Tribune reported at the time. "He also has a statement from the postmaster of Glencoe reporting that Lyons is resident of the town."

Thomas Lyons countered that his permanent address was a condominium on Milwaukee Avenue; the Glencoe address was a vacation home. That prompted Florence Boone, the mayor of Glencoe at the time, to quip that she knows people with vacation homes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, Ireland, and Switzerland, but "I'm not aware of anybody who keeps a vacation house here."

Eventually the Chicago Board of Elections investigated the matter and concluded that Thomas Lyons had never voted at any address other than the Chicago one. He remained 45th Ward committeeman until he died in 2007.

(By the way, Thomas Lyons eventually sold that house in Glencoe and moved to a new vacation home in Wilmette, according to a 2004 Sun-Times column by Mark Brown. That's progress, I suppose—at least he was closer to the 45th Ward.)

Joseph Lyons didn't respond to my calls, so he didn't answer the burning question of exactly which incumbent he might be seeking to protect. Maybe he's looking out for all of them.

The biggest beneficiary of the Incumbent Protection Act would be 22nd Ward alderman Rick Muñoz, whose Little Village district has always had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the city. In 2007 it took only 67 nominating signatures for a candidate for alderman to make the ballot there. But I doubt Lyons is looking to help Muñoz, who's not exactly one of the regular Dems' favorites seeing as he occasionally thinks for himself.

Lots of regulars would be aided by the bill, too. One of them is Deb Mell's father. In 2007 candidates for 33rd Ward alderman only needed 135 nominating signatures to make the ballot.

And one beneficiary would be the man who needs it the least: 14th Ward alderman Edward Burke. Only 109 signatures were required to get on the ballot in the 14th Ward in the last municipal election, when he had his first opponent since 1971, a special-ed teacher named Paloma Andrade. By her own admission, Andrade had little chance of beating Burke, who's been in office since 1969. But a Burke supporter challenged her nominating signatures, saying some weren't valid because she hadn't been present when they were collected. Eventually a court ruling put Andrade back on the ballot, and she got a whopping 576 votes to Burke's 5,027. But hey, that's 76 more than she'd need to make the ballot under the Lyons proposal.

Finally, there's 45th Ward alderman Patrick Levar, who shares a Jefferson Park office with Joseph Lyons and is also a protege of Thomas Lyons. Back in 2003 Levar barely survived one of the most unusual election-board challenges of all time when a couple of local activists—Ron Ernst and Greg Sedlacek—argued that he should be removed from the ballot for not having his nominating petitions bound.

"The law clearly says that the nominating petitions must be bound," Ernst says. "I saw his petitions—they were not bound."

In what eventually became known as the shoelace case, Levar, Jaconetty, and William Banks, then alderman of the 36th Ward, all testified that Levar's petitions had been bound with a shoelace.

Under cross-examination by Ernst, a nonlawyer doing his best Perry Mason imitation, Levar pulled from his pocket a envelope containing a blue shoelace that he said was the mate of the one that had originally bound his petitions. Like, you know, he just happened to have kept that extra shoelace around.

The case came down to the testimony of an election commission clerk who said he had cut the shoelace that bound Levar's petition. And then—talk about coincidences—he produced the very shoelace that he had cut.

The board allowed Levar to remain on the ballot.

To this day, Ernst swears up and down that the shoelaces proffered by Levar and the clerk did not match—one was shorter and thinner than the other.

Levar went on to win the 2003 election with a commanding 65 percent of the vote. But in 2007 his portion of the vote fell to 56 percent, and he's thought to be in bigger trouble going into 2011, thanks in part to his support for Mayor Daley's parking meter deal. If Joseph Lyons's bill doesn't pass, Levar may need more help than a shoelace to get reelected.   

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at

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