Langdon Neal’s seeming conflict of interest is back in the news.
During the middle of the ballot petition madness in January—at a time when Mayor Daley’s petition signatures had been challenged by the Dock Walls campaign—I asked Neal, the Chicago election board chairman, to explain how it was possible he didn’t have a conflict of interest: while Neal issues rulings that determine who gets to remain on the ballot, his law firm receives millions of dollars from the city each year for legal work. Neal said that his board decisions were based solely on the law, and he argued that no one had ever cited a specific instance when his rulings had been unfair. “I’d answer your question differently if someone had ever said that, but no one has,” he said.
In other words, Neal didn’t deny the appearance or even existence of a conflict of interest; he just said that he was honest and fair, so it shouldn’t be relevant.
Neal and board member Richard Cowens have plenty of supporters, including Richard Means, a veteran election attorney who’s well respected by independents around town. The dual roles don’t look good on paper, Means acknowledged. But he said that Neal had proven to be fair. Means added that the state courts rarely overturn the board’s decisions—a sign of its fairness. (This time, of course, the state supreme court reversed a board ruling and threw ex-cons Virgil Jones and Ambrosio Medrano off the ballot, but most reform and independent types thought the board was on the right side of that dispute.)
“You kind of have your choice: to be able to have somebody who’s an expert in the field, or someone who’s purer than the driven snow who doesn’t know anything about elections,” Means said. “Which would you rather have?”
South-side political activist Maurice Perkins frames the issue a little differently. In a federal suit filed last month Perkins argues that he “has a due process right to be free from a Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Elections burdening his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights as a voter.”
Perkins, leader of a youth advocacy organization, ran as a Republican against Cook County commissioner Jerry Butler last year, and says he was a supporter of Tony Peraica’s campaign for the county board presidency. After technical problems plagued ballot counting in the county races last November, Perkins started putting together the suit, which accuses Neal of coming under the influence of the Daley administration and therefore threatening his right to have his vote counted. Because of Neal’s conflicts of interest, citizens could lose their “inalienable right to enjoy the freedom of choice in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness,” he writes in the suit.
Perkins put the brief together himself, without the aid of an attorney. “We’ve developed a great deal of community interest with this, so maybe some great legal minds will step up and help out,” he told me today.
Still, despite harsh words for Neal (“He's a third-generation member of the African-American bourgeoisie”) and corruption in City Hall (“They have taken resources and given them to Mexicans and people from Bridgeport”), Perkins said he'd accepted Daley’s reelection: “We don’t have any axes to grind with the mayor and all that." Instead he's focusing his political energies on supporting challenger Pat Dowell in the Third Ward runoff in April. “Dorothy Tillman," he said of the incumbent, "has outlived her usefulness.”