Just 15 seats hang in the balance | Politics | Chicago Reader

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Just 15 seats hang in the balance

Runoff season is here, and Chicago may further freshen up the City Council.

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SUE KWONG
  • Sue Kwong

Update 3/19: After the publication of this story, the Chicago Board of Elections reported that, upon a final vote count, Sixth Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer was three votes short of the 50 percent plus one vote needed to win reelection. Sawyer is in a runoff against Deborah Foster-Bonner.

Now that we've all recovered from the hangovers and head-scratching brought on by last week's election results, it's time for the next election cycle. The mayoral runoff promises to be an issue-driven competition over the mantle of the true progressive, good-government choice to lead the city. But what about the Chicago City Council?

Incumbents won

Twenty-seven of the sitting aldermen were reelected last Tuesday, including three whose elections the Reader watched closely: Marty Quinn, Anthony Napolitano, and Emma Mitts.

In the southwest-side 13th Ward, incumbent Marty Quinn trounced 19-year-old challenger David Krupa with nearly 86 percent of the vote. This is about what happened in 1991, the last time a candidate dared challenge an incumbent backed by Michael Madigan, the Illinois state house speaker and 13th Ward Democratic committeeman of 50 years' standing. In that race, the incumbent 13th Ward alderman, John Madrzyk—a City Council wallflower, just like Quinn—won with 85 percent of the vote. Indeed, the staying power of Madigan-backed incumbents seems to be unaffected by fluctuations in turnout. While 73 percent of those in the ward voted for alderman back in 1991, last week just 44 percent of the voters bothered to cast a ballot—still, it was the fourth-­highest turnout rate in the city.

Meanwhile, the northwest-side 41st Ward had the third-highest turnout in town, with 47 percent of voters casting a ballot. The result was a landslide for incumbent alderman Anthony Napolitano. He won 70 percent of the vote against opponent Tim Heneghan, whose appeals to a progressive silent majority were either out of touch with reality or just not rousing enough to get people to the polls.

In the west-side 37th Ward, notwithstanding a social media and community organizing campaign against her, incumbent alderman Emma Mitts won reelection with 54 percent of the vote and won't face a runoff. Despite #AnybodyButMitts, which targeted her for her steadfast support of the $95 million police academy planned for the ward, voter turnout dipped slightly compared to 2015, from 27 to 24 percent. Though Mitts got just 35 more votes than she did in the 2015 general election, with two rather than three challengers on the ballot, there were fewer candidates to siphon votes away from her.

Incumbents ran unopposed

Five of the 27 incumbents ran unopposed.

Incumbents lost

Three incumbents lost their seats to challengers: Proco "Joe" Moreno in the First Ward has been replaced by Daniel La Spata; John Arena has been replaced by Jim Gardiner in the 45th Ward; and in the biggest upset of all, seven-term incumbent and erstwhile independent Joe Moore lost to progressive darling Maria Hadden in the 49th Ward. Turnout there was 41 percent, a five percentage-point jump compared to 2015. And significantly, Hadden swept in every precinct but one.

New alderman elected—open seat

One candidate running for an open seat was elected without a runoff: Michael Rodriguez, who replaces Ricardo Muñoz in the 22nd Ward. Rodriguez, backed by Muñoz and Congressman Jesús "Chuy" García, is likely to carry on his predecessor's legacy as a progressive voice in the council.

Runoffs for open seats

This means four new faces grace the council—so far. We'll definitely have four more after runoff elections are decided in wards where the incumbent isn't running for reelection. Ten other runoffs will be between incumbents and challengers. And some are shaping up to be titanic clashes between supermonied establishment candidates and political newcomers.

In the south-side 20th Ward (where incumbent Willie Cochran didn't run for reelection in the face of a federal trial on corruption charges), community organizer, Dyett High School hunger striker, and union favorite Jeanette Taylor will face former CPS teacher and policy consultant Nicole Johnson, who has backing from large donors affiliated with the University of Chicago and Chance the Rapper. The race is sure to hinge on the candidates' positions on policing, economic development, and the Obama Presidential Center. Contrary to many predictions, 20th Ward Democratic committeeman Kevin Bailey finished in third place, though his endorsement may prove important for the runoff. Bailey gathered only about half of the votes of the other six candidates who didn't make the runoff combined.

In the far-north-side 39th Ward the seat being vacated by Margaret Laurino is contested by Samantha "Sam" Nugent and Robert Murphy. Nugent is an experienced political operative who's worked for former Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan and has other machine ties. She got the Tribune's endorsement. Murphy, the ward's Democratic committeeman, has support from a variety of progressive groups and got the Sun-Times's endorsement.

In the north-side 47th Ward—where the aldermanic post was vacated by Ameya Pawar (who's now in a runoff for city treasurer), Matt Martin faces off with Michael Negron. Martin, a pro-public schools, pro-police accountability, pro-affordable housing civil rights lawyer, is the progressive favorite (and also, surprisingly, the Tribune's endorsement). Negron, on the other hand, is Mayor Rahm Emanuel's favorite (as well as the Sun-Times's). He's a lawyer who worked for Emanuel for more than six years and has received $45,000 in campaign contributions from the mayor. Though Negron has $200,000 more in his campaign coffers, Martin won almost twice the number of votes in Rahm's home ward. And that's with seven other candidates crowding the ballot.

With Danny Solis out of the picture, the 25th Ward, which encompasses much of Pilsen and Chinatown, is contested by Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Alex Acevedo. Sigcho­-Lopez, a community organizer with the Pilsen Alliance and the pro-rent-control Lift the Ban Coalition, has positioned himself as the anti-gentrification candidate. He's a longtime critic of Solis and has promised never to take campaign contributions from developers, to bring participatory budgeting to the ward, and to give residents more of a voice in zoning decisions. (On Election Day his campaign was accused of trying to bribe voters with Amazon gift cards, and the state attorney general's office is investigating.) Acevedo, on the other hand, is seen by most as the machine candidate and is propelled by a mix of unions and real estate interests. Neither of the two was endorsed by the Sun-Times or the Tribune, but third-place finisher Hilario Dominguez appealed to many progressive groups, and his votes could line up for Sigcho-Lopez.

Runoffs

Finally, these are the runoffs that involve incumbents. Some of these wards have a history of close, contested elections, while others are sites of unusual David-and-Goliath races.

The 15th, 16th, 21st, and 43rd Wards have had runoffs in at least four of the last five election cycles.

In Lincoln Park's 43rd Ward, incumbent Michele Smith is facing a runoff for the third time and enjoys the mayor's support. Challenger Derek Lindblom is a former Emanuel staffer who's garnered some union support but hasn't won endorsements from progressive groups.

In the 15th Ward (an absurdly gerrymandered collection of parts of West Englewood, Back of the Yards, and Brighton Park), incumbent Raymond Lopez is facing Rafa Yañez for the second time. Lopez is a staunch Emanuel ally, while Yañez, a former police officer, has been embraced by progressive groups because of his calls for systemic reforms to the Chicago Police Department and to the way resources are allocated to the police in the city.

In the nearby 16th Ward, incumbent and Progressive Reform Caucus member Toni Foulkes (who's never not faced a runoff, neither in her time as alderman of this ward since 2015 nor as alderman of the 16th Ward before the boundaries were redrawn) also faces a familiar challenger. Stephanie Coleman is running for a second time, with funding from Governor J.B. Pritzker, charter school operators, and Greg Mathis, of daytime courtroom drama Judge Mathis fame. She actually finished first, with 44 percent of the vote, to Foulkes's 33 percent, but the 16th Ward had the lowest turnout in the city—just 22 percent. Numbers so low could indicate a general disinterest in either candidate. Foulkes enjoys both name recognition and backing from an alphabet soup of labor groups.

In the 21st Ward, which neatly captures Auburn Gresham, four-term incumbent Howard Brookins Jr. is no stranger to runoffs either—he's had one in three of the last four elections. His opponent is Marvin McNeil, who's got about $5,000 in his campaign coffers (compared to Brookins's roughly $200,000). He's earned some cred with progressives for his critique of the way real estate interests operate in his ward.

Then there's the 31st Ward, on the northwest side, where incumbent Milly Santiago faces Felix Cardona Jr., a former staffer for disgraced former Cook County assessor Joseph Berrios. His platform isn't significantly different from the police-friendly, pro­-charter-school Santiago, and with heavy support from state rep Luis Arroyo it seems likely that Santiago will hang on to her seat.

These five, races, however, promise to be the most hotly contested, and present at times radically different choices for voters between the incumbents and challengers:

In the Fifth Ward, alderman Leslie Hairston, who was once celebrated for being one of only five votes against former mayor Richard M. Daley's move to privatize the city's parking meters (the others being Toni Preckwinkle, Scott Waguespack, Billy Ocasio, and Rey Colon), faces a challenge from community organizer William Calloway. He was the one who worked to get the Laquan McDonald shooting video released, and he's known for mobilizing demonstrations for racial justice. Hairston, first elected in 1999, has never faced a runoff, and has lost quite a few of her progressive bona fides since Richard M. Daley left office. Though she's still in the Progressive Reform Caucus, Hairston has a near-perfect voting record with Emanuel, including approving the 2012 mental health clinic closures. She's also against a community benefits agreement for the Obama Presidential Center, which would be located in her ward.

Thirtieth Ward alderman Ariel Reboyras (chair of the City Council's Public Safety Committee) also faces a runoff for the first time since taking office in 2003. A staunch mayoral ally with strong support from the police, Reboyras might seem to have a good chance for reelection in his northwest-side community. But his challenger, Jessica Gutierrez (the daughter of former congressman Luis Gutierrez), got only 31 fewer votes than he did. She maintains a slew of progressive endorsements and is backed by CTU and SEIU. Gutierrez has promised to fight for a charter-school moratorium and an elected school board as well as for property tax and police reform.

The dynamics are similar in the 33rd Ward, which stretches from Avondale to Albany Park. There, incumbent alderman and bowtie afficionado Deb Mell (daughter of long, long, longtime alderman and Harold Washington nemesis Dick Mell) is in a runoff with Democratic Socialist community organizer Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez. Mell, who was first appointed in 2013 to replace her father, votes with the mayor a two-point-below-average 93 percent of the time. She's been criticized for perpetuating machine politics and for aiding and abetting developers who've spurred gentrification in her ward. All the while, this area of town has seen a flourishing of leftist political organizing. In 2015, Mell escaped a runoff against CPS teacher Tim Meegan by just 17 votes, and since that defeat progressive and leftist groups have built a movement to elect Rodríguez-Sánchez. She's promised to fight against the new police academy and charter school expansion and for abolishing the TIF system. She's also proposing to cut aldermanic paychecks and reopen the city's mental health clinics. There may be no place in the city more likely to elect an openly socialist candidate. Just next door in the 35th Ward, DSA-backed Carlos Ramirez-Rosa won against a three-term incumbent in 2015 and has hung on to it in the face of a challenge from an Emanuel-backed opponent.

In the 40th Ward, the north-side stronghold of incumbent Patrick O'Connor since 1983, the runoff is historic, and the candidate dynamics are similar to those in the 46th Ward. Former rapper Andre Vasquez got 20 percent of the vote, but the other three candidates on the ballot against O'Connor were also vying for the progressive mantle. Though O'Connor is the second-most powerful alderman in the City Council after Ed Burke, and has nearly half a million in his campaign war chest, the largely self-funded Vasquez could now attract more money and endorsements.

In the 46th Ward, which encompasses Uptown and a bit of East Lakeview, incumbent James Cappleman is facing a runoff against Lori Lightfoot-endorsed chemist Marianne Lalonde. This matchup is proof that when it comes to an aldermanic race, money really isn't everything. While third-place finisher Erika Wozniak Francis out-fund-raised the other challengers and attracted major endorsements from unions and prominent political figures, Lalonde beat her by 167 votes with $37,000 less cash on hand. And Angela Clay, who finished fourth and had less than $5,000 in her coffers, only got 141 fewer votes than Wozniak Francis. Still, given their similarly progressive platforms, it seems likely that the other candidates will throw their support behind Lalonde's scrappy campaign. It'll be a tough battle. Cappleman (who has replaced Danny Solis as Zoning Committee chair) enjoys the support of deep-pocketed developers and Mayor Rahm. Though he's been derided for not doing enough to protect the ward's housing stock and not being available to constituents, Cappleman managed to secure 44 percent of the vote. Indeed, he won a plurality of votes in every precinct but one.   v

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