After weeks of legal haggling, the contest for power in the 25th Ward comes down to this: are the signatures on the nominating papers for alderman Danny Solis legit?
Election law requires candidates to sign various documents in the presence of a notary. The punishment for counterfeiting a signature is banishment from the ballot. Lie about doing it under oath and you're subject to a charge of perjury.
So the stakes in this controversy are high--and not just for Pilsen and other communities in the near-southwest-side ward. Solis has been one of Mayor Daley's closest allies on the City Council since 1995, when the mayor tapped him to fill the vacancy left when alderman Ambrosio Medrano was sent to prison for extortion during the Silver Shovel probe.
During his tenure Solis has diverged from the Daley line on only one significant vote, last year's big-box living-wage ordinance. After Daley killed the bill with a veto--the first time he'd ever had to exercise that power--Solis flipped. Along with George Cardenas (12th) and Shirley Coleman (16th), he broke ranks with the council rebels and took Daley's side, ensuring there would be no override of the veto. Labor groups and many of Solis's constituents were incensed.
Now six candidates are running against him, among them Medrano, who served his time and ran unsuccessfully for alderman in 2003. But the biggest pain in Solis's neck isn't even on the ballot. That would be Anthony Sutor, a city transportation department employee on disability leave who heads up a group called the 25th Ward Independent Democratic Organization.
Sutor says he and his organization--which includes a few city workers and a lot of guys who'd like to be city workers--were all set to endorse Solis. "I was always with Ambrosio--he got me my job," he says. "But after the last election, in 2003, Danny came up to me and said, 'I want you to work with me.' When I broke the news to Ambrosio there were tears."
Over the last year or so Sutor and Solis met regularly at Betty's Blue Star Lounge to talk strategy. "Danny would come in with sunglasses and a baseball cap, like he didn't want anyone to recognize him," Sutor says. Sutor claims Solis offered to help get city jobs for members of Sutor's political organization. In return he wanted help with the March Democratic primary race involving an ally of his, state senator Marty Sandoval, who faced a tough battle for reelection in the 12th District. But Sandoval's also a close friend of the head of the Hispanic Democratic Organization, Victor Reyes.
"Danny wanted us to back the guys up against Tony [Munoz] and Eddie [Acevedo], so HDO would be tied up over here and they wouldn't be able to help beat Marty Sandoval," Sutor claims nevertheless. He says he and his group backed Francisco Rodriguez and Oscar Torres, a couple of independents running against Munoz and Acevedo. Sandoval won by a nose.
But as Sutor tells the story, Solis later double-crossed him. "We met at Betty's in, oh, I want to say it was around October," Sutor says. "I asked about the jobs, and he acted like I was wired--'I don't do anything corrupt. I don't promise anybody jobs.' I go, 'Danny, what are you talking about? What the fuck is wrong with you?' He said, 'Some people don't trust you.' I said, 'My word is my word.'"
After that meeting, Sutor says, he decided to go back to Medrano: "After he [Solis] stuck it up my ass, after he stuck it up my guys', I was through with him."
That's how Sutor, who knows a thing or two about electioneering, ended up poring over Solis's nominating documents, hoping to find a slipup and get the alderman bounced from the ballot.
"I'm looking at the signatures on his economic disclosure statement and his statement of candidacy and his loyalty oath and on his very own nominating petition, and I can't believe it--they don't match," Sutor says. "I'm thinking, 'These aren't Danny's signature."
He told Medrano, and they hired a handwriting expert. On December 21 Sutor filed a complaint with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, including testimony from the expert saying two of the signatures didn't match known instances of Solis's signature, and the matter came before hearing officer Thaddeus Wilson.
But on January 11 it was Sutor's effort that took a dive. Wilson dismissed his complaint on the grounds that he'd neglected to put his address on his objection petition.
Ironically, Wilson took a different stance on another objection Sutor had filed against Solis. In addition to the signature challenges, Sutor had asked the board to remove Solis from the ballot on the grounds that he misidentifed the office he was seeking on his economic disclosure statement: instead of writing "alderman of the 25th Ward," Solis wrote "City of Chicago." In this case Wilson declared the error inadvertent and threw out the challenge.
Sutor and Medrano hired Richard Means, an election-law expert, who appealed their case in front of the full board of commissioners. "It's an exaltation of form over substance," says Means. But on January 18 the board upheld Wilson's ruling. So for the moment Solis remains on the ballot.
Not surprisingly, Wilson's ruling left Sutor fuming. "It's a technicality--they always nail you on the technicalities," he says.
Solis says Sutor got what he deserved: "His case was a joke--a big laughing joke. Everything he says is wrong." It's true, Solis concedes, that he asked Sutor to work on his campaign and met with him at Betty's. He admits he paid Sutor $3,000 for campaign work. But he says he never promised to get members of his group any city jobs. Nor did he ask him to support Torres or Rodriguez. "I don't even know Frankie Rodriguez," he says. "I never even heard of him."
Furthermore, Solis says he signed all his documents himself and he has a report from his own handwriting expert to back him up. "You know how it is--your signature doesn't always look the same," Solis says. "On December 8 we met at the campaign office so I could sign everything myself. And I signed them, and that's the truth. The hearing examiner [Wilson] looked at the evidence and dismissed Sutor's challenge."
Actually, that's not what happened, I told him. Wilson dismissed the challenge because Sutor didn't put his address on the objection.
"Well, you know more about this than I do," he said. "I haven't been paying attention. I thought it was silly from the beginning."
Solis scoffs at the notion that he caught a break from the election board. If anyone got a break, he says, it was Medrano, who was allowed to remain on the ballot even though he's a convicted felon. "I don't know if you saw the Sun-Times, but they got it right," says Solis, referring to an editorial denouncing the board's decision to let Medrano run. "If you're a teacher or a doctor or a baseball player and you betray your constituency, you're gone. But he gets to stay on the ballot."
At the moment Sutor's eager to appeal the ruling to the circuit court. But the decision is Medrano's--he's the one footing the bills--and at press time he hadn't decided whether to go ahead with it. If he does, the future of one of Daley's favorite alderman may hinge on the downstroke of an s.
For more on the election board, see Mick Dumke's story in Our Town. For more on Chicago politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph/A. Jackson.