On March 14 the Democratic power brokers from the fifth state senate district will get together at a near-west-side restaurant to select a replacement for Rickey Hendon—as if that's even remotely possible.
Run—don't walk—to check it out.
It will be a rare opportunity to see your elected officials in their natural element: a back room filled with smoke.
OK, there will be no smoke, thanks to former governor Rod Blagoejvich's statewide ban on smoking in public places. (Don't say he didn't do anything right.)
But you'll get to watch west-side power brokers and wannabe power brokers of all races and ethnicities wheel and deal and maybe, if we're lucky, argue, fuss, and fight, while invoking all sorts of great principles to conceal their naked self-interest.
Oh my god, I'm getting excited just thinking about it.
Alas, we'll probably miss most of the good stuff, as the real horse-trading's going on right now in phone calls between the wheelers and dealers preparing for the meeting at 1 PM on March 14 at Moretti's restaurant, 1645 W. Jackson.
There are so many deliciously devious and underhanded scenarios out there, but before I get to a few of them I must take a moment to offer a few words of appreciation for the great senator Hendon.
On February 23, one day after the mayoral and aldermanic elections, Hendon, 57, a five-term incumbent, unexpectedly gave up his seat, raising the obvious question: What the hell's Rickey up to now?
At the time, Hendon said he was devastated by Carol Moseley Braun's loss and was upset at the black community for abandoning her mayoral campaign.
Which would be a lot easier to believe had he not invited city clerk Miguel del Valle—another mayoral candidate—to speak to his precinct captains the day before the election, according to west-side politicians and del Valle campaign aides.
The Tribune noted that Hendon resigned "months after revelations that a federal grand jury issued subpoenas for records on dozens of state grants, some of which he sponsored." He hasn't been charged with anything and wasn't named in the subpoenas, and the west-side pols I talked to said they doubted he resigned because of the investigation.
I talked to a few guys who have known him for years and they tell me that the man is exhausted. The thing about Hendon is that he usually has so many tricks up his sleeves that no one really knows what he's up to. He's disconnected his office and cell phones. (Senator, if you're reading this, feel free to call.)
Hendon is one of the great characters of our time. He made no pretences about being a good-government reformer. He was, instead, a passionate advocate for the old-fashioned spoils system. He just wanted to make sure that his people—African-Americans, that is—got a slice of the pie. As an orator, he was in a class of his own: bombastic, relentlessly self-promoting, and, occasionally, dead on target.
Consider, for instance, his oration on the senate floor last December in support of the civil unions bill. "I hate the hypocrisy," he declared in a speech posted on YouTube. "Aren't you sick of the hypocrisy by now? When I sit here and I hear adulterers and womanizers and folks cheating on their wives and down-low brothers saying they're gonna vote against this bill, it turns my stomach."
Or the speech he gave on the City Council floor when he was the alderman of the 27th Ward in 1991. The council was gearing up to approve a franchise agreement with Commonwealth Edison, which Hendon and other black aldermen wanted amended to include a minority set-aside policy on contracts and jobs.
But Mayor Daley opposed the amendment and so it lost, with several aldermen, most notably Luis Gutierrez, reversing their support to vote with the mayor.
Hendon went ballistic, ripping up the franchise agreement and tossing the paper into the air. Then he ripped into Gutierrez, who sat right next to him in the council.
"Gutierrez flip-flops all the time," Hendon bellowed. When the mayor's people told him, "You belong to the mayor. Get your butt in line," he thundered, Gutierrez "jumped in line like the coward he is. I am sick and tired of Hispanics who use being Hispanic when it's advantageous to them, only to stab us in the back like Judas did to Jesus."
Hendon won that battle of words, but Gutierrez won the war. In March 1992, just a few months after the franchise vote, Gutierrez got elected to Congress—with Mayor Daley's strong backing, of course. And he's been there ever since.
So, you see, it pays to be a practical politician.
But back to Hendon's senate-seat vacancy.
There are still 22 months left in Hendon's four-year term. It's too close to next year's primary to hold a special election, so the 13 Democratic committeemen whose wards fall within Hendon's senate district get to fill the vacancy.
The committeemen's votes will be weighted according to the number of votes Hendon got from their wards in the 2008 general election. Sharon Denise Dixon, committeeman (and also alderman) of the 24th Ward, has the heaviest vote (worth 17,241 votes), followed by secretary of state Jesse White, committeeman of the 27th Ward (11,449), and Second Ward alderman and committeeman Robert Fioretti (11,060). Eleventh Ward committeeman John Daley's vote is worth a mere nine. But he's the mayor's brother, so maybe they'll just let him decide who gets the job.
Of course, none of the committeemen are interested in speaking publicly about their backroom maneuverings. But they're all interested in speaking privately and there are so many rumors that it's hard to keep up.
Let's see: 28th Ward committeeman Ed Smith is supposedly advancing former mayoral candidate Patricia Van Pelt Watkins. White—who will be chairing the March 14 meeting—has nothing against Watkins, but there's so much animosity between his camp and Smith's camp that Smith's effort might fail. Twenty-seventh Ward alderman Walter Burnett wanted the seat to go to his wife, Darlena Williams Burnett. But after spending several days advancing her candidacy he says he's dropped the matter because it might smack of nepotism.
"I don't believe [White] has a candidate at this point," says David Druker, White's press spokesman.
Hold the presses—this just in from another committeeman who wants to remain anonymous: Scott Lee Cohen is talking about being slated. He's the millionaire pawn-shop owner who managed to win last year's Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, then withdrew from that race amid revelations about his personal life, then ran for governor as an independent and got less than 4 percent of the vote.
Like that's going to happen.
They might give the seat to Annazette Collins, the state representative from the Tenth District. In which case Collins would want her daughter, Angelique, filling her seat.
"I'm not going to make up my mind until I see who all the candidates are," says Fioretti. "I don't think anyone knows what's going to happen."
My absolute favorite rumor is the one where Dixon, who faces an April 5 runoff against Michael Chandler for her aldermanic seat, engineers the choice of Chandler to replace Hendon, thus guaranteeing her reelection.
Dixon's spokesman, Frank Watkins, says naming Chandler to replace Hendon "was one of the alternatives. There are a lot of alternatives being bandied about, including Alderman Dixon getting the seat."
Oh, my—I hadn't thought of that one.
"There's a process out there and we'll have to wait until March 14," says Watkins.
According to Druker, White will be accepting candidates up until Sunday, March 13. As of Tuesday, four people had applied—Chavonne Y. Carter, an administrator for the secretary of state; Roxanne Nava, assistant director of the Illinois department of commerce and economic opportunity; and Mazie Harris and Bruce L. Jackson, both lawyers.
Two others—AmySue Mertens and Jonathan Goldman—have announced that they want to be considered for the vacancy. In 2008, Mertens lost to Hendon in the Democratic primary. In 2010, Goldman lost a close race to state representative Annazette Collins.
"I know it's a long shot," says Goldman.
That's an understatement. Goldman and Mertens are white, and the district is roughly 53 percent African-American. It's hard to imagine party bosses replacing a black incumbent with a white candidate, even in this postracial Obama era.
The March 14 meeting is a preamble to a bigger fight to come: legislative redistricting.
It's a process similar to the ward remapping I described two weeks ago. Soon, state legislators will start rearranging legislative districts to make sure they have similar numbers of residents.
There have been two majority-black senate districts on the west side—the fifth and the fourth, which extends into the western suburbs. But since the population on the west side has fallen, especially of African-Americans, blacks may be down to one senate district after the remap. .
The mapmakers might rearrange the fifth's boundaries so its base shifts east and south, encompassing the Gold Coast and the near-south side. Or they might move it west into the suburbs.
At the meeting at Moretti's, the party bosses could pick a caretaker who will simply fill out the final 22 months of Hendon's term. Or they could select a strong personality, determined to assert himself or herself when the new map is drawn.
Think of it as a political card game. On March 14, the dealers will start shuffling the deck.
According to Joe Berrios, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, there are no set rules governing how much of the meeting has to be public. "When the candidates make their presentations, that's in the public," says Berrios. "The committeemen can decide to have their final vote in public or they can decide to have it in private. I've seen it go both ways."
As Berrios notes, Cook County committeemen held a public vote in 2006, when they tabbed Todd Stroger to replace his debilitated father, John Stroger, as candidate for president of the Cook County board—one of the more entertaining meetings in recent memory.
If no candidate has a majority after the initial vote, Berrios says, "Typically what happens is that after each vote the person with the least amount of votes gets eliminated. Then you have another vote on the remaining candidates until there are only two left."
You know—like on American Idol.
"Listen, I might show up," says Berrios with a laugh. "I think it's going to be hilarious." v