The Loudest Loser | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The Loudest Loser

Tony Peraica's election-night stunt wasn't just pointless--it was absurd.

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You'd have to go back to Bernie Epton's 1983 mayoral campaign to find a more graceless exit from a local political race than the stunt Tony Peraica pulled in the wee hours of Wednesday, November 8.

A losing candidate is expected to thank his supporters, congratulate the victor, and promise to keep fighting for the cause that prompted him to run in the first place. Epton, having narrowly lost to Harold Washington, stomped out of a room filled with supporters after telling one of them to shut up. When it became apparent that Tony Peraica was about to lose the Cook County Board president's race to Todd Stroger, Peraica accused the county of rigging the election and called for his supporters to storm the County Building in protest.

For several months Peraica and his backers had been predicting victory owing to support from liberals and independents (so-called Claypool Democrats) outraged at the way party bosses maneuvered Stroger onto the ballot. Reality set in on election night, when Stroger surged to an early lead and looked to be on his way to winning with about 55 percent of the vote. Then, around 9 PM, the tallying abruptly stopped. Despite having spent more than $50 million to improve the vote-counting system, the county experienced transmission problems and was unable to tabulate thousands of votes.

The television stations had a couple hours to fill and someone happy to fill them--Peraica's campaign manager Dan Proft, who among other things is also the spokesman for the Republican mayor of Cicero, a former press aide for Alan Keyes's 2004 senatorial campaign, and the founder of Urquhart Media, a public relations firm named for Francis Urquhart, the Machiavellian conservative political operative in House of Cards, the BBC series set at the end of the Thatcher era.

About half the votes had been counted and Peraica didn't have a chance, but Proft never stopped spinning. He pranced from one television camera to another, predicting a wave of votes from Schaumburg, Lyons, Wheeling, and other suburban townships. As the delay dragged on he suggested that the county might be up to something devious.

So when Peraica took the podium at the Hotel Inter-Continental to address his supporters near midnight, the stage was set for confrontation. The machine, Peraica declared, was trying to stifle reform by stealing the election. The time had come to defend the integrity of the voting process. With that he led his supporters down Michigan Avenue to Washington and over to the County Building, where they thumped their chests, gave more television interviews, and then went home.

There are so many absurdities here it's hard to know where to start. For one thing, the victim of cheating is generally the leader of a race--think Gore in Florida--whose lead is erased by a surge of last-minute votes that mysteriously appear out of nowhere. Maybe it should have been Stroger complaining about mysteriously uncounted suburban votes.

And while we're at it, which machine is it that Peraica's accusing of stealing the election? Peraica broke into politics as a teenage volunteer in the 11th Ward Democratic organization currently headed by Mayor Daley's brother John. He made his name as a precinct worker with Congressman William Lipinski's 23rd Ward Democratic organization. After he moved out of Chicago and switched parties, he won the Republican primary for Cook County commissioner in the western suburbs thanks to support from former Tenth Ward alderman Ed Vrdolyak and former Cicero mayor Betty Loren-Maltese (who later stabbed him in the back). In six months of campaigning against Stroger, he had hardly a bad word to say about Daley, or, more to the point, John Daley, who runs, in addition to the 11th Ward, the County Board's all-important finance committee.

In the end it was just harmless election-night fun. By midday on Wednesday almost all the votes had been counted, and to no one's surprise Stroger wound up with about 54 percent of the vote, roughly what he had when the system locked up the night before.

Tony Who?

It was reported that during the melee at the board of elections, police had arrested a Peraica supporter named Johnny Lira for damaging government property .

"They got it all wrong," insisted Lira, a former middleweight champion and local boxing promoter who also dabbles in politics. "I was never with Perchinko."

You mean Peraica? I asked him.

"Whatever--you see? I don't even know his name."

Lira says he was having a few cocktails with a friend at a bar in the Loop when a colleague came in to say there was trouble nearby. "He told me Peraica's people were marching to the county and we had to get over there to make sure Maze was OK."

Maze is Lira's friend Mazzone Jackson, who's running for alderman in the 18th Ward and was at the board of elections that night among the group of Stroger's supporters. "Maze is black, Peraica's people are white," says Lira. "I figure there could be trouble, you know what I mean?"

Over at the County Building, Lira found a few dozen Peraica supporters milling around the first-floor elevators. "Peraica's people were everywhere, but the sheriff's deputies wouldn't let them go up the elevators. I see this freight elevator over by the side, and I go over to get it. But what happens is, I went in too fast. Know what happens when you go into an elevator too fast? You set off the sensor. It makes a noise and the doors don't work. The next thing you know they're saying I damaged government property. And you know what damage there is? Nothing! The elevator is working great."

The police hauled him away, but Lira harbors no grudge: "I don't blame the coppers. Johnny Lira is a friend of the police. It's those sheriff's deputies. The police couldn't have been nicer. They didn't want to press charges, but what was their choice?"

The police held him for about an hour and then let him go. "Guess what day I go to court? December 7. Pearl Harbor day, a day that will live in infamy. Come on down--you can watch me clear my name."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): AP photo by M. Spencer Green.

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