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The Name Game

Are the 25,000 signatures needed to get on the mayoral ballot part of a sneaky racist plot?

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For the last several months, Rafael Chagin has dreamed of running for mayor, if only to tell anyone who would listen how the city made it almost impossible for him to operate his cardboard box factory. But he'll probably never make that run, thanks to a law requiring 25,000 voter signatures to get on the ballot. "And how can an ordinary citizen possibly get 25,000 signatures?" says Chagin. "The law is antidemocratic."

That's why Chagin finds himself one of five plaintiffs assembled by maverick lawyer Frank Avila to sue the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. "This is not an anti-Mayor Daley effort," says Avila, making a point many of his allies would dispute. "This is about our fundamental right to democracy."

It's more complicated than that. The suit stems from the confusion that emerged in 1995 when the legislature voted to change Chicago's election process so that candidates for mayor, city clerk, and city treasurer would run in nonpartisan races. Springfield's stated intent was to make the system uniform. After all, aldermanic elections are nonpartisan, the reasoning went.

But there was also the unstated issue of race. Some politicians apparently wanted to make sure that Chicago's black electorate, roughly 40 percent of the total, would never again be in a position to elect an African-American mayor, as they did with Harold Washington in 1983.

"If you remember, Harold ran in the Democratic primary against [then mayor] Jane Byrne and [then Cook County state's attorney] Daley," says Avila. "He won about 38 percent of the vote and then moved on to the general against Bernie Epton, the Republican. The point is that had we had a nonpartisan election, Washington, Daley, Byrne, and Epton would have all run in the same contest. Then the two highest vote getters--Washington and Byrne--would have faced each other. A lot of people don't think Washington could have beat Byrne in a two-way race."

In fact, Washington did just that in the Democratic primary of 1987. He went on to beat Tenth Ward alderman Edward Vrdolyak, who ran as an independent in that year's general election. "Yes, but Washington had the Democratic Party label," Avila points out. "That party label means something. But if you take away that label and make him run as an independent, he might not have won."

In their haste to change the law, the legislators were guilty of a huge oversight. They neglected to specify how many signatures a candidate would need to make the ballot. The matter wound up before the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, the three-person body that oversees local elections, and the commissioners sent it to their general counsel, James Scanlon. He wrote a three-page memo on the matter. Scanlon pronounced running in a nonpartisan citywide campaign (be it for mayor, city clerk, or treasurer) the rough equivalent of running as an independent in a statewide race. And an independent running statewide needs the signatures of some 25,000 registered voters.

According to Tom Leach, a spokesman for the election board, Scanlon was trying to make the best of a confusing situation. "The legislators failed to put in the formula, so our attorney started looking at this," says Leach. "I don't know if you're familiar with the election code, but it's very convoluted--a piece here and a piece there. It needs to be codified, but that's beside the point. Our attorney was just following the law."

Avila attacks Scanlon's logic. "First of all, I think it's illogical to compare running for office in a nonpartisan election to running for office as an independent," he says. "And once you've made that illogical analogy, it's even more illogical to compare it to running for statewide office. The city's four times smaller than the state. So if it takes 25,000 signatures to run as an independent in Illinois, it should only take 5,000 signatures to run for mayor of Chicago."

The net effect is that citywide candidates now need more than ten times as many signatures as they used to need to make the ballot. "And in reality you need much more than 25,000," says Avila. "Because people can challenge you."

Lawyers for Daley are likely to scrutinize the signature petitions of every candidate who challenges the mayor. "There are all sorts of rules you have to follow when you gather signatures," says Avila. "If someone prints his name, it gets knocked off. If a wife signs for a husband or a husband signs for a wife, it gets knocked off. If the signature's hard to read, it gets knocked off. So as a practical matter, if you need 25,000 you'd better come in with 40,000--because it's not hard to get signatures disqualified. And if it's easy to knock off signatures, you won't make the ballot."

In 1999, the first election year governed by the new law, only two candidates ran for mayor (Daley and Congressman Bobby Rush), two for treasurer (Dorothy Brown and Miriam Santos), and one for clerk (James Laski, the incumbent). "There was a another candidate for clerk--Sally Johnson--but she was kicked off the ballot because she couldn't get enough signatures," says Avila. "Bobby Rush was an incumbent congressman, so he has people who can circulate his petitions. And as I understand it, Brown and Santos had a gentlemen's--I should say ladies'--agreement not to challenge each other. In other words, the system works for people who know how to use it. But how about an ordinary citizen, like Rafael Chagin?"

Chagin immigrated to Chicago from Colombia in the 1950s, when he was a teenager. He married, raised two children, bought a house in Rogers Park, made a living selling insurance door-to-door, and eventually saved enough money to buy a cardboard box factory on the south side.

"I bought the company in 1980, and then for ten years I never saw a city inspector," he says. "Then I'll tell you what happened. The Sun-Times wrote about Hispanic businesses, and they had a picture of me. At the bottom it stated that my company had profits of $750,000. Actually, that was a mistake. It wasn't profits, it was sales. But guess what? The inspectors started showing up. Like bears to honey, the inspectors came. Why did they come? Who sent them? I can't say for certain. They claimed the neighbors called. But why would the neighbors call after all those years? And what did they find? There's always something to find. They hauled me to court with dumb claims. I finally gave up and sold the business. I wasn't going to be dragged into court to be treated like a criminal."

These days he's a part-time telephone solicitor. "I'm running for office to stand up for the common man," he says.

He admits that there's no way he can possibly gather 25,000 signatures. "How can I? It's just me," says Chagin.

Could your wife help?

"I love my wife--the best thing that ever happened to me is my wife. But she thinks I'm crazy for running."

So Chagin added his name to the lawsuit, along with those of four other extremely long-shot mayoral candidates: the Reverend Robert Floid Plump, Robert Martini, Joe McAfee, and Jack McKierney. Technically, they're suing the Board of Election Commissioners, though Leach says the board doesn't oppose their cause. "In fact, we welcome the suit," says Leach. "We want the court to decide. If they come up with the lower formula, so be it."

Even with no opposition from the board, Avila faces an uphill fight. Not many judges would be willing to make a ruling that's remotely anti-Daley. For the moment the mayor's remaining neutral, according to his press office.

"Listen, I welcome Daley's support on this case," says Avila. "It would make all the sense in the world for him to step forward and say, 'I'm for democracy, and this law's not fair.' I mean, realistically, he has to know these people don't have a chance."

To try to generate public support for his cause, Avila held a press conference Sunday morning on the sidewalk outside the County Building across Clark Street from the Picasso statue. Plump and Chagin joined him, as did African-American independent activists Richard Barnett, Bruce Crosby, and Ron Carter.

"I can sum this up into three sentences," said Avila, speaking to a handful of cameramen and reporters. "Number one, there's a fundamental constitutional right to ballot access. Number two, 25,000 is too high. And number three, we have to get it reduced."

Avila then rattled off the names of his plaintiffs. "We've got a Hispanic, a reverend, someone from the north side, someone from the south side, a liberal, and a conservative," he said. "Do these people have the money and wherewithal to win? Can any of them beat Mayor Daley? That is not the question. The question is whether they have the right to run."

Crosby then stepped forward to announce his support for the suit and to promote a September 14 meeting that his organization, the Accountability Committee, is holding to look for candidates willing to challenge Daley's black aldermanic allies. Crosby went on to say that his committee was still trying to settle on one strong candidate to run against Daley. "Mayor Daley has been bad for the city," he said. After the press conference, Chagin and Plump lingered to talk with reporters. "Why am I running? For many reasons," said Plump. "The Honorable Harold Washington said we must plumb the whole community so Chicago can be all it can be. I want to carry on Mayor Washington's legacy."

Chagin was asked if he thought he could win. He smiled and pointed to the sky. "Do you mean it's up to God?" he was asked.

"Yes," says Chagin. "But first I must be able to participate. I can't win if I'm not on the ballot. And even if I lose, so what? I'm not afraid of losing. Someone said Chicago is a city of crumb catchers and crumb throwers. Mayor Daley is the crumb thrower. It's time to stand up and say I want something more than crumbs."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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