The 41st Ward, represented by the sole Republican in the City Council, isn't exactly known as a hotbed of political activism. But if reform is your central issue and you want nothing more than to elect someone willing to take on the machine, you're in luck if you live on the city's far northwest side. That's where Frank Coconate, fired city worker and political gadfly, is waging an uphill campaign for Democratic ward committeeman.
In typical Coconate fashion, he's taking no prisoners, blasting everyone from Mayor Daley to Todd Stroger to Rod Blagojevich and crusading against TIFs, taxes, and the Olympics bid.
The city says it fired Coconate from his job as a sewer safety worker in 2006 because he falsified work reports, claiming to be at one work site when he was really at another. Coconate says the city trumped up the charges to punish him for blowing the whistle on the city's dysfunctional $75 million drainage system, feeding reporters leads about the city's hiring and hired trucks scandals, and urging Congressman Jesse Jackson to take on Daley in last year's mayoral election.
The race pits Coconate against the incumbent committeeman, Ralph Capparelli; local chamber of commerce president Mary O'Connor; and a waitress named Patricia Mulligan. But as Coconate tells it, he's really running against a powerful local combine that includes Republicans as well as Democrats—because in his neck of the woods it's virtually impossible to tell the two parties apart.
For 33 years Capparelli was the state rep from the 19th District, where his best friend in the statehouse was Roger McAuliffe, a Republican. In 1996, when McAuliffe died in a boating accident, he was replaced by his son, Michael, who is also the 41st Ward Republican committeeman. After the 2002 redistricting, the younger McAuliffe and Capparelli were thrown into the same house district, and in 2004 McAuliffe ousted Capparelli from office. Now 82, Capparelli says he might have retired but for two reasons. "Number one, the [Cook County Democratic Party] chairman—Joe Berrios himself—asked me to run," says Capparelli. "He said, 'Ralph, I need you.'"
And the second reason? "I can't let the Republicans take over the Democratic Party in this ward," he says. "We have a two-party system. We don't want to be a one-party system."
According to Capparelli, Michael McAuliffe and alderman Brian Doherty inserted Mary O'Connor into the race to seize control over the local Democratic Party. His proof? "She voted in the Republican primary—look it up yourself."
It's true, says O'Connor—she did vote in the Republican primary in 2004. But that was only because she wanted to vote for McAuliffe, whom she considers a friend. "But nobody—not McAuliffe or Doherty—put me up to run," she says. "He [Capparelli] can't stand up about anything he's done, so he makes up accusations about me."
For what it's worth, Coconate agrees with Capparelli about why O'Connor's in the race—but it's about the only thing they agree on. (Capparelli also accuses Coconate of putting Patricia Mulligan in the race, something both Coconate and Mulligan deny.) If anyone should know anything about Democratic-Republican alliances in this part of town, it's Coconate. Back in 2000 he won the Democratic primary for state rep, setting himself up for a showdown against Michael McAuliffe. Running as a reformer, Coconate came down hard against a casino for Rosemont and the expansion of O'Hare Airport—a couple of projects backed by some very powerful politicians, to say the least.
In the November 2000 general election, Republicans and Democrats didn't agree on much except one thing: no one wanted Coconate. Local Democrats like 36th Ward alderman William Banks, state senator James DeLeo, and Capparelli himself teamed up with Republicans like Doherty and Donald Stephens, the late mayor of Rosemont, to back McAuliffe. Mayor Daley even sent in some of his top precinct captains—including the legendary Dominick Longo—to work against the upstart. "They were passing palm cards that said gore, lieberman, mcauliffe," Coconate says. "I still have one."
McAuliffe won big, and Coconate's been railing hard against the powers that be ever since. "He's a loser," says Capparelli. "He's just mad at everyone. He'll never win."
Can Coconate prove Capparelli wrong? There's no question it's a long shot. But if O'Connor takes votes from Capparelli and Mulligan takes votes from O'Connor, then maybe, just maybe, he has a chance.
"If I win, first thing I do is I start asking questions," Coconate says. "First question: Where are they getting the money for the Olympics? You know what they say about me—he's a loser, he's nuts. But, come on. Don't you think there should be one elected official—just one—willing to ask some tough questions? v