April 24, 2002


In interpersonal relationships, familiarity often breeds contempt. In politics, however, familiarity often breeds security. The longer a politician occupies an office, the longer he or she stays in it.

Since voters rarely know a politician well-enough to be contemptuous, longevity in office usually breeds respect. The incumbent eventually becomes an icon, examples of which are State Representative Ralph Capparelli (D-13), the late U.S. Representative Frank Annunzio, and the late Alderman Tony Laurino. But even icons can self-destruct, as was demonstrated by former U.S. Representative Dan Rostenkowski, whose chiseling ways repulsed the electorate, and brought him down.

Most politicians hit a peak of popularity, and then proceed to alienate more and more constituents with each passing year. A classic example is former 41st Ward Alderman Roman Pucinski, whose years of broken promises and I-am-a-Prince attitude finally proved his undoing in 1991. Over time, voter respect evolves into voter tolerance, and finally manifests itself in voter irritation and alienation.

The March 19 primary caused two veteran local politicians to succumb to the Alienation Factor: Cook County Commissioners Ted Lechowicz (D-12), and Calvin Sutker (D-13), of Skokie, both Democrats.

The demise of both Lechowicz and Sutker, after almost 30 years on the local political scene, was a shocker. Both had been expected to win renomination. Lechowicz lost narrowly to Forrest Claypool, Mayor Rich Daley’s former chief of staff, and most recently superintendent of the Chicago Park District; the mayor’s brother, Commissioner John Daley, publicly backed Lechowicz, and the mayor was non-commital. But, as the adjoining vote chart indicates, Claypool triumphed by just 915 votes, with the key to his victory being his hefty 2,844-vote win in the 47th Ward.

Lechowicz, age 63, was a protégé of Rostenkowski, and was once regarded as an up-and-coming Polish-American political leader. He was a Democratic ward committeeman from 1968 until he was beaten by Alderman Mike Wojcik (30th) in 1996. He was a state representative from 1969 to 1982, and a state senator from 1983 to 1991. In 1990, he was elected county commissioner, and was renominated easily in 1994 and 1998.

But Lechowicz’s political base began to crumble in 1995, when the 30th and 35th wards were combined in the remap, and Wojcik beat Lechowicz’s alderman, Carole Bialczak. It deteriorated further in 1996, when Wojcik beat him. Lechowicz was an active and knowledgeable county commissioner, but that fact wasn’t telegraphed to his Northwest Side constituents. Going into 2002, Lechowicz had no political organization, and was wholly dependent on his “Old Boys” network – namely: the committeemen who were his pals a decade ago.

Claypool put out mass mailings lambasting Lechowicz as the “Tax Man,” charging him with voting for numerous county tax hikes and spending increases. Claypool also highlighted his extensive Chicago governmental experience, and his stewardship of the city parks was a prime selling tool, particularly since the County Board has been cutting the Forest Preserve District’s budget.  Lechowicz ran his usual I-am-somebody-important campaign, with his flyers festooned with photos of Lechowicz with the powerful, and detailing his bloated resume. But, compared to the fresh and energetic Claypool, Lechowicz came across as tedious and tiresome. He needed to re-invent himself, offer innovative new ideas, and give voters a reason to keep him around for another term. He didn’t do it.

As the vote chart indicates, Lechowicz carried his old 30th Ward by 1,150 votes, and committeemen Patty Jo Cullerton and Tom Lyons carried their 38th and 45th wards for Lechowicz, respectively, by 660 and 458 votes. But Lechowicz lost the 39th  and 40th wards by a combined 289 votes, and carried Rostenkowski’s old 32nd ward by just 61 votes. But the coup de grace came in the 47th Ward, where Lechowicz relied on Committeeman Ed Kelly – and where he lost by almost 2-1.

Kelly, committeeman since 1968, withstood a 2000 challenge by Alderman Gene Schulter (47th), winning by 155 votes. This year, Schulter’s organization embraced Claypool and Rahm Emanuel for Congress in the 5th District; Kelly backed Lechowicz and Nancy Kaszak. Schulter’s organization swept to a huge victory, carrying Claypool in the ward by 2,844 votes, and Emanuel by 448 votes. If March 19 was finis to Lechowicz’s long career, it’s just-about-finis to Kelly’s.

Claypool knew he had to win big in the 47th Ward, and he tailored his message to the increasingly liberal voters who are now populate the Ravenswood and Northcenter areas. Schulter can take much of the credit for delivering the Claypool vote, but the Alienation Factor – the voters’ refusal to stick with Lechowicz, despite Kelly’s blandishments -- was the true cause.

Sutker, age 79, has been Niles Township committeeman since 1973, and has run his domain with an iron fist, making the Democrats the predominant force. He served as state representative from 1985 to 1990 (appointing himself to the vacancy in 1985), and lost a 1990 bid for county clerk; when a single-member district opened up in 1994, Sutker ran and won the 13th District county commissioner’s spot.

But Niles Township (Skokie, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, and part of Niles and Glenview) is less than half of the 13th District. And, while Sutker’s “Old Boy” ally, 50th Ward Alderman (and Committeeman) Berny Stone, was in his corner, and while Sutker’s base was solid in Niles Township, his support had deteriorated in Evanston and New Trier townships, and in Chicago’s 49th Ward (Rogers Park).

Larry Suffredin, an Evanston lawyer, lobbyist, and former Sutker staffer when both worked at the county Forest Preserve District, obviously sensed Sutker’s growing political vulnerability. He secured the early endorsements of U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-9), a powerhouse in Evanston politics, plus Evanston Mayor Lorraine Morton, and Evanston Committeeman Jeanne Bernstein; he was also endorsed by State Senator Carol Ronen (D-7) and 49th Ward Committeeman Dave Fagus. The New Trier Democrats endorsed Suffredin in February, after he won more than 85 percent of the vote among the precinct captains. Quite clearly, Sutker was in trouble.

In a “war of the bases,” Sutker’s base came up short. State Representative Lou Lang (D-16), of Skokie, a longtime Sutker ally, ran the Sutker campaign, but he couldn’t work a miracle. As the vote chart indicates, Sutker carried his township by 2,558 votes, and won Stone’s ward by 1,110; but he got buried in Evanston Township by 5,182 votes, lost New Trier by 1,863, and lost the 49th Ward by 1,084.

In Lang’s Skokie-Lincolnwood-50th Ward 16th House District, Sutker won by 1,891 votes; but in the Evanston-based 18th House District, occupied by Schakowsky before going to Washington, Suffredin won by 5,335 votes.

For too long, Sutker focused on taking care of his friends and family in Niles Township, and ignored and so alienated the rest of the district. That was politically fatal. Suffredin deserves credit for running a masterful campaign. But, more importantly, in the battle for North Shore dominance in Democratic politics, Evanston trumped Skokie. Evanston is now the premier Democratic bastion on the North Shore.