February 12, 2003


As in the 41st Ward, where the opponents of Alderman Brian Doherty are loudly proclaiming that the voters want a change, there are two diametrically opposite views as to who will win the high-decibel, but also highly ignored, contest for alderman of the 45th Ward, where four-term incumbent Pat Levar is seeking re-election.

To Levar and his supporters, particularly 45th Ward Democratic Committeeman and county Democratic chairman Tom Lyons and the ward's Democratic precinct organization, there is a lot of sound and fury emanating from Levar's two foes, but it signifies nothing. In this view, voters are unfazed. Levar may not be as beloved as Santa Claus, but he certainly is not the ineffectual incumbent painted by his opponents. His residual popularity will ensure him another term.

The opposite view, promulgated by candidates Pete Conway and Bruce Best, is that Levar is a chronically neglectful and wholly inept caretaker of the ward, and that a proverbial plague of poverty, pestilence and a swarm of locusts will descend upon Jefferson Park and Portage Park if Levar is re-elected. "He is arrogant and has too much power and control," Conway said. "He is not good for our ward."

The consensus of political observers is that Levar, age 52, has been a competent, conscientious alderman, as well as slavish supporter of Mayor Rich Daley, and that he will be re-elected on Feb. 25 with well over 65 percent of the vote. The reality, however, is that the 45th Ward is undergoing considerable demographic change, with upscale and independent voters moving into the ward, and that change, coupled with soaring property values, has begun to undercut Levar's popularity. And the expectation is that this is Levar's last term, setting up a titanic struggle for the succession in 2007.

If he had his druthers, Levar would be long gone from the ward and from his job. Levar was the endorsed Democratic candidate for clerk of the Circuit Court in 2000, a powerful position controlling almost 3,000 jobs. Levar was quoted then as saying that his post as alderman was too stressful and too time-consuming, that he wanted a job where he could have a "normal life," and that that's why he ran for clerk. That quote didn't play well back in the 45th Ward.

Unfortunately for Levar, he got demolished in the primary by Dorothy Brown, finishing with just 28 percent of the vote, to Brown's 48 percent. Now Levar is back in his ward in 2003 trying to make amends and keep a job that he said he didn't want in 2000. Fortunately for him, voters have short memories.

Taking the leap from ward to citywide or countywide office is fraught with danger. The city media exhaustively scrutinize any ambitious alderman, and Levar was found to be wanting. The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times both endorsed Brown, dismissing Levar as "mediocre." Outgoing Clerk Aurie Pucinski, by then a Republican, said that Levar had to have been "brain dead" not to have known of the corruption in the clerk's office when Levar worked there from 1973 to 1987 under Morgan Finley, who was later convicted on ghost-payrolling charges. And the newspapers harped on the fact that Levar got $267,488 in "consulting fees" over 10 years from the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' Union.

In 1990, two aldermen, David Orr and Mike Sheahan, won countywide office -- county clerk and sheriff, respectively -- and in 1995, Jim Laski won the city clerk's job. But Pat O'Connor lost races for state's attorney in 1990 and 1992, Berny Stone lost for recorder in 1988, and Joe Moore finished third behind Brown and Levar for clerk in 2000.

Luckily for Levar, his 2000 debacle does not seem to have resulted in permanent damage. Even though Levar got 66.3 percent of the vote in the 45th Ward -- 6,883 votes to Brown's 1,225, with the rest scattered -- his base seems to be much larger. Levar's 2000 showing was but a fraction of the enormous votes he received in prior aldermanic races: 15,615 in 1987, when he ousted then-Alderman Gerry McLaughlin, 15,850 in 1991, 10,842 in 1995, and 14,199 in 1999, when he was unopposed.

The unanswered question: Why did Levar's support plummet so precipitously in the ward when he ran for clerk? "A lot of voters voted against me because they didn't want to lose me (as alderman)," suggested Levar. After 16 years, any sitting alderman makes enemies, and Levar is no exception. However, those enemies are not yet a majority.

"I still have the fire in my belly," said Levar, who acknowledges that being an alderman is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week job. "I enjoy the job. I enjoy helping people. I want to serve another term."

Neither Conway, a financial advisor and the founder and former president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, nor Best, a former real estate agent, are so charitable. "The ward, and the business districts, have been deteriorating for 16 years," Conway said. "He doesn't listen to the people. He's not accessible. He's not responsive. He doesn't show up for local school council meetings. He has no plan and no vision for the future of our ward. It's time for a change." Best, who for some obscure reason has endorsed the Reverend Paul Jakes, who is black, for mayor, lambastes Levar as one of the "deeply entrenched bullies of the (45th Ward) political machine."

Levar, the chairman of the City Council Aviation Committee, bragged that he has had many "accomplishments" during his tenure. While acknowledging that portions of the business districts along Milwaukee Avenue in both Six Corners and Jefferson Park "could be better," Levar points to "almost $100 million in city funding" for neighborhood improvements during his tenure, including upgrades to the Jefferson Park CTA station, a new 16th District police station, a new library in Edgebrook, street resurfacing and curb and sidewalk replacements, and construction of the Jewel-Osco and Marshall's at Six Corners.

Levar also noted that the Six Corners Sears is one of the "top producing" stores of the chain in the country, and he said that the planned CVS pharmacy to Lawrence-Milwaukee will bolster that business district -- even though the project was opposed by the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association. The alderman also cited the establishment of three tax increment financing districts, two in Portage Park and one in Jefferson Park, as well as the planned renovation of the Klee Building for commercial and residential use.

While Levar led the opposition to the Charybdis Multi-Arts Complex, which eventually was closed because of zoning violations, he now says that he supports a venue for live arts in the area, perhaps at the old Portage Park theater.

Conway, who was born in the Old Irving Park area, said he founded the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association to "preserve the character" of the area. "We don't need more strip malls," he said. "We don't need more convenience stores, and dollar stores, and payday stores. There's already too much density. And the alderman, and the chambers or commerce, are not sharing with us their plans, or the city's plans."

In particular, Conway slams Levar for not creating a zoning advisory board -- which Doherty has in the 41st Ward -- to get "community input." "We need to have a vision of how the ward will look in 20 or 30 years, and we need the thoughts of many community leaders, not just Levar's, on zoning matters," Conway said. "He does not have any vision."

Best, who praised Harold Washington as a "great mayor," who has Washington's photo in his literature, and who campaigned in the ward with Jakes, seems to have forgotten that the 45th Ward is nestled on Chicago's Northwest Side. The ward is less than 1 percent black. Bobby Rush got 645 votes in the ward to Daley's 15,766 in 1999; Roland Burris got 883 votes to Daley's 15,071 in 1995; Gene Pincham got 167 votes to Daley's 19,073 in 1991; and Washington got 1,562 votes to Ed Vrdolyak's 24,812 in 1987. Best probably has sewn up the ward's liberal, pro-slavery reparations base -- all 400 of them.

An interesting issue is the restructuring of the City Council's pension plan, which now will allow an alderman to retire at age 55 and get a pension of 80 percent of his salary with 20 years' service. In the past, the alderman had to be age 60 and have 30 years city service to get the maximum. In 2007 Levar will be age 56, and he will have his 20 years. Will he bail?

My prediction: Conway had lofty goals for his campaign, including a $100,000 budget. He has raised only $26,000, and he has no precinct organization. Best's campaign is mired somewhere in dreamland. Levar (and Lyons) have four or more workers in each of the ward's 53 precincts, and they amassed more than 13,000 petition signatures for Daley and Levar last fall. With that kind of precinct coverage, Levar can't lose. Since Daley is not seriously threatened, white voters have no incentive to come out for the mayoral race. But Levar-Lyons organization will get the ward's hard-core Democratic base of about 8,000 to the polls. In a wardwide turnout of just under 13,000, Levar will get 8,800 votes, to Conway's 3,400 and Best's 400.