March 19, 2003


According to Alderman Jesse Granato's campaign staff, Chicago's 1st Ward experienced a veritable epiphany in 1995 - the year that Granato became alderman.

During the pre-Jesse epoch, prior to 1995, they claim that the area now in the 1st Ward was a dingy, dirty and neglected place. But, Granato's people now proudly proclaim, the advent of the Granato era has prompted a monumental metamorphosis, with the ward becoming bright, clean and bursting with prosperity, city services and zooming property values. And all the credit, they say, goes to Jesse Granato.

Normally, such fairy tales are realized at Disneyworld, or spun in children's books, but Granato's strategists actually believe that a bare majority of the ward's voters swallow such self-serving drivel and deem Granato to be an indispensable Santa Claus. And, in the April 1 aldermanic runoff between Granato and challenger Manny Flores, the phrase "bare majority" is the operative word: Granato won his first term in 1995 by 234 votes, and his second term in 1999 by 360 votes. On Feb. 25, Granato had 56 fewer votes than Flores, and Flores missed winning the seat outright, without a runoff, by just 80 votes, because a third candidate, Howard Crawford, got 214 votes. If Granato's majority gets any barer, he's history.

Flores, a 31-year old assistant Cook County state's attorney, is making his first run for office. Granato has been attacking Flores as a "carpetbagger" who moved into the ward just to run for alderman, and Granato's attorneys did their utmost to knock him off the ballot because he had not lived in the ward for 2 years. But Flores has lived there for more than 1 year, and a judge ruled that the city's 2-year aldermanic residency requirement is unconstitutional, inasmuch as there is only a 1-year requirement to run for mayor or citywide office. So Flores stayed on the ballot, and Granato finished an embarrassing second.

Normally, an 8-year incumbent alderman should be increasing his support, not losing it. So how did "carpetbagger" Flores finish first? "Because Granato is an embarrassment to the ward," Flores said, adding that the Granato era has been characterized by a "combination of arrogance and stupidity" on the part of "both Granato and his staff." Predicting that 2003 will mark the commencement of the no-Jesse era, Flores declared that ward voters "are tired of their ineffectual, unresponsive and discourteous" alderman.

Granato, age 44, is a product of former U.S. representative Dan Rostenkowski's 32nd Ward Democratic Organization. A lifetime payroller, Granato was an aide to Rostenkowski and then to former 32nd Ward alderman Terry Gabinski. Given that pedigree, that perceived clout, and the fact that the remapped 1st Ward took in a lot of Gabinski's old 32nd Ward, Granato got himself anointed as the Democratic-backed candidate in 1995. But he barely won, and he was barely re-elected in 1999.

In 2003 Granato was endorsed by such luminaries as Mayor Rich Daley, Governor Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez and state Senator Iris Martinez, as well as the much-hyped Hispanic Democratic Organization. Despite that array of clout, Granato got 3,330 votes, to Flores' 3,386 and Crawford's 214; voter turnout in the ward was just 26 percent.

Nevertheless, Granato's backers are almost obnoxiously upbeat about the runoff. Speaking for Granato, media aide Tom Karmik argued that Flores' vote "maxed out" on Feb. 25 and that it won't get any higher, while Granato's runoff vote will be "in the 4,000s."

"It was a cold day, and a lot of our voters didn't come out, or didn't think that the race was close," Karmik said. "We'll get out our vote (on April 1)." Granato got 4,664 votes in the 1999 runoff and 3,870 votes in the 1995 runoff.

The city's 2001 remap created 10 Hispanic-majority wards, one of which was the 1st Ward. Of those 10, two white incumbents kept their seats: Dick Mell (33rd) and Ed Burke (14th). Four wards, the 1st, 12th, 22nd and 25th, have Mexican-American majorities, and four, the 26th, 30th, 31st and 35th, have Puerto Rican-majorities. Granato is of Mexican and Italian heritage, and Flores is of Mexican heritage.

But while the 1st Ward is 57 percent Hispanic under the census, the registered vote tells another story: whites comprise 65 percent of the registered voters, and Hispanics just 35 percent. The 1st Ward takes in South Wicker Park, East Village, Ukranian Village, Bucktown and west Bucktown, configured in a convoluted "U" shape from Bloomingdale south to Grand, between Ashland and Leavitt, and then west to roughly California, and then north to Belmont, between roughly California and Western. The pre-2001 1st Ward stayed south of North Avenue, and ran as far west as Kedzie-Grand. About 55 percent of the remapped 1st Ward is new, including all the precincts north of North Avenue, in West Bucktown, which were absorbed form the old 26th, 32nd and 35th wards.

Prior to 1991, the 1st Ward centered on the Loop and the Near West Side, and the ward's alderman from 1968 until 1991 was Fred Roti. Roti was indicted in December 1990, and he was convicted in 1993 of bribery, extortion and racketeering in the federal "Operation Gambat" probe. Roti was replaced in 1991by Ted Mazola, who did not seek another term in 1995.

"The better people know Jesse, the less they like him," said Flores, who anticipates that a huge onslaught of city workers will descend on the ward in March to rescue Granato, as occurred in 1999. Now that Alderman Ray Frias (12th) has withdrawn his candidacy in that ward, the HDO has even more workers to send to the 1st Ward's Hispanic precincts on behalf of Granato. Flores has his own precinct operation, staffed with many of those who worked for Victoria Almeida in 1995 and Cynthia Soto in 1999. Flores also was endorsed by the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Illinois chapter of the National Organization of Women, the Chicago Crime Commission and state Senator Rickey Hendon.

On issues, Karmik said that the 1st Ward received more than $73 million in school infrastructure improvements since 1995 and that schools "had been neglected" prior to that year. He also said that both Division Street and Fullerton Avenue have been streetscaped; that 182 blocks of alleys, 40 blocks of commercial streets and 140 blocks of residential streets have been resurfaced; that 503 properties got new sidewalks; and that the "gang, prostitution and vagrant" problems along Division Street "were cured" and the "number of vacant stores along Division decreased noticeably." Karmik also said that the Chicago Police Department's mounted "bar patrol" officers have expanded west from the Rush Street-Division Street area to Milwaukee-Division, thereby freeing-up local beat patrol officers.

Flores is unimpressed: "Gang violence remains high," he said. "Property taxes are high. City services are low. And the 1st Ward ranks 33rd among the 50 city wards in city expenditures for public works. The people want a change."

Can Granato pull off another come-from-behind win? In the 1995 primary he got 2,083 votes (32.5 percent) to Almeida's 1,709, with the balance to others, in a turnout of 6,409. He beat Almeida 3,870-3,636 in the runoff, in a turnout of 7,506. In the 1999 primary Granato got 3,305 votes (44 percent), to Soto's 2,746, with the balance to others, in a turnout of 7,557. He beat Soto 4,664-4,304 in the runoff, in a turnout of 8,968. Turnout on Feb. 25 was 6,930. Without a mayoral runoff to prod voter interest, as occurred in 1995 and 1999, the turnout on April 1 will be a record low, barely exceeding 6,000.

So the key to victory is not whether Flores maxed out on Feb. 25. The key is to identify and get out on April 1 those who voted on Feb. 25, particularly the white voters, many of whom are young, upscale and recent buyers of homes and townhomes in Bucktown. Flores has greater appeal to those voters. As reported by author Peter Zelchenko in his book on the 1st Ward's 1999 aldermanic race, the ward cast 1,164 absentee votes in the runoff, and 757 of those votes allegedly were solicited by the Granato forces. After the election, Soto, who was elected state representative in 2000, rented the space occupied by Granato in 1999, and she claimed that she found piles of abandoned documents that proved that absentee ballot vote fraud was committed by Granato's campaign. She forwarded those documents to the FBI, but no indictments were forthcoming.

My prediction: The lower the turnout, the better for Granato. With the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners now contacting all absentee ballot applicants, Granato's forces will have to get their voters to the polls the old-fashioned way: physically. The alderman will pull out about 2,800 votes, which means he wins if the turnout is 5,500 or less. Expect another squeaker, and a Flores win of around 200 votes.