December 24, 2003


It may be the season to be jolly, but a lot of Northwest Side politicians are barely aware of the holidays. They're fixated on the 2004 political season and preoccupied with advancing their political careers.

Here's an update on four developing local contests:

32nd Ward (Wicker Park, Lakeview, Ukrainian Village): Is it a checkmate or just a checkpoint for state Representative John Fritchey (D-11)?

Incumbent Democratic Committeeman Terry Gabinski, longtime alderman (1969-1999), Richard Daley loyalist, and protege of Dan Rostenkowski, announced his retirement last summer and anointed Alderman Ted Matlak (32nd) to succeed him. But the ambitious Fritchey also coveted the job, viewing it as a steppingstone to higher office and greater political clout. Fritchey is the son-in-law of Sam Banks, who is the brother of Alderman Bill Banks (36th), a close ally of Alderman Dick Mell (33rd), the father-in-law of Governor Rod Blagojevich.

So who has more clout: Gabinski or Fritchey? Fritchey aspires to run for city clerk in 2007, which could be a launching pad for a later run for mayor. To do that, he needs to persuade Daley to dump incumbent Clerk Jim Laski, or at least not support Laski in the primary. Daley is firmly allied with the Rostenkowski-Gabinski-Matlak group in the 32nd Ward. Resisting enormous pressure, Fritchey filed for committeeman on the last day of the filing period, Dec. 15. But, in a political masterstroke, so did Gabinski -- which effectively checkmated Fritchey. Matlak filed on Dec. 8.

The last day to withdraw as a candidate is Jan. 17, so Fritchey has a few weeks to make a critical decision: Does he take on Gabinski, who will have the full support of the mayor? If Fritchey stays in, Matlak will withdraw, and Fritchey will have to beat Gabinski. Or does Fritchey abort his candidacy, earn Daley's gratitude, and make 2004 merely a checkpoint on his road to city clerk in 2007?

At this time, negotiations are fast and furious. Absolutely nobody -- not Daley, not Gabinski, not Mell, not Bill Banks -- wants to take sides in a vicious and expensive race for 32nd Ward committeeman. My prediction: Expect Fritchey to back off, but expect him to have a clear shot -- either with the mayor's backing or, at the very least, without the mayor's backing of Laski -- at city clerk in 2007.

And after Gabinski is re-elected, he'll resign and turn the job over to Matlak.

30th Ward (north Logan Square, parts of Old Irving Park): It's a no-work, no-show job -- the kind politicians dream of. But it's also a no-pay, no-clout job -- the kind politicians shun.

Mike Wojcik was the ward's alderman from 1991 to 2003, and he was elected Democratic committeeman in 1992. In 2004 he is unopposed for re-election as committeeman -- a testament to both his and the job's irrelevance.

When the City Council's 2001 remap put Wojcik into a new 44 percent-Hispanic ward, Wojcik accepted his fate and didn't try to win another term in 2003. But, in a spasm of poor judgment, Wojcik ran for state senator in 2002 in the Hispanic-majority 20th District, and despite his high name recognition, got creamed, losing to Iris Martinez by a 62-38 percent margin. Dating back to 2001, Wojcik was feuding with state Representative Rich Bradley (D-40) and his wife, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Cynthia Santos, and they left his organization.

Martinez's 2002 primary triumph was fueled by an influx of workers from the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a pro-Daley group. In 2003 the HDO choice, Ariel Reboyras, then an assistant commissioner in the city Department of General Services, was easily elected alderman, winning a stunning 77 percent of the vote against three Hispanic foes.

Wojcik backed Reboyras in that campaign, and Reboyras promised not to run for committeeman against Wojcik in 2004. That promise helped Reboyras in the ward's north end, which is heavily Polish. Reboyras kept his word, but as a pro-Daley alderman, he is the boss of the ward. All city patronage flows through him. Wojcik got his payoff for supporting Reboyras: a newly created $91,000-a-year job as the CTA's manager of facilities/capital projects.

Thus, even though Wojcik has no political organization, no storefront office, and no political future, he's still the committeeman.

33rd Ward (parts of Lakeview and Wicker Park): Be careful of what you wish for. You may get it.

Dick Mell should be Chicago's most influential alderman. After all, he plotted Blagojevich's rise from obscurity to the General Assembly to Congress to governor. But now, instead of respect, Mell gets grief.

Everywhere Mell goes, he hears one refrain: Where are all those state jobs you promised? Blagojevich campaign volunteers want the state jobs that Mell promised them. Ward and township committeemen want the state jobs that he promised them. And the governor, obsessed with getting his face on TV and his name in the print media, is letting his mentor hang out to dry. State jobs have not been forthcoming, and Blagojevich takes special glee in attacking the political "establishment."

Mell's wife reportedly is ill, and, according to sources, he will resign as alderman in early 2004. His successor will be his chief of staff, Chuck Lomanto, who will be appointed to the spot by the mayor. Lomanto would have to run for the remainder of the term in a February 2005 special election. Mell, however, will remain as ward committeeman.

10th Judicial Sub-circuit (Northwest Side, Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Glenview): There are two judgeships to be filled, the vacancy of Susan Fleming, first elected in 1992 and retiring in 2004, and a new spot, characterized on the ballot as the "A" judgeship. Four Democrats filed in both races and had to withdraw from one on Dec. 22. No Republican filed, so the winner of the Democratic primary is the next judge.

The "A" contest was thrown into turmoil due to the death on Dec. 19 of Joe Potasiak, a city attorney and the slated Democratic candidate for the "A" spot. Potasiak was a member of the Niles Township Democratic Organization, and he had generated considerable support in the Northwest Side's Polish-American community. Potasiak's widow works for the Copernicus Foundation, and he died of a heart attack while at a fund raiser at the Copernicus Center.

Those who remain in the Democratic primary for the seat are Jim Snyder, David Barry, Peggy Chiampas, Bonnie Kennedy and Clare McWilliams. There is a legal issue as to whether Potasiak's name may remain on the ballot. Since he died more than 90 days prior to the March 16 primary, it likely will be removed.

Potasiak's untimely death will have a spillover effect in the race for the Fleming seat, where the principal contenders are former Cook County Circuit Court clerk Aurie Pucinski, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat, and party-slated Jim McGing, director of operations for the Cook County Jail. The only other candidate left in the race is Carolyn Quinn.

McGing, of Edison Park, narrowly lost a state Senate race to Walter Dudycz in 1992. The Chicago's Tribune's Dec. 21 expose of Sheriff Michael Sheahan's office fund-raising practices could create a scandal, as Sheahan raised $2.5 million from 1990 to 1998 and allegedly failed to disclose or account for $80,000 of that amount. Sheahan, in 1990, promised not to raise money from office employees -- a promise upon which he has apparently reneged. McGing was Sheahan's campaign manager in 1994 and 1998, and contributions that he personally made to Sheahan were listed under his wife's name, according to the article. McGing said that his job as campaign manager did not involve control of Sheahan's fund-raising operation.

Expect a mean and nasty McGing-Pucinski contest, with local party organizations lining up behind McGing. Without question, McGing would have gotten a political bump from Potasiak's bid and from the joint Potasiak-McGing effort in the ethnic community. Now McGing's on his own, and the McGing-Pucinski race is a toss-up.

In the "A" race, with no candidate backed by the Democratic organization, the contender who first cuts a deal with the party committeemen will be the winner. In a field of nobodies, Potasiak would have won. Now the early frontrunners are Kennedy and McWilliams, based primarily on their gender and Irish surnames.